By John R. Platt
Two species that couldn’t be more different have had similarly good news this week.
First we go to Utah’s Zion National Park, where a pair of California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) successfully hatched a chick in a nest more than 300 meters off the ground. This is the first wild condor birth in Utah since the massive birds were reintroduced in nearby Arizona in 1996. The species nearly went extinct a few decades ago but the last 22 birds were collected in 1987 and placed into a captive breeding program.
The exact location of the nesting chick has not been disclosed to protect the newborn from prying eyes. Biologists from the Peregrine Fund, an NGO that conserves wild birds of prey, found the nest by following the chick’s parents, each of which had been fitted with a radio transmitter.
Other condors have attempted to breed in Zion National Park but no chicks were born. One of the breeding pairs died of lead poisoning in 2012. Another died the same way in 2013. Lead ammunition is still legal in Utah; condors ingest pellets that are in gut piles or carcasses left by hunters and frequently die as a result.
Moving south, our next piece of good news comes from Mexico, where a litter of five Mexican wolf pups (Canis lupus baileyi) was born in the wild in that country for the first time in more than 30 years. Once seen as a pest, the subspecies was all but wiped out in the mid-1900s by rampant hunting and poisoning. Like the condors, the last five wolves were collected and placed into captive breeding programs. A release program in two southwestern U.S. states started in 1998; Mexico began reintroductions in 2011. The parents of the new litter were just released in the Sierra Madre Mountains about eight months ago.
There are now about 83 Mexican wolves in the wild in the U.S., including 17 newborn pups. These are considered “experimental populations” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, meaning they do not have the law’s full protection and they can once again be gathered up and placed back in captivity at any time. A few hundred other animals live in zoos and other breeding centers. As with the condors, the location of the five wolf pups has not been released.
Both California condors and Mexican wolves still have a long way to go before they can be considered recovered but these births are important steps on what will be a decades-long journey.