Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge

A few weeks ago I was was fortunate enough to be invited on a kind of guided driving tour of Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. In 1974 the US Department of Fish & Wildlife (formerly Fish & Game) obtained the Hopper Ranch, all 2,471 acres including the original ranch buildings, for the purpose of reintroducing condors to the wild and for the protection of that endangered species. Hopper NWR is nestled behind miles of Los Padres oil lease lands, and is bordered by private property, National Forest, and Condor Sanctuary boundaries. 
As it was explained to those of us on the tour, Hopper was to the few surviving wild condors as the Alamo was to the Texans, the last refuge. In the late '80's it was here at Hopper that the last surviving wild condors were trapped and placed into a captive breeding program. Eventually the captive population was robust enough to begin the gradual process of reintroducing breeding pairs back into their natural habitat, and this effort began at Hopper. At present there are about 230 condors living in the wild and on any given day there are likely to be a dozen or more condors flying into and out of the Refuge. Condors mate for life, and it takes 1-2 years to raise a chick. The nesting pairs tend to lay their egg in the same general area every other year, making the preservation of a safe habitat critical to the continued success of this critically endangered species. For many of those mated pairs, Hopper is that place.

The twisting, turning climb through the oilfields crested at a high overlook. Beneath us, rippling hillsides of windblown grasses descended into Hopper Canyon and the heart of operations there. Looking west and north I was immediately aware of all the looming summits of the Sespe backcountry, familiar peaks seen from a new angle. As we drove lower into Hopper we met a biologist intern parked along the road who'd been scanning with a radio telemetry receiver and had spotted one bird so far that morning (this tour occurred during the last Santa Ana winds and things were extra gusty up there which may have played a role in how many birds were up and where they were flying). Descending further into the canyon we drove past several deer and a large coyote. The place was definitely starting to feel like a nature preserve.

The heart of the operation at Hopper centers on the ranch house and it's various outbuildings. This is home base for the lead biologist, biologist interns, and volunteer staff. There is usually a round-the-clock intern presence, and volunteers are contacted for as-needed or prearranged work days. Parked in front of the ranch house are a number of atvs, governments trucks, tractors and other implements of destruction. The house is off the grid, runs on solar and septic, and water is pumped from an adjacent natural spring. Sadly this '50s era home and the outbuildings are slated for destruction next year, something about the walls being full of mice. New buildings will replace them, and while these will undoubtedly be more modern and efficient, I doubt they will retain the same charm as the old house.

During a lunch stop at the headquarters we met a couple biologist interns who'd just returned from a morning of work spent extending the old Angels Pass trail. They spent some time sharing live feed and recordings from nest cams, small cameras unobtrusively set at active nest sites. We were able to observe a couple chicks and the comings and goings of one or the other parent. It was a vivid reminder that just getting to these nesting sites, usually a small cave in a cliff wall, can be a very difficult prospect. 

After lunch we drove down to the aviary and veterinary facility called the Flight Pen. Wild condors are frequently lured into the pen for lead exposure testing and general check-ups. Though the building was established with the purpose of being a satellite veterinary hospital, staffing became problematic as condor specialists don't grow on trees and probably want to have some sort of life. The building is used primarily for catch and release nowadays, and if a bird requires medical care it is held there until a helicopter transport to the condor facility at the LA Zoo can be arranged. While there we got a nice fly-by by one of the stars of the Hopper Show. Later in the day we got another low buzzing by another bird who circled back a couple times just to make sure we all got a good look at him. 

I enjoyed our time up there at Hopper. I always like being in the wilds and despite the necessary staff presence, this place retains that wilderness feel. Our tour guide, Vince, is a condor legend who's probably forgotten more about condors than most of the "kid" biologists there will ever know. He was a straight champ, answering all manner of questions and filling in the blanks. He helped make the day a special one for the touristas. It was a good time in a beautiful setting. When I can reconcile my own selfish schedule I may look into finding a way to lend a volunteer hand up there. To find out more on tours and volunteerism, you can start @Hopper Mountain NWR. Also, check out the Friends of Condors page. It is evident that the staff here has a mission and a responsibility that they take seriously. They're good folks and they do good work.

