Sanford R. Wilbur, March 15, 2004, Phone Interview by Mark Madison
Started with the Service as trainee program went to work for refuges. Wilderness Act
passed in 1964 moved to Portland Regional office on Wilderness studies for several
years. In the 1960s there were only 3 “birders” Gene Kreidler, Dave Marshall and
Wilbur. Most of other FWS were wildlife management types, hunters, anglers. 1966 red
book being put together by John Aldrich et al. Initially Red Book was mostly birds.
Everyone was scratching heads and saying “do you know anything that ought to be on the
list.” In 1967 Patuxent had sent first 2 endangered species biologists in Hawaii. Wilbur
was out there with them for a while.
Fred Sibley left condor program in 1969 and Wilbur took over that same year 1969.
Wilbur had grown up in bay area and lived in CA and Condor had always been a love of
his life. Two things led to him getting job: 1) he knew Dave Marshall and Ray Ericcson
(wrote original FWS report on Condor). 2) Ray had been convinced for some time the
condor was not going to be saved by conventional methods the program had been going
on for so long. Ray was ready to make a contingency plan. Ray had been working with
Andean condors at Patuxent to work on contingencies. Ray wanted someone who could
also do Public Relations to not only do research but could talk about program. Wilbur
had written articles and even done some acting, had spoken publicly about Wilderness
Act. Ericcson felt they would have to “sell” the captive breeding program.
The public involvement was not really there into the 1960s. Ericcson and Marshall wrote
a report on proposed dam on Sespe water project and one result of the report was to get
Fred Sibley assigned as first FWS biologist for condors. Fred’s main job was to study
effects of disturbance on CA condor and see what effects are. Sibley did a lot of field
work and library work and did a lot of historical research. His main publication was in-house
survey on effects of Sespe water project on Condors. He noted you should not
have big projects within a mile of condor nests. Sibley’s report killed the water dam
project. Sibley left FWS after Santa Barbara oil spill felt FWS was too silent on bird
damage of oil spill.
Wilbur came in afterward. Wilbur was to study general location and productivity of
condors, effect of food supplies, pesticides, animal control programs, and a means to
census the birds. Between 1969-81 those were Wilbur’s tasks—main theme was: condor
mortality (past and present) and food supply.
To study mortality found out where condor skins and eggs were in collections. Many
condor eggs were taken by oologists as part of egg-collecting fad. Scientific and hobby
collection may led to initial decimation up to 1920. Malicious shooting was hard to
document since there was not a good records of this. Using the paltry existing records
tried to develop some estimate of malicious shooting and found this may have been the
biggest thing still affecting mortality in the 1970s. Also poisoning for predator and
ground squirrel control was an issue. Ground squirrels were very actively poisoned by
strychnine and Compound 1080. Squirrels were blamed for bubonic plague, but reality
was they dug too many holes and ate too much grain on farmers and ranchers lands. In
late 1800s grizzly and wolves were poisoned into extirpation but the evidence for killing
condors was not clear. Problem in the 1970s was to determine if compound 1080 (used
for squirrels) was killing condors. Wilbur concluded there was no evidence that 1080
killed condors, Strychnine did probably kill a few. Concluded this was a bird species that
has no real enemies so any mortality is critical especially when it exceeds productivity.
Developed a technical committee with NAS, CFG, BLM, FS, FWS. Eventually
developed what became a recovery plan. One of the results was there was not much left
to do in the wild. The FS was totally into habitat, Sespe was one of the most inviolate
sanctuaries of the time, even the few researchers had to have permits. Shooting was bad
but extremely difficult to control. Recovery plan did recommend buying some
inholdings with condor nests. Felt all these habitat recommendations were good none of
this would be enough what was needed was a contingency plan to captively breed.
Captive breeding was very controversial in CA. In the 1950s when a San Diego Zoo
tried to start a captive breeding program (had learned double clutching with Andean
condors at zoo, getting more than one egg a year normal). At same time Koford’s study
hit streets in the 1950s and said condors were in bad shape and you should not do
anything to them at all, Koford enlisted Ike and Ed Macmillan and they got a state law
passed in the 1950s that condors could not be taken for any purposes. Law prevented any
taking of condors. Law precluded radio transmitters any captive breeding, any banding
for scientific studies. So Sibley’s hands were tied to get scientific evidence. The
Technical Committee was not willing to take the flak in this era to go against the statute
passed in the 1950s. CA law was very rigid. ESA was too new for this type of political
fight. Wilbur felt needed to get NAS, CFG behind the captive breeding to change law.
So they went on for a number of years hoping that normal recovery would do the job.
But every time they did a census the numbers were clearly declining. Finally, in
desperation Wilbur wrote a long-letter explaining what he thought was happening with
the population. Came to conclusion either condors were suffering a lag effect from say
DDT (condors suffered egg shell thinning) and everything would improve or else, more
likely we would sit on the side lines and watch them age and go extinct. Finally technical
committee decided to tackle this. Initially involved just getting some markers on the
birds to track them. Then situation became so dire that these markers were abandoned to
full ahead with captive breeding.
Captive breeding was supported by most of the biologists and public in the know---those
who understood this was last chance. Time and money costs were an issue.
