Condors Reach a New Milestone of Survival
California condors, which once inhabited majority of the southern and western half of the United States as well as western Canada and northern Mexico, were on the brink of extinction by the 1980s. Endangered due to habitat loss, egg-damaging pesticide, and lead bullets, this condor has been a symbol of the conservation movement and effort.
State and federal wildlife officials captured the last 22 known in the wild so they could launch a breeding program and return them, and their offspring, back to their natural homes.
Now, two decades later, 289 condors are flying free in California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico. And last year, for the first time in nearly half a century, more chicks fledged in the wild than adult wild condors died. In 2015, the wild chick count was at 14 while adult deaths count was at 12.
Jesse Grantham, former coordinator of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. FWS)’s condor recovery program, commented that the efforts of condor climbers, who studied and collected data of these wild birds, “are helping to increase the number of wild chicks”.
It is extremely critical to have the chicks fledge successfully in the wild for species recovery as it is less expensive and more productive in the long run than raising chicks in captivity.
One of these climbers is Joe Burnett, a field biologist with the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society, who has been studying the condors in the area.
Each year in January, when the birds are establishing nests, he heads into the dense vegetation of steep coastal canyons to scope out their nests. Once he locates a nest, Burnett maps out a series of climbs to check the fertility of eggs and the health of chicks. The first task is to make sure the embryo is alive. If not, he will replace the egg with a custom-made, fiberglass one. Later, it will be swapped for a captive-lid egg that will hatch in the wild for the parents to raise as a foster chick. Of the 39 infertile eggs swapped in California, 25 have resulted in chicks that have successfully fledged.
This egg swapping technique has helped identify a significant cause of nest failure: eggshell thinning due to high levels of residue from the pesticide DDT, despite being banned in the United States in 1972. In a study published in 2013, Burnett attributed condors’ eggshell thinning to their feeding on carcasses of sea lions, which accumulated DDT that was dumped into the ocean off Los Angeles.
Lead poisoning is also an issue for the condors with nine out of ten condors have elevated lead levels. According to Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist at University of California, Santa Cruz, nearly half of those tested need to undergo chelation, a procedure to remove heavy metals. Despite the $5 million-a-year condor recovery program, Finkelstein concludes in her recent analysis of lead exposure in the condors’ feathers, “this species is not on a trajectory to a self-sustaining population”.
The poisoning of condors was the primary motivation for state legislation banning lead ammunition throughout California. Originally it was outlawed in condor country first, but it will be banned statewide by 2019. However, lead levels have not dropped, according to Eric Davis, condor coordinator for the U.S. FWS.
Within a decade, condors may extend their range to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where they have not been seen in at least a century. Release of the birds will not begin until at least 2019, once an evaluation expected to start later this year to study if these giant birds will fare in the completely wooded environment of the Columbia River.
Many biologists doubt condors will achieve self-sufficiency in their lifetimes, but Burnett is more optimistic. He believes that the species will no longer be endangered within five to ten years as lead and DDE levels subside.
“These birds are the embodiment of pure wilderness,” he says. “Peering into their world is mysterious – a real privilege.”
Peanut Butter Vaccines for Ferret Recovery
In the United States, the endangered black-footed ferrets and their main prey, prairie dogs, are at risk due to the sylvatic plague introduced via fleas in the early 1900s. With more than 90% of the ferret’s’ diet made up of prairie dogs, and their primary habitat being prairie dog colonies, its population has suffered, according to the FWS.
The black-footed ferret descends from the European polecat, migrating across the Bering land bridge to settle in the vast North American prairie with an endless supply of prairie dogs. Once the European settlers homesteaded the Great Plains, the plague was introduced, eradicating the prairie dogs.
Conservationists have been trying to save North America’s only native ferret for more than four decades. Twice, it has been declared extinct, during the 1950s and later in 1979. Then, in 1981, a ferret was found in Wyoming and scientists launched a captive-breeding program. Currently, they number only several hundred in the wild across the Great Plains states, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, with another 300 in captivity.
“Plague is the largest obstacle to ferret recovery today,” says Ryan Moehring, a U.S. FWS spokesperson.
In the past, spraying the prairie dogs’ burrows with flea powder was the typical response. But, it was labor-intensive, and over time, the fleas developed a resistance to the powder.