Bear Haven and the Topatopa Ridge, Hines being the tallest summit.
Topatopa Peak (you can just make out the old lookout) and at lower right, Devils Heart.
Cobblestone Peak looming behind Whiteacre Ridge.

A volunteer scanning for a wing transmitter signal.
Photo: Skip Saenger
A rocky part of the Preserve referred to as the Pinnacles.
The Flight Pen (and following 2 photos).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gold Country Crossing

The wildly varied Lockwood terra, a land of unending mystery. Of serpentine watercourses twisting in dizzy and disorienting turns. Of stark, vivid bands of sandy cliffs dotted with juniper and jeffrey pine. Of green, grassy meadows, dusted purple and gold with late flowering blooms. Of towering sandstone bluffs framed by old growth cedar forests. Of forgotten creeks, hidden springs, and lost mines.

I teamed with Jeff Roth of Tajunga, taking his suggestion for this backwoods circuit. The man knows  his way around. Much of the morning was spent climbing into or out of various arroyos and gullies, steep little climbs followed by steep little slides. We tip-toed across knife edged ridges, dodged brush and trees, and in mid-morning we caught sight of a large bear in a grassy meadow. The bear didn't register us at first, but when he did we got to watch him bound across the field at an alarmingly fast clip before he disappeared into a wash. We explored a region of rocky foothills, finding evidence of an ancient campsite, an old #9 gauge telephone line, two pretty springs and a steep waterfall. We took pleasant breaks in shaded vales, drank from clear streams, shared old recollections of places seen and yet to see, and worried not a bit about any clock. Without a stated destination there wasn't any place to be, a refreshing change of pace on my end. Despite the lackadaisical approach to the day we covered a lot of ground. It had been far too long since I'd dosed up on pine tree therapy, and speaking for myself, I was just a happy guy all the day long. 

How better to top such a day than over a mountain of health food, courtesy of Toni & Ali at the

Cracked earth, a sign of the times.
Abandoned ore buckets.

High potreros.

Jeff & Ginny

Click it.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Native American Rock Art: Jawbone Canyon

A month ago I made it a goal to find the only pictograph site in all of Jawbone Canyon, surprising given Jawbone's location smack between the Tehachapi Range and the Coso complex. I'm sure there's probably a petroglyph site a la Coso style in there, maybe more. Some of Jawbone is off-limits. Nevertheless, here's paint on a rock and I'm glad to have found it. Took me two different missions and a lot of research to pin this one down.

The trick with these desert sites is to try to follow the water. Reliable water sources were well known to the natives. Knowledge of the locations of springs, seasonal creeks, tanks and tinajas, was critically valuable to these nomadic people. Many of these places, wether they were stop-overs or habitation sites, were marked in some way. That is the case with this site in Jawbone. I had some vague clues to follow--aluvial fan, near a wash, black granite cliff wall. No mention of a spring. Not a word said about shaded tanks of cool and clear spring water. The third frying pan of a canyon I'd been up that morning closed into a steep sided black granite gorge. And then I heard the birds. Chirping, chattering little birds. I spent enough time living in various deserts to know that you don't hear little birds unless there's water nearby. And, I thought with a little electric connect-the-goddamn-dots! charge, if there's water nearby then there's a pretty good chance I've found the art! I got my reward moments later.

On a vertical black granite wall 25 feet above the spring glowed a striking bull's eye of red and white concentric rings. Above that was a tall and slim figure of a man with a black head dress. Off to either side were ladders of red bars, more circles, and a faded monochrome red pictograph theorized by experts to represent an animal pelt. 

Now if only I could locate that petroglyph site in the Antelope Valley that's skunked me twice...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Castro Canyon, A Game Of Lost And Found

I finally found it! Smilodon's fang! This fang measured roughly 16" from root to tip.

What blind luck! Total and complete chance!
Over a dozen years ago Dave Rivas told me a story his own father, David Rivas Sr, had told him. The gist of it went like this--somewhere in the Cuyama Badlands is a fossil of a Saber Tooth Cat. And that's it. That's all the information I could ever get. Those of you who've been out that way know what I mean when I say that my odds of finding this fossil with just that information were about the same as winning the lottery. Worse even. I never forgot about that short mention and it's nagged me for years, but with nothing to go on there wasn't anything to pursue. At times I started believing it was a myth. Well here it is. 

