Scientist Profile: Alacia Welch, Condor Crew Leader

Condor Crew Leader Alacia Welch smiles under some trees.
Condor Crew Leader Alacia Welch at Pinnacles National Park.

NPS / Maritte O'Gallagher

On becoming a wildlife biologist....

“I was definitely interested in science, nature, and being outside when I was a kid. I had good teachers who helped foster that. All through high school, I figured I’d study biology in college, which I did end up doing. I loved the college I went to, but they didn’t have the best courses for what I was interested in. I would have loved to have taken some sort of animal behavior classes, but that wasn’t really an option. So I took as much as I could with what was available.

"After I graduated, I thought I’d like to go work in the field somewhere. I stumbled across the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and applied to a bunch of different internship positions that they had available throughout the parks and things. That’s how I ended up here at Pinnacles.

"My first season at Pinnacles, I did an internship with the vegetation crew. I was up front with my supervisor about how I was really interested in wildlife, so she allowed me the opportunity to work with some of the other programs, like raptor monitoring. That helped me realize I was really interested in birds. After about two years with the vegetation crew, I was able to come on as a wildlife tech for the next three or four seasons before I started doing condor work.

What drew me to working with condors is, of course, it’s an interesting species. It’s always fascinating to work with an animal that’s endangered, because there’s such a strong motivation for the work, and it’s a problem to solve. The condors themselves are also just fascinating to watch, behaviorally. It can be hilarious observing what they do and how they interact with each other.”

On what makes the Pinnacles Condor Program special...

“The program has so many different elements to it. That’s kept me interested and enjoying doing the work with these birds. There’s always more that I’m learning, and big problems that haven’t been solved yet. Yes, we’re out tracking the birds pretty regularly, but there’s also the veterinary-type work we do here: how to handle a condor, how to take blood. If a condor has lead poisoning, we do treatments here. A lot of that work I hadn’t done before.

"There’s also a huge element of interpretation and talking to the public, which a lot of biology programs shy away from. We feel that if you’re out there doing the work and people want to know what you’re doing, you need to know how to talk to them. I do appreciate that we have a strong focus on the messaging side of things here, that there’s a lot of support for that. And part of that is, the only way you’re going to recover a species is if you get buy-in from the public. They’re instrumental in making it happen.”

Condor Crew Leader Alacia Welch talks to visitors at a Condor Celebration event.
Alacia talks to a crowd of visitors during a Condor Celebration event at Pinnacles. “It’s lots of fun showing them just how big a condor really is!”

NPS / Gavin Emmons

On saving the California condor...

“For condors, their main cause of mortality is lead poisoning, and that’s from eating things that have been shot with lead ammunition. Every year, we have anywhere from just one or two condors that die from lead to upwards of seven. We've sent tons of blood samples to researchers at UC Santa Cruz, and they've found 80% of the lead poisoning events in condors can be attributed to the isotopes that you see in lead ammunition.

"The big thing we try to communicate is that there’s non-lead ammunition out there, and encourage people to make the switch to using that ammo. It can be tricky, because any time you’re talking about ammo, it gets political really fast. It can be difficult to try and remain neutral. A lot of the folks that are out there don’t really want to hear from me about it. I don’t hunt, so from their perspective, I’m not a reliable source. So it’s good for us to work with other organizations that can provide the message in a way that is going to be heard.

"An important aspect for us, actually, is to remind everybody that banning hunting is not the answer. A lot of time that’s the knee-jerk reaction. But it’s overkill for what’s necessary. If only we can change the ammunition, that’s going to make all the difference in the world.”

On balancing life outside work...

“How is it living in the park and being married to another biologist who works here? Who I met here? It’s wonderful, and I feel so lucky. I think it’s fortunate that I love this place and I love being outside. Sometimes I talk to folks who are like, ‘oh gosh, I have to live in the park.’ And I feel like, ‘Wow, I get to live in the park!’ So my perspective on it is different than some. The all-around naturalist idea is one that I definitely identify with, where you know not just one specific thing about an area, but all sorts of things: plants, animals. My husband Gavin and I like climbing and hiking, so we get out and climb regularly and hike the trails on our weekends. It’s a perfect place for us as far as all that goes.

“Other than that, Gavin and I have been volunteering with an organization up in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, that does a lot of songbird banding. So that’s fun to do together. And we both love travelling, so we do a big trip every year or so.”

On staying inspired...

“There really is hope that condors can make it. It’s good to try to keep in mind, and for the public to know, that it’s not all lost. People see that when we tell them there used to be 22, and now there are 500. That’s a huge improvement. But...it’s still only 500. That’s not very many. So it’s sometimes hard to balance the fact that we still have a lot to do to get there, but we can get there. Without lead poisoning, Condors should able to survive into the future on their own. So far, we’re not seeing other things jump up as major problems. Condors can live with people, it seems. Not in hugely urban areas, but they can manage in areas with people on the land as long as there’s some open space. It’s not the case where I’m doing this and I’m not sure it’s ever going to work. I think it really could.”

Interview and narrative adaptation by Maritte O’Gallagher, September 2018.

Last updated: October 3, 2018