Philosophically some felt a condor in the cage was not really a condor. FWS was still
hesitant because they thought it would be a hot potato. Eventually got NAS, FS and CFG
on board for captive breeding program. Everything seemed lined up with partners but
plan sat for years in D.C. It finally took setting up a blue-ribbon committee through
AOU to break through road block. AOU Report confirmed recovery plan findings said
situation was even more dire. So D.C. moved ahead but at this time Public Relations
Endangered Species are different than other species FWS worked with in the past. A lot
of mistakes were made, Wilbur lost his job in this era in 1981. Noel Snyder took
Wilbur’s job and NAS brought on John Ogden. Snyder and Ogden were great scientist
but bad PR people. Wilbur was blamed for slowing down captive breeding program.
Wilbur went to work for Area Office as “undercover coordinator”. Some bad PR
happened a chick was killed while handling. A fire was set while practicing using a
cannon net for capturing condors. They were shut down for a couple of years following
these disasters. When they finally decided all the birds had to be captured then Audubon
pulled out of program around 1985.
NAS and University of CA were first groups interested. They got Koford funded, got FS
to set up sanctuaries. They got first CA state laws and worked with CFG. FWS in early
years was on negative side—they had predator and rodent control function. It was not till
1966 that federal control over condor occurred, but in effect NAS and CFG were still
deeply involved. It was all cooperative, FWS could not tell FS what to do . NAS was in
public sides, condor naturalist of NAS, John Borneman, helped a lot. Good partnership
but nobody really had authority at the time. NAS became a partner later without
Condors have died of lead poisoning but real threat is hard to discern. NAS wanted FWS
to buy Bitter Creek (Hudson Ranch) at time of taking all birds out of wild and this was a
political issue (circa 1984-1985). Wilbur did not support taking all the birds in. Felt the
whole condor program had such a small gene pool for so long. Some geneticists Wilbur
talked to felt this was not an issue for such a long-lived bird species. Wilbur felt you
should keep some in the wild because very few people were interested in zoo condors.
Also Wilbur felt having condors in habitat for FS and other agencies was critical to keep
down development. Felt there was so much pressure on habitat that if you did not keep
up interest in birds in habitat when you put them back in 10-20 years there might not be
any habitat left to release them to. Birds were still producing in the wild, there weren’t
very many and they weren’t enough but to take them all in meant we had given up on the
World divided into 3.
1. Those who didn’t know condors or care.
2. Those who thought should be saved at all costs.
3. Those who considered it a “relict of Pleistocene” and doomed to extinction.
[Last one was used 2 ways. Used to justify drilling or any development. Others who
loved condors and felt sad about its demise.]
Wilbur had to support #2 because for recovery team “it was our job.” Countered #3 by
saying yes it was shrinking range and diminishing of food source certainly down from
Pleistocene. Yet everything bad that happened to condor since 1600 was people driven.
Even in Wilbur’s career once saw 18 in one flock and then they declined precipitously.
Later Andean condor was listed which added complexity. Andean very similar to CA
condor. Andean was a great surrogate to get ideas of CA condor for to get ideas such as
double-clutching (found first in San Diego Zoo). Some of the things the Andean condor
was used for not so good. Andeans were released into CA habitat and then later all taken
into habitat. Was supposed to tell about habitat or hold habitat for CA condors. “Talk
about a public relations nightmare, there are still people who feel condors carry off cows
and such, Andean condors has been known to kill small mammals.” Stan Temple and
Mike Wallace showed you can get a lot more condors produced in captivitiy than in the
wild. You knew you could produce more in captivity, question was would they form a
self-sustaining independent unit again in the wild. In wild condors lay only one egg in
each clutch. Takes so long for young to hatch and get independent you can only nest
every 2nd year. When mortality grows you can quickly start declining. Double and triple
clutching you can take egg away and get them to raise more eggs. First year in the 1950s
in San Diego zoo got 6 eggs and young in one year’s time. In 1981 25 birds left in
population now approx. 250 birds.
Wilbur initially opposed “egg-napping” the poor PR term for taking eggs from wild to
raise in captivity. But it turned out to work well.
In 1970s and 1980s most of critical habitat was in the National Forest and they were
mostly concerned about inholdings in Los Padres. They had a list of 9 inholdings they
wanted to protect from oil drilling etc. Rocovery plan recommended buying Hopper
Ranch. Big one they proposed buying Tahone Ranch felt condor survival depended on
buying this. Tahone Ranch is combination of 3 Spanish land grants take in all of
Tahachapee Mtns over 200,000 acres of land. They do a lot of farming on San Joaquin
on floor. Hillsides were used for cattle ranching and completely locked up. Would have
been ideal condor sanctuary could see it from Hopper ridge. Cattle was fine for condors,
but later as development threatened then condors have troubles. Attempted to create
some easement but it fell apart. Felt one of failures of program was not getting habitat or
looking far enough ahead to aquire habitat.
As regards human take with power lines etc. “Southern California is a hell of a place to
make a last stand for an endangered species.” When they started releasing the zoo birds
they had tried to feed them with puppets but they were still a lot tamer than birds should
be. Releasing birds in small flocks they became gangs, they started doing things they
don’t normally do like perch on a power line and invade people’s homes and tear up
furniture. The more they release birds the more they are becoming adaptable to wild.
Question about what type of cohorts to release them with should they all be the same age
or different ages.
Confusions cost support but success is even better than expected.
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