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).


  1. Great photos and very interesting narrative adds up to a fantastic post (like this one). Very nice...

  2. 12 years ago or so we drove up there in the springtime and hiked down into Hopper Canyon to a feature called "Hole in the Wall", I think. Very cool arch with water coming down through it. Earlier I had hiked up Hopper Canyon from highway 150. Lovely narrow canyon with plenty of water (and tar seeps). Had to turn around before I wanted to!

  3. George,
    Hopper and Hole In The Wall have been off limits for a long time, sure it wasn't more than just a dozen years ago? -DS