Back to the blind luck, I was traveling trans-badlands sans trail, got curious about a fin of rock up just another steep and unpleasant gully, clambered under it and eventually scrambled up to its top, and viola! Sabertooth tooth! I don't know why, in the middle of an otherwise difficult day, I would waste the energy to go up this gully and climb 100ft up to the top of this thing. I have no good answer for what my motivations might have been. Finding this has affected me in some weird karmic cosmotic conundrumial kind of way. I could theorize that I was meant to find it, which would be a load of horse shit. It was just plain ole dumb luck. Now, I was born lucky, and I recognize luck when I see it, and figuring this was my lucky day I bought a MegaMillions ticket later that afternoon. Naturally, my luck didn't reach quite that far, or even as far as a single winning number. 

This is a much prettier and better preserved Smilodon Fang.

Ice Age predators aside, what I actually came to this part of the planet for I did not find. There are a couple rock art sites in Castro Canyon which I intended to find, but I'll get to that later. Having received permission from a landowner to cross through Rainbow Canyon, I set off westward through that colorful country with the sun at my back. The day was already promising to be a warm one here on the north slope of Sierra Madre Ridge. Glossy cows and scampering calfs parted before me as I crossed a wide expanse of surgically cropped grass. Further on the canyon narrowed considerably. The southern wall of the canyon rose up in striations of brick red and tan soils. Nearing the impassable head of the canyon I followed an old trail up the southern rim. This short climb afforded a clear view of the colorful "V" of multicolored soils which marks the top of Rainbow.

Rainbow Canyon at sunrise.
The "V" at the top of Rainbow.
Cresting Rainbow gave me a good look at what lay in store, and that future looked like it was going to be a struggle. Before me was a landscape slashed by numerous deep and twisting gullies which drained off the northern slope of Sierra Madre Ridge. The next several miles would entail traversing laterally across these steep and brushy drainages, climbing over and down one after another. I groaned with displeasure. Having studied the map and those innocuous topo lines was one thing, but seeing it up close made the day more personal. Heading west would be a tough haul. Time to go to work.

The going was slow. I descended into the large tangle of gullies just west of Rainbow Canyon which come together at Tennison Springs. I picked my way through juniper, scrub oak, and prickly scrub which clung to each side of these deep gullies. Up then down, repeat process. There were occasional animal paths which zig-zagged up and down this maze of badland washes, though many were old and led straight into walls of scrub. The day heated up, dragged on through this tiring cycle of climbing and descending. After roughly three miles of this repetitive struggle I climbed out of a drainage and found myself on a small plateau upstream of Goode Spring. Though I was now on relatively easy terrain, the scrub oaks and juniper were thick and close which resulted in a drunkenly weaving sort of route, both time consuming and at times frustrating.

Past that initial flat I had another series of several drainages above Olive Springs to contend with, similar in nature but brushier than my earlier struggles. This went on for a bit and I soon climbed out of the final gulch and into a more open and airy flat land plateau. Later, a couple arduous gully crossings resulted in a short scramble up to a cracked and wind hollowed collection of brown boulders. Beyond these broken stones lay a vista of pointed hoodoos, sloped whalebacks, overslung cliffs and towers of pocked sandstone--Castro Canyon. I think I kind of gaped for a minute. Somewhere in this square mile of bizarrely sculpted landscape lay a couple rock art sites. That's all I knew. Jeez, I thought, they could be hidden anywhere in this jumble. I could spend days in this mess and never find them. Just gazing out at all this remarkable rock was somewhat dispiriting in that sense. Despite starting the day with 5.5L of water 4 hours ago I'd already cut that load in half. Additionally, I was already too worked for an extensive search. I sat in the shade of a giant boulder and started calculating, giving myself 1.5 hours to search the eastern edge of Castro. Sketching in the dirt beneath me I plotted out the lay of various formations and selected a route which would arc through the most amount of stone I could search in that time window. 

