Kelly Sorenson, the Executive Director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, said "the population all-time low was 22 birds in 1982."
The Ventana Wildlife Society was formed in 1977 to conserve native wildlife. For the last 15 years it has been working to return the California condor to the wild. In 2011, the society bought 80 acres south of Big Sur to provide a safe home for the condors.
The birds come from captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. "We ready captive breed condors that were raised in the zoos for the wild," Sorenson said.
It's a slow process, the condors don't lay eggs until they are 5 years old, and if they live to 25, they may only lay six eggs in that time. But they have had success.
Today, there are almost 70 condors living on the Big Sur reserve and in the nearby Pinnacles National Park, out of a total of 404 birds across the southwest.
But the success is not without challenges. Not every bird lives.
"It's really hard to lose any bird, you know, after spending all this time getting them established in the wild, but especially a breeder, because they live a long time, and reproduce slowly, it is really hard on the population to lose an adult," Sorenson said.
In November, Condor 318 died. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated. Condor program coordinator John MacCammon said, "a bird came in with lead poisoning and ultimately died from the lead poisoning and there was a .22 round in its gullet."
A forensic team determined the condor was not shot by that bullet. He ate it. "That bird died from that effect," MacCammon said.
The bullet is now at a UC Santa Cruz lab for further analysis. There, microbiologist Myra Finkelstein has been studying the effects of lead on the condor.
"Alarmingly I found that California condors are exposed to harmful levels of lead on an annual basis," Finkelstein said. "And indeed, about half of the free-flying condors in California right now have blood lead levels that would warrant needing hospitalization and treatment for lead poisoning."
She says lead poisoning is the leading cause of death of California condors. The bullets may come from ranchers who use lead bullets to kill nuisance animals, or might be left behind by hunters who leave behind animals that have been shot. Those dead animals become an easy meal for a condor.
In 2007, California banned hunting with lead bullets in the condor's range, which extends from San Jose to Los Angeles.
The Ventana Wildlife Society has traded non-lead bullets with ranchers. This year they will hand out lower caliber bullets.
The Audubon Society wants to go a step further. It's supporting a bill that would ban all lead ammunition statewide.
"The bottom line is lead is toxic, lead is toxic to birds, lead is toxic to humans, and we're really concerned about that, and we believe that not enough has been done," Brigid McCormack, of Audubon California, said.
The state's leading gun advocacy groups oppose the lead bullet ban. They saying non-lead bullets cost too much. They believe the proposed legislation is an attack on hunting and that condors are not just being poisoned by lead bullets, but lead from other sources as well.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel