For Arianna Punzalan, Protecting California Condors is Close to the Heart

It wasn’t always Punzalan's dream to study California Condors, but now her research is being used to protect the species and help properly site wind farms across her home state.

Arianna Punzalan spent her childhood hiking the hills of Central California. As she grew older she developed an interest in endangered species and even adopted a manatee; in high school, she preferred biology classes. Above all, Punzalan knew she wanted a career in science.

But the idea of studying wildlife never occurred to her. Like many first generation Filipinx-Americans with an interest in science, she expected to go into medicine, the crowning achievement in the eyes many Filipinx immigrant parents. “Growing up, I never saw Filipinx-Americans in conservation,” says Punzalan.

How did she end up tracking California Condors for a living? During her undergraduate career at University of California at Santa Cruz she got a taste of the natural sciences in courses like community ecology and a seminar on the conservation of Peregrine Falcons, and she and fell in love with conservation. The hands-on science involved in conservation and natural resources management tied together a lot of her interests, and she found herself wanting to explore career options in the field of ecology.

Upon graduating, Punzalan landed an internship with the California Condor Recovery Program in Pinnacles National Park, which is southeast of Monterey in central California. The days were grueling: She endured an 80-mile commute four days a week and put in 10-hour days of labor-intensive tracking and monitoring California Condors. On top of that, she was only able to take the position because she was supported financially by her family during the internship.

“I was really lucky that I had them to lean on,” she says. 

Her parents knew it was a big opportunity for Punzalan and hoped her time as an intern would pay off. And pay off it did: In 2013, Punzalan's internship transitioned into a full-time position as a biological science technician. Throughout her time at the California Condor Recovery Program, she learned important research techniques like how to track birds with radio-telemetry and GPS. These days, as she works to publish her research into condor movement and spends most of her time running analyses, she “misses handling the birds” and remembers the simple and powerful observations that sparked her entire graduate research project.

One day while she was still in her internship, as Punzalan was doing her routine morning check of movement reports of the GPS-tagged California Condors, she realized that one bird, tagged #564, ventured far from its home range. While most of the condors remained close to where they had been reintroduced, this bird was expanding back into historic condor range. She realized that, as condor populations recovered, they would return into parts of the state that they once lived, but have long-since been extirpated.

“I started to wonder how condors would start re-occupying historic habitat,”  Punzalan says.

However, she also knew much of this land is now ripe for wind energy development, a potential problem since large, soaring species such as California Condors and Golden Eagles are particularly vulnerable to being hit by wind turbines, as they are less agile than smaller songbirds. 

This conflict between the iconic western species and the expanding footprint of wind farms in the state would become her life. Punzalan developed a graduate research project around the topic, working with Randy Boone at Colorado State University.  Punzalan's recordings of daily condor movements helped her develop models that predicted the species' range expansion. Her results? She found that California Condor movement is not random. Rather, it is predictable through factors such as condor age, underlying landscape, and length of time that a population had been managed. At the conclusion of her graduate studies this past spring, Punzalan’s findings became critical information used to identify areas where energy development is unlikely to overlap with condor range expansion, in keeping with The National Environmental Policy Act

Punzalan takes pride in the fact that her research is helping protect the species from poorly sited energy development. California is her home. It is where she grew up and most of her family lives, sprinkled across the state. Protecting the land and the species of her home state has become a personal value. She is proud of the work she is doing.

And her family is too. Recently, she was able to bring them on-site and give them a first-hand look at her work. They brag about her and even show their friends pictures of Punzalan with the giant birds. Punzalan feels fortunate to have had their support throughout her career. She is hopeful that her path will become a more common one for Filipinx-American. Though Punzalan says she has started running into more Filipinx-Americans in conservation, she knows there’s a long way to go. Like #564, the single condor that ventured off and inspired her research, she hopes her path will inspire others to see conservation as a career option.

“I want to be a steward of the land that is my home,” she says. “I also really want to be in this position to show young Filipinx-Americans that a career in conservation is possible."