That hole opens to a flat cave large enough for a comfortable 2-man bivouac.

The first view west into Castro Canyon.

This middle terrain of Castro Canyon is tiring to get around in. Getting up to and under the rock formations for close inspection often took some doing, and all for naught. I must have stuck my head in 50 otherwise promising holes, peered intently at 75 alcoves, and traversed under every side of a couple dozen of these massive formations. No dice. Well into the second hour of my search I was reluctantly forced to accept that I'd used up my luck early in the day. Sure wish I could have borrowed a horse. This was definitely the country for it. But then I wouldn't have found that cat fang either. Guess it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Typical of the badlands drainages off the north slope of Sierra Madre.

Fossil something or other.
View toward Santa Barbara Canyon from Rainbow Canyon.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The California Lead Ammunition Ban, Why It Matters

The California Condor remains critically endangered, with a wild population of around only 230 birds. They are a living relic, brought back from the brink of extinction by countless hours of dedication and purpose. The tale of this salvation is one of mistakes learned from, success and loss.

Photo: D. Stillman

The CA Condor population steadily declined throughout the course of the last century, causes being poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. By 1987, when the political will to save the species was gathered, only 22 condors existed in the world. Though the condor has been saved, one thing has not changed, that being the very factors that brought the condor to it's brink of extinction in the first place.

On Easter Sunday of 1987 the last wild condor was taken into captivity. For the first time in tens of thousands of years the condor did not soar the skies of North America. The early years of the captive breeding program were fraught with challenges. Biologists had to learn everything about these birds, their behaviors, their physiology, and their reproduction. Efforts to reintroduce the condor to the wild began in 1992. These efforts continue to this day.

The condor is a unique and extraordinary animal. With a wingspan of up to 10ft in length, the condor can soar to 15,000 feet and cover up to 200 miles in a day. They can weigh up to 26lbs, rivaling the trumpeter swan as the heaviest of North American birds. Their anatomy is exquisitely adapted to their environment, and expressly designed for economy of travel. They have poor hearing, no vocal chords, a poor sense of smell, and incredibly acute long range vision. Their vocalizations are restricted to grunts and hisses. A condor's pale yellow pate can flush to bright pink when emotionally stimulated. Condors mate for life, and display distinct social behaviors with mates and when congregated at a food source. They are naturally curious about their environment, at times to their own detriment, often bringing bits of micro-trash (bottle caps, brass bullet casings, plastics, glass, etc...) back to their nesting sites. A healthy condor can live for as many as 50 years.

I recall the "wow" feeling of seeing my first wild condor soaring above the Sespe. Since then I have seen condors dozens of times, and for a while I just kind of took them for granted. My feelings for the condor have come full circle to that astonishment I first felt. I am grateful that there are those in this society that struggle to place value on the preservation and protection of wildlife. As a species we humans have asserted our belief that it is our right to destroy life, our own and the lives of those we share the planet with. We have been terrible stewards, especially since the advent of the Industrial Age. There is little chance that in my lifetime humanity will undergo a quantum shift in ideology, priorities, and economies. We will continue, as is our "right" to destroy habitat and call it "natural resources", continue to poison our own air and water, and continue to increase quarterly shareholder values. This does not mean that fighting for the issues that concern us and speak to our own values is not worth the effort.

Naturally, mankind is the greatest threat to the recovery of the California condor. The single biggest culprit is a behavior that can be changed--the use of lead ammunition. Lead core ammunition is an insidious toxin that percolates through the food chain. In humans, lead is neurotoxic, inhibits tissue development, and causes organ failure. This is also true of most organisms on the planet. Condors and coyotes are no different than us in that respect. Most multicellular organisms have not adapted to the absorption of heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, etc...). The absorption of these toxins, whether gradually accumulated in micro doses or in a single large exposure, causes bodily failure and/or death. Once these metals are absorbed into the bloodstream the only way to get them out is through a therapy called heavy metals chelation. Chelating agents are compounds which bind with the metals in the the bloodstream forming molecules which can then be excreted. The most common chelating agent for lead toxicity is dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA). Chelating agents can cause kidney failure, irregular heartbeat, vitamin deficiency, and death. The captions below describe how condors and other scavenging animals commonly become exposed to lead.

