We are heading for a backcountry cabin to join other scientists for the night when a specter with a nine-foot wingspan suddenly appears, whooshing across the road and down into the canyon below. “Condor!” yells White, practically leaping out of his seat. One of the world’s 189 wild California condors has just missed our SUV. And it’s not alone. Soon we are all but surrounded by these birds. One is waiting to greet us from a live oak when we arrive at the cabin—a young bird, maybe four years old, with splotches of yellowish pink marking the promise of an adult’s distinctive orange head. Across the canyon are six more condors: an adult perched in a tree above five juveniles on the ground. One youngster hops, landing so close to the next one that it jumps, too. These birds are practicing social maneuvers that will later help them get their share of a dinnertime carcass.
The sight of wild condors in the Tejon backcountry inspires infinite hope. In 1982 the species was on the brink of extinction, with the population down to 22 individuals. Although they were foraging for food and reproducing successfully, condors were dying of lead poisoning caused by bullets left in gutpiles after hunters field-dressed their wild game (see “Project Gutpile,” November-December 2002). Fearing the species’ complete annihilation, federal biologists captured all the California condors in the wild and launched a controversial captive-breeding program.
In captivity, condor numbers grew steadily. Biologists began releasing birds into the wild in 1992, monitoring their every move and supplying lead-free carcasses for food. Even with these precautions, more than half the population of released birds continued to suffer from lead exposure. In 2007 Tejon Ranch’s owners took the decisive step of banning lead ammunition. A year later California officials followed suit, regulating the use of lead bullets throughout condor country.
Once they were back in the wild, the birds found Tejon Ranch on their own, says Jesse Grantham, a former Audubon biologist who now heads the federal condor recovery program charged with protecting the endangered birds here and elsewhere. From nesting areas in coastal mountains, condors catch air rising up through the canyons and ride it over the foothills that wrap around the toe of the San Joaquin Valley to Tejon and the Tehachapis. They are roosting here in the exact same canyons and the exact same trees that condors used in the 1980s, Grantham says. From these canyons, the birds are close to the southern Sierra, making the ranch an important link to millions of acres of historical foraging habitat. “So far today’s condors have not made that move,” says Grantham, “but we expect them to any day.”
Suddenly the condor flies from the tree above me, ascending over the canyon, where it joins another bird that appeared from nowhere. The two fly in perfect formation, dipping and soaring, circling so close together that their wing tips almost touch. The next day we see 16 of them high in the sky. There are 351 condors on the planet (including those in captivity), and nearly five percent of them are right over my head.
California condors are one of Tejon’s most iconic species—wondrous for their size and miraculous recovery. To critics they also represent the conservation agreement’s failures. Plans to build 3,400 luxury homes in critical habitat drive a stake in the heart of the condor recovery program, they say. Along with the loss of irreplaceable condor territory, the deal is “a poster child of bad planning, growth, and exurban sprawl,” says Adam Keats, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. Nine months before the final agreement, the CBD split from the five other conservation groups attending the closed-door negotiations—largely because of the development in condor habitat. The CBD is fighting the Tejon development at the county level, where officials must approve each separate housing proposal.
Protection for all 270,000 acres would have been preferable, but in a negotiation you don’t get something for nothing, responds Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Before the agreement was reached, Tejon Ranch had a master plan that identified more than a thousand building lots across these secluded canyons. Conservationists throughout the state have been battling piecemeal development for years—winning some and losing some. “The result is too often a patchwork of housing subdivisions, commercial projects, and unconnected open space,” Reynolds says. “California can’t afford more of that.”
Without the agreement, Tejon’s owners might have developed the ranch one project at a time over decades, or sold off parcels to other developers. Over the next 50 to 100 years, conservationists could have found themselves in court, fighting potentially hundreds of different projects. Reynolds calls the deal and the 240,000 acres it safeguards “a chance to protect an unfragmented piece of land almost a quarter of a million acres that was not going to come along again.”
Early the next morning I leave the backcountry cabin with White. We are joined by Audubon California’s Chisholm and Pete Bloom, a wiry, silver-haired raptor specialist who worked on the federal condor program for five years. Today will include a trek to one of five golden eagle nests Bloom has found on the ranch. He has been surveying eagles, hawks, and other raptors for Tejon Ranch’s owners for the past two years, tracking their nest locations, survival rates, and how far young birds venture to establish their own nests. His observations will be combined with the scientific data that White is just starting to compile to find out what roosts, preys, roams, and flowers on this place.