At the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, about 35 miles southwest of Bakersfield, an amazing recovery story is underway. The California condor, which was once speeding toward extinction, is making a comeback.

“We are seeing condors breeding in the wild and pairing up, and finding their own food, and doing everything that they need to do to be successful,” said Nicole Weprin, a Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The USFWS-led California Condor Recovery Program has been working with partners at the San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo and elsewhere to try to increase the California condor population.

It hasn’t been easy. 

In the 1980s, there were only about two dozen California condors known to be left in the entire world.  To try and save the species, a decision was made to try and capture all the remaining California condors in the wild and put them into a captive breeding program.  

In 1987, the last known California condor living in the wild was captured on a hillside at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.   

A year later at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, there was a huge breakthrough.  A California condor named Molloko became the first California condor in the world to ever be bred and hatched in a zoo.  

“She (Molloko) helped alleviate a lot of the fears that a … California condor couldn’t be bred in a zoo. After 1988, when she hatched…we had more and more success,” said Ron Webb, Lead Wildlife Care Specialist at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. 

That success can be seen in the population. 

Today, Weprin says there are more than 500 California condors worldwide, with about half of them living in the wild.  But there are still challenges, especially since some of the same problems that led to their demise in the 1980s, are still causing problems now.

“About 50% of the known causes of death can be attributed to lead poisoning,” Weprin said.

The lead poisoning problem has been linked to ammunition. Since California condors are scavengers that love feasting on dead animals, they sometimes find their meals in carcasses left by hunters. If those hunters used lead ammunition to kill the animal, the California condors can ingest some of that lead when they eat or feed their chicks.  

That’s one of the reasons a new California law went into effect in 2019, banning hunters from using lead ammo.  

It is hoped that the ammunition law – and all the other efforts being made by the members of the California Condor Recovery Program – will one day allow the California condor population to soar on its own.