Keeping the West Wild

This week, Alta's newsletter looks at the ways individual Californians are keeping the state's endangered animals alive. 

California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) photographed at the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona. Status: critically endangered.
California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) photographed at the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona. Status: critically endangered.

The California condor was once all but extinct. In 1987, the 27 California condors remaining on Earth lived in captivity. But today, thanks to a community of conservationists, biologists, zoos, and wildlife sanctuaries, supporters like Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst, and preservation laws like the Endangered Species Act, several hundred California condors survive in the wild. Photographer Joel Sartore’s Alta portfolio, “Ark of the Endangered,” in our current issue presents an intimate portrait of one of these majestic creatures, hailed as North America’s largest bird for its more than nine-foot wingspan.

Despite this evidence that the Endangered Species Act works, the White House announced plans last month to weaken how it can be applied. One of the proposed changes would include calculating the economic cost of classifying an animal as endangered. Previously Congress stipulated that economic cost should not be a factor in a species’ eligibility. 

California has vowed to sue the Trump administration. And seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States, recently filed a federal lawsuit here, claiming that the Trump administration’s proposed plan would violate the National Environmental Policy Act. 

In the meantime, some animal preservationists are taking direct action. California Academy of Sciences biologist Tim Wong spends his spare time trying to recolonize the California pipevine swallowtail butterfly, which is native to San Francisco but in recent decades has become increasingly difficult to spot in the city. By cultivating host plants and installing “Caterpillar Crossing” signs at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, among other measures, Wong is determined to see this iridescent-blue-winged beauty thrive. 

To the south, Ian Recchio, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, is working to help keep the rare southern mountain yellow-legged frog alive. As the leader of the zoo’s captive breeding program for endangered frogs, Recchio is known as a “rock star” among biologists. Through trial, error, and a lot of collaboration, he has managed to create a successful system for breeding this particularly challenging species—and reintroducing it to the wild.

Off the coast, the California Department of Fish and Game decided to extend its ban on recreational abalone fishing until 2021 to allow the sea creature (and culinary delicacy) a chance to grow back its depleted population. Alta contributor Bob Sipchen reported from Fort Bragg’s 24th Annual Abalone Cook-Off, where he described the mood as “grim.” 

As for the California condor, the bird that was almost lost to the ages remains federally classified as critically endangered—at least for now.

This article originally appeared in Alta‘s September, 5 2019 newsletter. Sign-up for free by entering your email address in the upper righthand corner of this page.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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