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Return of the sacred condor

To Northern California's Yurok Tribe, the mighty California condor and its 10-foot wingspan is one of the most spiritual animals and a key component of the Yuroks' world renewal ceremonies meant to bring balance back to the Earth.

"He carries our prayers to the heavens being the animal that flies the highest in our region," said Tiana Williams-Claussen, a Yurok biologist and tribe member. "It's pretty significant."

For the past century, however, "prey-go-neesh," as condors are known in the Yurok language, have not been seen on tribal lands as the bird's population dwindled to the brink of extinction.

But that could change as early as fall 2020 under a plan to reintroduce California condors in Northern California's Redwood National Forest, a launch point that eventually could bring the prehistoric birds back to the Rogue Valley, too.

The Yurok, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have released an environmental assessment detailing a reintroduction plan and its potential impacts.

It includes the caveat that condors here would be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as “nonessential, experimental,” providing bird protection but more flexibility for landowners than if classified as endangered, because it would create no critical habitat for condors, authorities said.

If the assessment passes muster and release permits are secured, condors hatched at the Portland Zoo could be in the air over the Klamath River next year, with planned releases of six birds a year over 20 years, Williams-Claussen said.

“We haven’t had him for 100 years,” she said. “We continue to dance, but it’s very important that he actually comes home to Yurok country so he can directly participate in our ceremonies.”

Analysis during the assessment shows that the carion-eating condors should do well in Northern California, where the redwoods and mountains should provide ample nesting and roosting habitat, and the coast and prairies should offer food sources.

Ditto for the Rogue Valley.

During Geographic Information Systems mapping, “Northern California and the Rogue Valley lit up beautifully as condor habitat,” Williams-Claussen said. “It’s expected that once they get there they should be able to do well and be able to use the environment and move around and get what they need. It’s just a matter of finding the path there in the first place.”

But don’t expect the shadows of soaring condors immediately, she said.

“Theoretically they could in a day just end up there,” Williams-Claussen said. “It’ll probably take a few years at least, but there’s no guarantees.”

The assessment does not call for any ban on lead bullets in Oregon, but an unrelated statewide ban on lead bullets goes into effect in California in July, said Candace Tinkler from the National Park Service.

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. Currently lead bullets are banned in condor country in Southern California.

The environmental assessment is up for public comment, with public meetings planned, including one at 5:30 p.m. May 8 at the Santo Community Center in Medford. Others are planned May 7 at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, and May 9 at both the Arcata Community Center in Arcata, California, and the Yurok Tribal Office in Klamath, California.

Thursday’s announcement came more than five years after a five-year study concluded that 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.

Plans are to build the condor release and monitoring facility on Bald Hill on the park’s southeastern side, Tinkler said.

The birds will be 2 to 3 years old when released, but already adult sized, Williams-Claussen said. They will mature at 6 to 8 years old, she said.

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, its 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 to date.

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

California condors such as these could be released in the lower Klamath Basin as next part of a reintroduction plan. Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe