Evergreen Grad Helps California Condor Soar Again

April 12, 2019

As Steve Kirkland ’94 sat waiting in an Iowa insurance office one day, he probably didn’t expect the magazine on the table to introduce him to The Evergreen State College—and his new career as a conservationist.

“I was drawn to Evergreen because it ousted letter grades for narrative evaluations and offered cross-discipline programs instead of isolated classes,” said Kirkland.

Shortly after leaving Iowa behind, he found himself traversing the islands of Hawaii as an intern working with professional biologists to help save endangered species.

Now a field coordinator for the California Condor Recovery Program, he credits Evergreen for his storied 20-year career in endangered species conservation.

Beginning his training as a student intern with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Program, Kirkland gained valuable field experience and studied under the mentorship of renowned ornithologist Steve Herman as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists on the northwestern islands of Hawaii. He went on to multiple internships with the Cascadia Research Collective, an Olympia-based nonprofit that conducts ecological research from the Canadian Arctic to the coast of Central America.

From there, Kirkland’s career unfolded its wings. He landed a job on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge working on sea bird conservation projects, and eventually made his way to California where he would play a key role in helping the largest land bird in North America reestablish a now-healthy population in the wild.

But back in the days when he and his team risked mountain lion attacks to feed fledgling condors, the outlook for the species was not as optimistic as it is today.

Condor Medical Checkup

Top photo: Kirkland analyzes x-rays of an injured condor with a condor keeper from the Los Angeles Zoo.
Photo above: Kirland sitting while holding the bird as biologist Laura Mendenhall is getting ready to draw blood with assistance from supervisory wildlife biologist Joseph Brandt.

“We used to hike frozen calf carcasses into remote sites for newly-released birds,” said Kirkland as he recalled his early days as a member of the field crew for the California Condor Recovery Program. “The condors didn’t have any parents in the wild,” he continued. “We only had about 17 condors in California at that time, so we had a group of juvenile birds with no real adult mentorship.”

While the most recent data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests the total population of condors to be over 450 today, they are still cautiously optimistic. “We now know that it was all human-related issues that caused the decline,” said Kirkland. 

There are a number of factors that led to the near-extinction of the scavenger species, the most prominent being lead poisoning from feasting on unrecovered carcasses left behind by hunters and ranchers. In response to the lead poisoning, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that banned the use of lead ammunition across the state in 2013.

In a time of great challenges to ecosystems across the world, Kirkland feels lucky to be able to look back on a career with a history of charted successes. Proud of his work, Kirkland said that “there’s value in trying to do something to reverse the damage to nature so that our children and our children’s children have the opportunity to experience these species.”