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.
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Status of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and efforts to achieve its recovery