Who will champion the return of the condor to Texas?

By Rick LoBello, Board member

California condors used to live within an area of Texas we now call Big Bend National Park.   Bones have been found in a cave at Mule Ear’s peak.  Who is to say that these giant birds once lived all across the Chihuahuan Desert on both sides of the border.   This is largely an unknown fact and one that we should be talking about when we talk about protecting the park and the ecoregion today.  

When I worked as a park ranger and then as Executive Director of the Big Bend Natural History Association and got to live at Panther Junction Park Headquarters in Big Bend National Park, something wonderful happened.   I fell in love with the Chihuahuan Desert and everything Big Bend.   That love was so great that it sparked a passion inside of me to tell stories about not just all the amazing parts of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion, but also how there are many missing pieces of the complex ecosystem. If some of these pieces can be returned they very well might surprise all of us on their positive impact like what happened when wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park.

Over the years I have advocated for the return of three species that were missing when I started working in the park 47 years ago – the Mexican black bear, bolson tortoise and the Mexican wolf.   I have also told the story of the biggest piece of the puzzle that most people are surprised to learn about – how the park was originally planned to be an international park with Mexico.   Today I find comfort in knowing that there are members of the Sierra Club communicating with officials in Mexico to see if their is interest in rekindling discussions to see what is possible for the international park idea. I am also greatly encouraged to follow the efforts of the Turner Foundation and how they are helping to bring back the bolson tortoise to New Mexico, how the Texas Lobo Coalition is keeping the dream of bringing back the wolf to the wilds of Texas on the conservation radar screen and how the National Park Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife are helping to protect Mexican black bears that have come back on their own from Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande.

According to a National Park Service post and as published by U. S. National Museum, Washington, D. C., November 2S, 1932, ALEXANDER WETMORE and HERBERT FRIEDMANN found condor bones in a cave on the south peak of Mule Ears Peaks, ten miles north of the Rio Grande in Brewster County, Texas (approximately 29”lO’ n. lat., 103”26 w. long.), during the spring of 1932. They found twenty-seven bones and fragments of bones of the California Condor, Gymmogyps califwnianus. They were from at least three and possibly more individuals. The best-preserved specimens were four tarso-metatarsi, three in perfect condition. One metatarsus is from a young bird barely old enough to fly-indication that condors nested in this vicinity. The age of the deposit is estimated from the archeological remains at from 1600 to 3000 years. Mr. Setzler said that there was another, but inaccessible, cave one hundred or more feet above the one that yielded these bones, and that it appeared to contain an extensive deposit also; it is quite likely that it may eventually be found to contain more condor material.

The authors continued, “This is another link in the evidence of the transcontinental range of the condor in ancient times. Living today (1932) only in the mountains of southern California and northwestern Lower California, remains were found in a cave fifty miles west-northwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in Conkling Cavern, New Mexico, by Howard (Science, April 4, 1930, p. xiv), from Gypsum Cave, near Las Vegas, Nevada, by Miller in fossilized condition from Pleistocene deposits in Florida (Hog Creek near Sarasota, and the Seminole area). The present (1932) lot of bones comprises the first indication of the former existence of this bird in Texas, and it is the largest number of specimens yet taken anywhere outside of the present range of the living bird. The abundance of the bones clearly indicates that the species was no mere incidental visitor in the Big Bend region of Texas a couple of thousand years ago.”

There have been very few studies if any looking at the possibility of returning endangered California Condors to areas in Texas like Big Bend National Park. In a report on the success of returning them to the wilds of Arizona like Grand Canyon National Park and Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area, according to the National Park Service in 1982 there were only 22 California Condors left in the world. In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), with its public and private partners, began reintroducing captive-bred condors to the wild. In 2001 the first wild nesting occurred in Grand Canyon National Park since re-introduction. In 2002 there were only 8 pairs of wild nesting birds population-wide. In 2008, for the first time since the program began, more California condors were flying free in the wild than in captivity. Today there are nearly 500 – more than half of them flying free in Arizona, Utah, California, and Baja Mexico.

Will the California Condor return to the skies of Texas? All it will take is for one highly motivated wildlife champion to come to the conservation stage and lead an effort to make it happen. Any takers?

Top – BW, Wikimedia Creative C
Cover and Second from Top – Pablo Fregoso
Bottom – Bookis Smuin, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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