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Know the West

On the wing again


As California condors disappeared, a new world emerged. From observation posts in Southern California’s Transverse Ranges in the 1960s, hazy vistas of L.A. subdivisions, office buildings and jet airplanes gradually replaced sightings of the largest bird in North America. "This is not a species that’s grown old and feeble," NPR science reporter John Nielsen writes in his book, Condor: To the Brink and Back, "but it is a creature that evolved to fit a world that’s disappeared."

By the 1980s, the condor had become the subject of the most expensive, desperate endangered species rescue in American history. The huge birds first began to decline during the Pleistocene, when human overhunting of big animals reduced their food supply. Then modern-day pressures, including shrinking habitat, rampant hunting and egg collecting — often by scientists — trash ingestion, strychnine poisoning from animal traps, and lead from shotgun pellets, combined to drive them nearly to extinction. When scientists captured Igor, the last wild condor, in 1987, just 27 remained. "This was one of the sadder days in American environmental history," Nielsen writes, "but it may also have been the day the condor was saved."

Condor triumphs because of Nielsen’s contagious passion for the bird, and for the scientists, environmentalists, and government officials drawn to it. The result is a nature book full of human drama, its characters by turns visionary and myopic, petty and valiant. Arch-conservationist David Brower would rather see the condor extinct than bred in captivity. Southwestern ranchers equate its reintroduction to the Grand Canyon with a federal land grab. The Audubon Society, Nielsen contends, plays the role of both protector and pawn in controversies over captive breeding and habitat conservation.

Over 200 condors — most bred in zoos — now glide on 10-foot wingspans over California, Baja and the Grand Canyon. But by temporarily removing the condor from nature, did we forever damage its wildness, as Brower argued? The alternative was extinction. The lessons of the condor, Nielsen writes, from near-oblivion to incomplete recovery, will help determine the fates of other endangered species and the wilderness they need.