Just days after southeastern Wyoming residents were thrilled by a sighting of an endangered California condor, the juvenile female known as Condor 832 was found dead near Laramie.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the process of transporting the bird to a facility in Oregon for necropsy. While Fish and Wildlife has yet to release a statement, foul play is not suspected at this time. One of less than 300 California condors in existence in the wild, the bird was raised in captivity in northern Arizona and released this past March.
Flying more than 500 miles from its release site, the condor captured the imagination of birders in Wyoming in the first sighting of the species in the state since 1998, being seen at Medicine Bow Peak.
“I thought, next stop Yellowstone,” Tim Hauck, field manager for the Peregrine Fund, said Wednesday. The group is a non-profit organization founded in 1970 that conserves threatened and endangered birds of prey worldwide.
The condor was found deceased by the organization’s field biologist, Josh Young. He was able to track down 832s location using radio telemetry, but by the time he reached her, it was too late.
The death turned bird watchers' excitement to sadness.
When reports surfaced last week of a condor perched in the Snowy Mountain Range near Medicine Bow National Forest, Zach Hutchinson, the National Audubon Society’s community naturalist in the Rockies regional office, had raced to the spot, hoping for a glimpse. As Hutchinson neared the summit, he caught his first glimpse of the majestic juvenile as it flew immediately overhead.
“I was in pure bliss. I just stood there in awe,” Hutchinson said Sunday. “It could have been stormy and I wouldn’t have known. All my senses closed down except my focus on the bird. I’ve traveled many miles to look for them. Who would have thought I would see my first in my backyard?”
Immediately after his trip, Hutchinson recorded his thoughts in a video on his birding site, Flocking Around (www.flockingaround.com). His excitement flowed as he described his trek between fits of joy.
Known in the captive breeding program as condor No. 832 and tagged T-2, the juvenile hatched in 2016 and was released to the wild in March in northern Arizona. She soon spread her wings and went exploring. Juveniles, especially captively bred individuals, are curious and known to go exploring Hutchinson said. On wings with a span stretching more than 9-feet, condors can make quick work of a trip from Arizona.
The last time a condor was spotted in the Cowboy State was 20 years ago: Condor No. 19 was spotted in the Green River valley in August 1998.
Habitat destruction and DDT poisoning resulted in the massive population declines of North America’s largest wild bird species. The species was placed on the endangered species list in 1967.
Twenty years later, at their low point, only 22 California condors were left in the wild. The species was barely clinging to existence — all in southern California — when the remaining birds were captured by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and brought to northern Arizona for a captive breeding program. Now just over 450 birds survive, with less than 300 in the wild. About 85 percent of those condors in the wild were raised in captivity. The other 15 percent are recently fledged chicks.
The largest hurdle to recovery currently is lead poisoning, Hutchinson said.
“They are a social species. After a carcass is found, several might gather to feed, ingesting lead from a hunter’s bullet,” he said.
Hutchinson said using non-lead bullets is a simple fix to avoid the tragic results of lead poisoning, but “hunters don’t want to be told what to do.” He volunteers at one of three bird rescue organizations in the state and has watched many raptors perish from lead poisoning.
Despite the obstacles, condor populations are increasing. Individuals in the wild have increased about 30 percent since 2014. As populations grow, sightings in Wyoming — part of the bird’s traditional range — may become more common. Hutchinson said reports of extremely rare birds in the state could get people excited about bird watching.
“News of large, charismatic bird species may make average folks pick up binoculars to take a look,” he said earlier this week.
Due to their size, condors need high peaks to make launching easier.
Condor No. 832 was not easy to see. Perched near a trail high in the mountain range, only a few lucky bird watchers were able to see the wanderer before it took off on Monday. It was last seen heading northeast.
Hauck, of the Peregrine Fund, urged the public not to speculate about what may have contributed to the bird's death until the investigation is complete. About 55 percent of wild condor mortality are due to lead poisoning, he said.
“Nature is a harsh place for a young bird all on its own,” Hauck said. “Regardless of the outcome, it was a spectacular flight.”