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Condor comeback proposed for Redwood National Park

Endangered California condors could be flying over Southern Oregon as early as the end of this decade under a draft plan by the Yurok Tribe and federal officials to reintroduce North America's largest land bird to Northern California after an absence of more than a century.

The consortium is proposing to reintroduce condors into Redwood National Park, as well as create a release facility and monitoring program at the park off Highway 199 in Northern California.

Because the birds, with wingspans of up to 10 feet, are known to fly up to 300 miles a day in search of carrion, the Rogue River Basin would be a logical place for the birds to frequent or eventually to establish themselves, experts say.

"As a big bird, they'll stand out from a turkey vulture at a distance when people see them," said David Roemer, the park's deputy superintendent.

Roemer said the plan calls for releasing adult birds, with the timing based on availability of captive-born birds at one of two condor breeding sites, one of which is the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

"Part of it is supply and demand — how many birds are available and releasable," he said.

The tribe, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have planned five public meetings, including one Wednesday in Central Point, to float their long-awaited draft environmental assessment on the reintroduction plan and to take public comments on it.

The Central Point meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Jackson County Auditorium, 7520 Table Rock Road. Others are planned in Portland, as well as Sacramento, Klamath and Eureka in California.

A final study is expected by late summer or early fall, and the plan could be finalized by the end of 2017, Roemer said.

The proposal calls for the birds, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, to be deemed an "experimental, non-essential population" in Redwood National Park, a distinction that would exempt them from some of the tight restrictions on other endangered animals and their habitats.

For instance, no critical habitat designations are necessary, and any accidental killing or harming of a condor would not be punishable under the ESA, Roemer said. However, it would remain illegal to intentionally harm any of the birds, he said.

Unlike in other areas occupied by reintroduced condors, lead bullets would not be banned in this new condor country, Roemer said. However, the groups will continue their outreach to the hunting community on the use of non-lead ammunition sources, such as copper.

Lead ingestion from eating gut piles left by hunters, along with poisoning from banned chemicals such as DDT, are two of the reasons condors landed on the endangered species rolls, experts say.

Thursday's announcement came more than three years after a five-year study that said reintroduction of condors to this portion of its historic range was promising and would expand the geographic scope of recovery efforts already in progress in Southern California, the Southwest and Mexico.

The Yuroks have been studying the reintroduction of condors to the lower Klamath River, which flows through Redwood National Park, since 2003.

According to the Oregon Zoo, condors occupied much of North America during the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago.

The condors were native to most large basins here and were documented in the Klamath, Umpqua and Columbia drainages. The last confirmed Oregon sighting was in 1904 near Drain, within the Umpqua Basin southwest of Cottage Grove.

By 1940, their range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California, and in 1967 condors were added to the first federal list of endangered species.

In 1987, the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity, and a captive-breeding program was developed, according to the Oregon Zoo.

So far, condor populations have been re-established only in Arizona, Southern California and Mexico, so the redwoods would be the most northerly site for the efforts to return these massive birds to North America.

The National Park Service said there now are more than 400 condors in North America.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Condor photo by Gavin Emmons, courtesy National Park Service