California condor shot near Hollister, $5,000 reward offered

Federal law enforcement authorities are looking for information related the shooting of an endangered California condor last year in San Benito County.

The bird, part of a flock based at Pinnacles National Park, was found shot multiple times and left for dead on private property off Lone Tree Road, an area east of Hollister.

“They are incredible animals,” said Joanna Gilkeson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is leading the investigation. “There are only about 300 individuals in the wild. And they continue to be critically endangered. Losing just one is a big deal. Every single bird counts. We are asking the public to please reach out if they have any information.”

The bird was a three-year-old male that researchers had tagged as #972.

It was found dead 13 months ago, in July, 2022. Gilkeson said that biologists at Pinnacles National Park, about 30 miles south of Hollister, noticed the animal had stopped moving when they checked its transmitter.

She said that after park officials discovered the bird shot, they reported it to U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents who investigated, but have not been able to make any arrests.

“They were tracking down leads and now we are asking for the public’s help,” she said. “Someone might know something somewhere.”

The agency is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or people  responsible for the shooting of the condor.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Sacramento at 916-569-8478 or email Special Agent Victoria Van Duzer  at . Callers may remain anonymous.

California condors are the largest birds in North America. Their wing spans are as large as 9 feet across.

They once ranged widely from British Columbia to Mexico. But because of habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning, the majestic birds reached a low of just 22 nationwide by the early 1980s.

In a desperate gamble to stave off extinction, federal biologists captured all the remaining wild condors in 1987 and began breeding them in the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo and other facilities. The birds’ numbers have gradually increased as their offspring have been released back to the wild at Pinnacles National Park, in Big Sur, near the Grand Canyon, in Kern County, in Baja, Mexico, and most recently near Redwood National Park.

The first condors were released at Pinnacles in 2003. The condors first to be born in the wild hatched in 2007.

As of this week, there are 559 California condors, with 345 in the wild — 93 of those in California — and 214 in zoos and other wildlife facilities.

The birds have had a fair number of tribulations in the past few years. The Dolan Fire in Big Sur in 2020, killed 12 of the endangered birds, and burned down a release facility run by the non-profit Ventana Wildlife Society.

The society has raised nearly all but $55,000 the $865,000 to rebuild the facility. It is under construction and scheduled for completion later this year. The birds also suffered a setback when 21 died this spring from avian influenza in Arizona and Utah. Federal biologists have been giving the birds immunizations, however, and the spread seems to have stopped.

The most common cause of death for California condors is lead poisoning, which occurs when they eat deer and other animals killed by hunters.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to ban the use of lead bullets in hunting, but some hunters still use lead ammunition because it is cheaper. Condors also have died from electrocution from hitting power lines, and from infections.

In 2017, federal authorities charged a Barstow man, Matthew Paul Gumz, then 39, of illegally shooting a California condor. Prosecutors said Gumz had been hunting deer in the Bean Canyon area of Kern County, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Gumz gutted a dead deer and hung it from a tree, and left. When he returned, Gumz saw condors and other birds near his deer and allegedly shot and killed condor #780 with a rifle.

He faced a fine of up to $100,000, and a year in prison. In a plea deal with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2019, he pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully killing and endangered species, paid $14,460 in fines and restitution, and was placed on probation for 18 months.