US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in The Auk (2010) 127(4):969-1001. DOI: 10.1525/auk.2010.127.4.969


The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus; hereafter “condor”; Fig. 1) has long been symbolic of avian conservation in the United States. Its large size, inquisitiveness, and association with remote places make it highly charismatic, and its decline to the brink of extinction aroused a continuing public interest in its plight. By 1982, only 22 individuals remained of this species whose range once encompassed much of North America. The last wild bird was trapped and brought into captivity in 1987, which rendered the species extinct in the wild (Snyder and Snyder 1989). In the 1980s, some questioned whether viable populations could ever again exist in the natural environment, and whether limited conservation funds should be expended on what they viewed as a hopeless cause (Pitelka 1981). Nevertheless, since that low point, a captive-breeding and release program has increased the total population by an order of magnitude, and condors fly free again in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, Mexico (Fig. 2). At this writing (summer 2009), more than 350 condors exist, 180 of which are in the wild (J. Grantham pers. comm.). The free-living birds face severe challenges, however, and receive constant human assistance. The intensive management applied to the free-living populations, as well as the ongoing monitoring and captive-breeding programs, are tremendously expensive and become more so as the population grows. Thus, the program has reached a crossroads, caught between the financial and logistical pressures required to maintain an increasing number of condors in the wild and the environmental problems that preclude establishment of naturally sustainable, free-ranging populations.

Recognizing this dilemma, in November 2006, Audubon California requested that the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) convene an independent panel to evaluate the California Condor Recovery Program. The National Audubon Society (NAS) and the AOU have a long history of interest and involvement in condor recovery. The NAS helped fund Carl Koford’s pioneering studies of condor biology in the 1940s (Koford 1953). A previous panel jointly appointed by the NAS and AOU examined the plight of the condor in the late 1970s, and their report (Ricklefs 1978) laid the groundwork for the current conservation program. The NAS was a full partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the early days of the program, from 1980 through 1988. Ricklefs (1978) recommended that the program “be reviewed periodically by an impartial panel of scientists,” and this was done annually by an AOU committee for several years after the release of the report, but the condor program has not been formally and thoroughly reviewed since the mid-1980s. Audubon California believed that the recovery program was operating with a recovery plan (USFWS 1996) widely acknowledged to be outdated, and that issues that were impeding progress toward recovery needed outside evaluation in order for the USFWS, which administers the program, and other policy makers to make the best decisions about the direction of the program (G. Chisholm pers. comm.). Such an evaluation would also help funding organizations better invest in the program.