National Public Radio (NPR) Environmental Correspondent John Nielsen will lecture to a Santa Barbara audience this Sunday about the history of the $20 million California Condor Recovery Program.
Author of Condor: To the Brink and Back, Nielsen will speak at both 1 and 3:30 p.m. in Farrand Hall at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. In the lecture, he said, he plans to describe the “scientific bar fight” surrounding the endangered bird’s recovery. All tickets to the speech are $10.
Nielsen said he grew up in the small town of Piru off of Highway 126 in Ventura County. This “little ghost town,” however, had the notable distinction of being only a trek across the mountains from the last wild breeding grounds of the California condor, Nielsen said.
After years of devastation from human influence, the California condor, which lives for about 50 years and mates for life, was placed on the first federal list of U.S. endangered species in 1967. In 1987, there were only 27 California condors left – all of which were in captivity. Thanks to the recovery program, however, there are roughly 200 condors today, some of which have been released back into the wild.
Nielsen described his first encounters with the condor, which boasts an imposing nine-foot wingspan, as frightening.
“My friends used to tell me that condors ate gringos who stopped walking,” Nielsen said.
Despite his initial fear, Nielsen’s perspective changed dramatically upon seeing the condor in flight.
“The condor … flies away with your soul – you can hear it coming from a half mile away,” he said.
Nielsen has followed and reported on the activities of the controversial California recovery program since the 1980s, he said. He said he admits that the millions of dollars spent on condor recovery programs might seem pricey at first glance, although much of that money comes from private sources.
“The entire budget for the United States to spend on endangered species programs is the same as District of Columbia residents spend on Domino’s Pizza each year,” he said. “At least half of the money spent on the condor is not from taxpayers, but rather from private groups and nonprofits, like zoos.”
Many scientists, Nielsen said, hesitate to support breeding condors in captivity, arguing that the species is too costly to save and should be left to fend for itself in the wild.
However, Nielsen said he believes that the condor recovery program is an important symbol for the recovery programs of other endangered species. He said it is also a symbol of the California wilderness, as the bird represents a part of the natural, unspoiled beauty of the state.
“The condor recovery program is to endangered species what the Apollo Programs are to the moon,” he said. “It’s hard to believe how many people have just thrown their lives to this bird. The history of the condor reflects the history of California.”
Along with issues of funding, Nielsen said the two largest threats to the California condor population today are urban and suburban encroachment on their habitats, and lead poisoning from the consumption of animal carcasses shot and left by sport hunters.
“The biggest threat is when a condor arrives at a sign that says, ‘[Los Angeles] – next 300 exits,” Nielsen said.
While Nielsen said some might consider his love of condors unusual, he said people usually grasp the significance of protecting the species once they witness the animal’s beauty.
“I had a rolled up a full-size picture of the condor, and I unrolled it when I went to bookstores, and when people saw it, they immediately understood the importance of saving that bird,” Nielsen said.