Now, scientists have come up with a pioneering plan to protect the predator by protecting its prey against the disease. To succeed, the researchers will rely on peanut butter vaccines and drones.
Ferrets can be vaccinated individually due to their small population size, but for prairie dogs, it would be almost impossible. Instead, a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin has developed an oral vaccine, says Tonie Roce, a research epizootiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison Wisconsin, who led the effort.
In tests, the vaccine was inserted into pellet-size treats baited with blueberries, sweet potatoes, and peanut butter. Approximately the size of an M&M, the peanut butter was the favorite. Researchers put out the peanut butter vaccines out in the morning, when they were most active. The treats also contain blue dye that stains the prairie dogs’ whiskers and feces, confirming that they’ve eaten the vaccine.
This week, the agency plans to test a prototype of a treat dispenser on an all-terrain vehicle and spread the vaccine treats in prairie dog colonies in the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana.
Randy Matchett, a FWS supervisory wildlife biologist, commented “We’re hoping this oral plague vaccine for prairie dogs will be another tool in the toolkit to mitigate the effects of plague in places where we want to maintain and expand prairie dogs in support of ferret recovery.”
However, distributing the small bait by hand is still difficult. At 50 doses per acre, one dose every 30 feet (9 meters), distributed uniformly, it would be still be labor-intensive and inefficient. This is where the drones come to play. The government agency is currently working to develop equipment that would attach to a drone to dispense the treats. It hopes to conduct a trial run this year using a prototype.
Prairie dogs is a keystone species, meaning they play a disproportionate role in survival of their habitat. Ferrets are not the only species who need the prairie dogs. Hawks, burrowing owls, and other carnivores are also dependent on prairie dogs for survival.
“If prairie dogs die out, all those other species go away as well,” Rocke says. “We are targeting prairie dogs and ferrets. But [it’s] an attempt to preserve the grassland ecosystem.”
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Off the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife
On July 19, the U.S. FWS fulfilled a court ruling that officially removed the lesser prairie-chicken from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This decision followed recent court rulings in Texas that stripped the species of federal protection.
However, the removal does not mean authorities concluded that the lesser prairie chicken did not warrant federal protection for biological reasons. Thus, the Service is currently undertaking a thorough re-evaluation of the bird’s status and the threats it faces using the best available scientific information to determine whether listing under the ESA is warranted.
Service Director Dan Ashe commented “Responding to this court ruling by removing the bird from the Federal List does not mean we are walking away from efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Far from it… We will continue to work with our state partners and others on efforts to protect vital habitat and ensure this flagship of the prairies survives well into the future.”
For years, oil and gas groups had strongly opposed its listing in 2014. The Permian Basin Petroleum Association said it would impede operation and cost companies millions of dollars in oil and gas develop. So on June 9, 2014, it and several New Mexico counties filed a lawsuit challenging the listing of the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species under the ESA.
In September 2015, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and vacated the final listing rule, ending ESA protections for the bird. However, the Service continued to engage in a number of major initiatives to conserve lesser prairie-chicken populations. This includes the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, the joint Bureau of Land Management Candidate Conservation Agreement and Center of Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management Candidate Conservation Agreement as well as other individual conservation agreements with private landowners.
State officials where the lesser prairie-chicken roamed praised the decision. This is due to approximately 95% of the bird’s range on private lands. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said it was “good news for private property rights, the rural Kansas economy and common sense.”
In 2014, Kansas enacted a law stating that the state has the sole power to regulate both the greater and lesser prairie chicken and their habitats within Kansas. “It authorizes the attorney general or county prosecutors to sue over federal attempts to impose conservation measures.”
The lesser prairie-chicken, a species of prairie grouse renown for its colorful spring mating display, has been considered a threatened species for almost two decades. Once abundant across much of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, the grouse has its habitat reduced by more than 80% since the 1800s. Its population decreased by 99% with majority of the remaining birds in Kansas. As such, the lesser prairie-chicken serves as a key indicator of the health of native grasslands that support local economies and countless wildlife, such as migratory birds, scaled quail, pronghorn and mule deer.
To keep the bird off the endangered species list, the five states organized their own conservation program, offering economic incentives to landowners and companies that set aside land.