The refuge protects habitat within an important east/west running mountain range and provides movement corridors for populations of native ungulates, raptors, and other wildlife.
Condor and other wildlife movements extend beyond refuge boundaries and exemplify the Service’s contribution to a much larger conservation initiative as we partner with public and private landowners. Alongside these charismatic animals, so, too, can lesser known and rare wildlife and plant species thrive within this intact and functioning ecosystem. Also protected on the refuge are Native American cultural resources and remnants of 19th century homesteads.
Historically, the Bitter Creek area was used as a cattle ranch and used extensively by wild condors before all remaining wild condors were brought into captivity in 1987. Interest in acquiring the refuge property was initiated when plans to subdivide the area for development were made public. Conservation organizations maintained that substantial development and the associated increase in human activity would not be compatible with the condors’ use of the area (USFWS 2008a). In 1985, acting under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, with Land and Water Conservation funding, approximately 800 acres of the former Hudson Ranch and adjoining properties were acquired by the Service to conserve plants and wildlife listed as endangered species or threatened species. Although the refuge provides habitat for several listed species, the primary goal for the establishment of the refuge was to preserve essential foraging and roosting habitat for the California condor (USFWS 1975).
Lands within the future Bitter Creek NWR were categorized as essential foraging habitat in the original Biological Assessment for establishment of the refuge (Lawrence 1983). In 1987, the Service acquired an additional 11,944 acres of the former Hudson and Hoag ranches. Since 1987, the Service has continued to work with willing landowners on various land exchanges to consolidate refuge lands with mutual management benefits (e.g., exchanging outlying refuge lands for private in-holdings within the approved acquisition boundary). Because the Service’s land acquisition program is based on willing sellers, not all lands within the approved acquisition boundary will become part of the refuge. Today, the approved acquisition boundary includes 23,572 acres, of which the Service owns 14,097 acres in fee title.
Although the Refuge is closed to the public, large portions of Bitter Creek NWR can be seen from Hudson Ranch Road, which bisects the Refuge. The Refuge encompasses the rolling foothills between the San Joaquin Valley and the coastal mountain range. Approximately two-thirds of the refuge is open grassland, providing valuable foraging habitat for California condors. Refuge visitors along Hudson Ranch Road may glimpse California condors soaring on warm thermal air currents or perched on steep hillsides, mule deer, tule elk, California quail, golden eagle, owls, and occasionally greater roadrunner.
The Refuge is currently closed to the public and has been since its establishment in 1985 due to the sensitive nature of the California Condor Recovery Program activities, sensitivity of its resources, and rugged terrain. However, staff and partner-led guided interpretive tours allow for limited opportunities for the public to engage in wildlife viewing and photography.
Friends of California Condors Wild and Free lead hikes at Bitter Creek NWR for events such as National Wildlife Refuge Week in October each year. Please check the homepage for the latest postings on guided hikes.
The part of the Refuge used for guided hiking must remain a safe viewing distance away from California condors to reduce interaction and contact. A small pull-off along the road allows visitors to safely park along the side of the road near the Refuge sign and engage in passive recreation such as bird watching. The Refuge is marked as closed to entry here, and posted signs continue along the road passing through the Refuge.
Wildlife-dependent recreation is also available on adjacent public lands, including the Carrizo Plain National Monument managed by the BLM, and the Los Padres National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Location and Contact Information
Wildlife viewing and photography are possible around the Refuge, and best accessed from the Bitter Creek NWR sign outlook area on Hudson Ranch Rd. (formerly known as Cerro Noroeste Rd) Maricopa, California.
Hiking within the Refuge is only allowed during specially guided tours by USFWS staff or members of Friends of California Condors Wild & Free. These usually take place a few times per year, especially during National Wildlife Refuge Week in October. Please email us if you would like to arrange for a special tour for your organization at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mammals of the general Bitter Creek area include tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), mule deer, pronghorn (also known as American antelope; Antilocapra americana), American badger (Taxidea taxus), raccoon (Procyon lotor), striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), western spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius), coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion. Other mammals include blacktailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and several species of bats. Several rodent species have been observed, including Heermann’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys heermanni), Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae), pinyon mouse (Peromyscus truei), and California mouse (Peromyscus californicus). Tule elk originally dispersed from the privately owned Wind Wolves Preserve to the east of the refuge. The elk were part of two herds reintroduced at the Wind Wolves Preserve in 1998 and 2005.
Some of the more common resident birds of the area include California quail, common raven (Corvus corax), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus), and western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). The American pipit (Anthus rubescens), and white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are winter visitors. The area also supports many Neotropical migratory songbirds, including the olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus borealis), western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), and Bullock’s oriole (Icterus bullockii). Aside from the California condor, common raptors include the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), barn owl (Tyto alba), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), American kestrel (Falco sparverius), prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus), and Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii).
Reptiles & Amphibians
Two species of amphibian have been documented on Bitter Creek NWR, including Baja California treefrog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca) and southern California toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus). At least 12 species of reptiles have been found on the refuge, including tiger whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris, pictured), Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer), California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), Blainville’s night snake (Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha), and western rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus).
Threatened & Endangered Species
Besides the condor, populations of other endangered and threatened species and species of special concern known to occur in the area have been adversely affected by habitat loss and conversion and invasion of exotic species.
Listed plants include: Typical Horn’s mildvetch, California jewelflower, Lemmon’s jewelflower, Kern mallow, Southern mountain buckwheat, Temblor buckwheat, Tehachapi monardella, San Joaquin woollythreads.
The federally-listed wildlife species that may occur at Bitter Creek are: the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens), blunt-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia sila), Buena Vista Lake shrew (Sorex ornatus relictus), San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), vernal pool fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi), valley elderberry longhorn beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus), California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii; formerly Rana auroradraytonii), and Kern primrose sphinx moth (Euproserpinus euterpe).
