What is the penalty for harming a California condor?

This post looks at 3 cases from the early 20th century.

But first, for context, consider “Killed near Santa Monica” from the 5 October 1895 issue of the San Francisco Call newspaper. The subtitle of this article is “Two American Condors Bagged by a Sportsman in the Mountains”. According to the unnamed reporter, J. U. Henry shot the 2nd of these birds while “sitting on her nest”. The article makes no mention of any fine or other penalty being imposed against Henry. Nor does the article suggest that Henry did anything wrong.

Now for the 1st case of a penalty being imposed. The 12 August 1906 issue of the Los Angeles Times includes 2 articles about the California condor. “Hunters Kill Giant Condor” appeared in the Sunday magazine section and is a ridiculous adventure tale subtitled “Mighty Nimrod Returns from Eventful Journey”. Unfortunately, much of the copy available to me is illegible. But from what I can read, hunters describe killing a deer and caching it. Then:

Several hours later, we returned to pack the deer into camp, and as we approached … a giant bird, heaving a quarter of that venison in its talons, rose into the air. We did not know exactly what kind of a bird it was. We only knew that our dinner was sailing into space, and I tell you four guns were popping in a second.

The other article, “After Violators”, notes that:

[Game Warden] Morgan is waging an uncompromising war on game and fish law violators …

It is reported the warden will go after parties who killed a California condor the past week in utter violation of law. The great vulture is rare – nearly extinct – and needs protection instead of slaughter.

“Deserve to Be Prosecuted” was published 3 days later in the same newspaper. The article quotes F. Scott Way, including:

“The persons who killed a condor near the Malibu ranch as reported in the Times last Sunday are to be proceeded against according to section 637A of the Penal Code ….”

“No permits are issued by the State authorities for ‘collecting’ the condor or its eggs, not even for scientific purposes, and anyone having even a part of one of these birds … is liable to … a fine of as much as $250.”

“No sportsmen worthy of the name would be guilty of such a wanton and inexcusable act.”

Justice was swift in those days. Only 7 days after the 1st articles, the Los Angeles Times carried this paragraph:

The story of the killing of the giant condor of the Malibu … had its sequel in the court of Justice of the Peace Jenness, when J. A. Decker was called to plead to a violation of the State game laws. Decker, who was a member of a hunting party of four, who fired at the big bird of a species that is about to become extinct, was placed under arrest by Game Warden Pritchard. Though admitting his guilt, Decker was only fined $5.

Another case occurred just a couple years later. This is part of the report from the 24 January 1909 Los Angeles Times:

For killing a condor, one of the rarest birds now in existence in North America, Deputy Constable F. L. Wallis of Pasadena was haled before Justice Summerfield yesterday. He was found guilty of violating a section of the game laws of the State that prohibits the shooting of birds classed as scavengers ….

On December 30, Wallis went into Eaton’s Cañon and shot a female condor, one of the last remaining pair in that section. He took the bird to Pasadena and offered it for sale to Mrs. Elizabeth Grinnell, mother of Prof. Joseph Grinnell [a noted ornithologist] …. He asked $200 for the specimen.

Prof. Grinnell told his mother not to buy the bird, but to notify the game warden that it had been killed.

“We are going to ask the court to impose a heavy fine,” said [Game Warden W. B.] Morgan yesterday. “The way people have been killing off these great birds is a disgrace. Six years ago there were seven condors in Eaton’s Cañon. Today there is only one ….

(It’s a minor delight that the Los Angeles Times once preferred the spelling “cañon”, rather than “canyon”.)

The story continues 7 days later in the Los Angeles Herald:

S. L. Wallis … who … was fined $50 by Justice Summerfield, was in the justice court yesterday to argue that the fine should not have been imposed.

More about the case was included in the “Editorial Notes and News” published in the May-June 1909 issue of The Condor:

Thru the efforts of Cooper Club members and the commendable activity of Game Warden Morgan of Los Angeles, evidence was secured, Wallis was brought to trial, and a conviction was obtained. But the Justice, in passing sentence, neglected to give an alternative of a jail term if the fine ($50) were not paid; and so, because of the technicality, Wallis smiled and paid not. Now, however, he has been made deputy county assessor; and the Game Warden has discovered another technicality which balances the first: Wallis’s pay is garnished and out of his first month’s salary comes the $50! The notoriety of this case has become so wide, that it is believed that anyone else possest [sic] of the notion that protected birds may be illegally killed with impunity will hesitate long. The bird killed by Wallis was confiscated and forwarded to the State Museum.

A 3rd case was briefly noted in the October 1920 issue of California Fish and Game magazine. Under the heading “Violations of Fish and Game Laws: April 1 to June 30, 1920” is the item “Possession condor wings”, for which there was 1 arrest and a $10 fine imposed. There is no indication of whether the possessor had killed the bird.

These 3 cases from the 1st decades of the 20th century, in relation to earlier example from the last decade of the 19th century, indicate a rapid change in how the harming a California condor was viewed by newspapers and the legal system.

A fine for harming a bird is, in part, the placing of a value on that bird. Previous posts concerning the value of the California condor are Cost – value – worth and Are some bird species worth more than others?