This X-ray of a deer shot with lead ammunition demonstrates the scatter of the lead core of the bullet which killed it. These bullets are typically made of a lead "sabot" with a copper jacket. On impact the copper jacket peels away much like a banana while the lead core fractures and scatters throughout the body. The lead scatter is often distributed throughout the organ cavities and the viscera which are undesirable tissues that hunters leave in the environment after field dressing their kill. These tissues are then consumed by scavenging birds and animals.
This X-ray of a bald eagle demonstrates the accumulation of ingested lead fragments which, in this bird, caused death due to bowel obstruction. If the obstruction hadn't killed the eagle then surely the lead toxicosis would have.
Biologists and field volunteers monitor the health and wellness of condors in the wild by luring them to baited cages where the bird can be caught and examined. In the field, a simple blood test for lead values can be run, and a determination can be made regarding treatment. This is a never ending cycle.

Recent years have seen a push by hunters and biologists bring the problems associated with lead ammunition into the public sphere. Not only has lead ammunition been demonstrated conclusively to have a negative impact on ecosystems and wildlife but studies have shown that non-lead ammunition as hunting loads are as or more effective than lead based ammo. The trick is to persuade hunters and shooters to do the right thing. In 2007 the Ridley-Tree Condor Conservation Act (AB-821) was passed by the California Legislature, the purpose being to ban the use of lead centerfire hunting ammunition for rifles and pistols. A similar bill required non-lead shot for bird hunters. In 2011 (AB-711) was passed in California, making it the first US state to ban all lead based hunting ammunition. Slated for full implementation in 2019, AB-711 would ban lead ammo for hunting purposes only and shooters will still be able to purchase lead ammunition for non-hunting activities such as target shooting. The cost of alternative ammo to hunters is expected to be negligible, and it should be noted that excise taxes on guns and ammunition pay for conservation work nationwide.

In my teens I shot small-bore rifle at competition level. I have put many thousands of pieces of lead downrange. I stick mostly to pistols nowadays and all my ammo has been copper for at least the last decade. Though I have never had a taste for hunting I do not have anything against hunters who do so legally. In fact, I appreciate the conservation efforts of organizations like Ducks Unlimited. Nobody likes a poacher. With the level of knowledge surrounding the negatives of lead ammunition I don't see that there is any benefit in keeping it on the shelves, and while the industry is openly strategizing ways to torpedo the legislation, per Field&Stream magazine the National Rifle Association largely steered clear of this issue, focusing most of their attention on California gun rights proposals. It's time to get the lead out of shooting. 

A flier from This is a nonprofit web page created by hunters for hunters.

One problem with AB-711 is that it only bans lead in centerfire ammo used while hunting. Centerfire cartridges are standard in large caliber rifle, shotgun, and pistol ammunition, but smaller calibers such as .17, .22, and .25 caliber bullets can only be found in rimfire loads and those guns have a completely different firing pin mechanism than centerfire guns. AB-711 bans lead in the centerfire bullets but doesn't address the lead in these smaller rimfire bullets. These smaller calibers are considered "varmint" loads, and varmint hunting describes a class of wildlife too small for larger bullets (jackrabbits, squirrels, etc...) and is, with some exceptions, legal year round without a license. The classification of "varmint" includes "nuisance"  or "pest" animals which includes coyotes and bobcats*. Most rimfire bullets are made of lead, and most of the animals killed with that ammo are left to the scavengers. Though this law is a very good step in the right direction, AB-711 doesn't expressly prohibit the use of all lead ammunition.
Michael Clark, the LA Zoo's condor whisperer, with Condor #400.
#400 was a breeding age female who was frequently treated for lead toxicity including having surgery four years ago. At the time of her death in April 2014 her lead values were 700mcg/dl. Biologists treat these birds with heavy metals chelation therapy when lead values in their blood exceed 25micrograms/deciliter. The CDC's value for safe lead levels in humans is 0.0mcg/dl.
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