Two of the federally-listed wildlife species are known to occur on Bitter Creek NWR: California condor and San Joaquin kit fox. Habitat for the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard and giant kangaroo rat, and threatened Kern primrose sphinx moth exists on the refuge. Surveys would be needed to determine if these species are present on the refuge.
A full list of species found on the refuge is included in Appendix E of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
Become a Nest Monitor Volunteer:
The USFWS and the Santa Barbara Zoo invite you to join our efforts to save the condor. The Nest Guarding program has monitored the successful fledging of 14 wild condor chicks since 2007, and witnessed nesting success grow from about 6% to almost 60%! Volunteers are required to go through two mandatory trainings, and expected to work independently. Time commitment is two times per month, from the early spring to late fall. Some observation points require strenuous hiking, or camping overnight. Volunteers should have their own hiking equipment, high clearance vehicle capable of driving on uneven dirt roads, a good sense of adventure, and a strong desire to assist in the recovery of the California Condor! To inquire for the next training dates, please call (805) 644-5185.
Become an Intern:
The California Condor Recovery Program has a volunteer internship program. This is 6 month commitment during which time volunteer interns will receive a living allowance of $39 per day of work while working on and around one of two wildlife refuges central to condor activity in Southern CA.
This volunteer opportunity focuses on the management of the free flying population of California Condors in Southern California. Selected applicants will track this population throughout its range using radio telemetry and by ground-truthing GPS transmitter data. Volunteers will observe condor behavior at feeding sites, roosts and nests. Field work requires: the ability to work independently and as a team; work and sometimes camp in remote areas during inclement weather or harsh environmental conditions; travel via ATV, 4WD vehicle, or by foot in steep mountainous terrain; carry 50lb carcasses to feeding sites; keep detailed field notes; follow data collection protocols for the collection and entry of accurate and consistent data; and assist in routine office work.
Check the Texas A & M wildlife job board for the latest position availability.
Become a member of our Friends Organization:
Friends of California Condors Wild & Free is a nonprofit 501c3 organization that has the mission to enhance public awareness of the endangered California condor and ensure that they are protected, healthy, and free.
As a member of the Friends of the California Condor, Wild & Free, you will become a part of a group dedicated to the conservation of an endangered species. Some of our activities include:
- Annual State of the CA Condor event
- Scheduled Refuge Projects
- Outreach Events
- Education Programs
- Networking with other conservation groups
All members receive event notifications, which contain information about Friends’ programs, Friends’ sponsored outreach activities, legislation affecting the Refuge and more.
Contact: FCCWF@friendsofcondors.org or call (805) 796-2508
Projects and Research
Wildlife and Habitat Management
Since 1995, the refuge has served as a release site for the California Condor Recovery Program to release condors into the wild. Condor management activities include:
- Condor population monitoring; very high frequency (30–300MHz) (VHF), global positioning system (GPS), and visually providing sites for the Recovery Program to trap and process condors (assess body condition, attach transmitters).
- Twice yearly (minimum) trapping and sampling all southern California condors; monitoring contaminants in released condors (analyzing blood and feather samples).
- Providing sites to vaccinate condors for West Nile Virus and sites for supplemental feedings to maximize survivorship.
- Maintaining temporary quarters for Service biologists performing Recovery Program activities and researchers, volunteers, and partners supporting Recovery Program or refuge goals.
- Releasing up to 15 tagged condors into the wild per year (as needed and as determined by the Recovery Program).
- Coordinating with ranches to allow condors to feed on natural livestock mortalities.
The Service also manages grassland, mixed scrub, oak and juniper woodlands,, and wetland habitats that support other plants and wildlife, as well as the condor.
To date, plant and wildlife data collected to inform refuge management decisions include surveys for burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) (2006), rare and endangered reptiles and amphibians (1994), small mammals (2006–2007), tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) (2006–2011), and plant surveys of Bitter Creek NWR (1997, 2009–2011). Sightings of wildlife have also been documented for San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica) (1982–2009), tule elk (Cervus elaphus ssp. nannodes) (2008–present), and other species (periodically between 1991 and 2008).
See Appendix D of the CCP for a list of surveys conducted.
Fire preparedness is an important aspect of refuge management. The Service suppresses all wildfires and implements fire prevention and mitigation measures (such as fuel breaks) at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and roads. The approved update to the Fire Management Plan for Bitter Creek NWR allows prescribed burning in the form of pile burning (USFWS 2001). Pile burning is a low risk use of fire, used primarily in winter, when air quality is less likely to be adversely affected. The Service obtains the required permits to burn from the regional air quality district. Department of the Interior and Service policy require that the Service comply with all air quality regulations and obtain permits for all planned burning on the refuge.
For more information on the FWS Fire crew that is responsible for this refuge, please visit the Fire Management Page.
Cultural Resources Management
Previous cultural resource inventories have recorded sites associated with Native American use of the refuge area along with historic-period resources. To date, approximately 7.5% (1,886 acres) of the 14,096-acre refuge has been systematically surveyed as a result of 13 archaeological research projects conducted on the refuge. It is highly probable that additional archaeological sites will be exposed by human actions or natural causes in the future. Previous archaeological research includes the following. In 1982 and 1983, three land parcels were surveyed for cultural resources in anticipation of development for housing within or immediately adjacent to what later became the refuge boundary. As a result, seven prehistoric archaeological resources and three isolated artifacts were recorded within the current refuge boundaries.
Archaeological fieldwork on the refuge since its establishment in 1985 has primarily focused on compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA for a variety of undertakings proposed either by right-of way holders or by the refuge.