32 votes

Does your vote matter? Here’s one answer to that question, an answer that directly concerns the California condor.

As the California condor population declined through the 20th century, the birds took refuge in the watersheds of the Sisquoc River and Sespe Creek. At mid-century, the Sisquoc and Sespe Condor Sanctuaries were designated, with entry by the public prohibited.

But Sespe Creek, the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and the California condor were all threatened by a series of proposals to dam Sespe Creek. Plans for dam building began in 1915. Roads would be built for dam construction. Reservoirs would attract boaters and campers. All of this activity would take place near prime condor nesting and roosting areas.

01 Monsma 2004 - cover

A chapter in Bradley John Monsma’s excellent The Sespe Wild details the history of the various dam-building proposals. This excerpt from a map in Monsma’s book shows the lower section of Sespe Creek, the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and the reservoir behind the dam on nearby Piru Creek:
02 Monsma 2004 - map excerpt

In 1966 the decision to build 2 dams on Sespe Creek – one of which would be just a mile outside the condor sanctuary – was put to a public vote. This local election drew national attention, with the National Audubon Society and others opposing the dam out of concern for the condor.

The election was so close that the votes were recounted. This is how the Los Angeles Times characterized the results:

The issue lost by 32 votes out of more than 15,000 cast ….

A post-election article in Audubon magazine was headlined:
03 Callison 1966

If the election had gone the other way and the dams had been constructed, would the California condor still be with us? There’s no way of knowing. As it was, the condor came so close to extinction that it’s not difficult to imagine that a dam project might have been the “final straw” that pushed the species to extinction.

The proposals to dam Sespe Creek did not end in 1966 but none of the subsequent proposals went forward.  Fortunately, as Monsma details, there are now protections in place to prevent dam building on Sespe Creek.

Just 32 votes made the difference. So, readers in the USA, you know what to do next week, right?

Monsma, Bradley John. The Sespe wild: southern California’s last free river. University of Nevada Press. 2004.

Sespe dam election to be “rerun”. Los Angeles Times. 11 April 1966.

Callison, Charles H. Sespe project setback is condor’s reprieve. Audubon. May-June 1966.