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Condors in the redwoods

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Four endangered California condors will soon soar across the skies of the Pacific Northwest, and more will follow
Photo by Matt Mais/Yurok TribeTwo of the California condors awaiting release near the mouth of the Klamath River.
Chris West, Yurok senior wildlife biologist, took this photo of two condors released at another location in California.
Matt Mais/Yurok TribeKyle Max, a Redwood National and State Parks biological sciences technician, holds a condor while it receives a health assessment March 25.
Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen, Yurok Condor Restoration Program Manager Chris West and Yurok wildlife biologist Patrick Myers work on one of the condors soon to be released in Northern California.

With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, the California condor cast the largest shadow upon the lands of western North America from time immemorial. And next month, after a 100-year absence, four of these grand beings will once again greet the skies of the Pacific Northwest.

It is a story of partnerships, perseverance and passion — to correct the mistakes of the past and invest in hope for the future.

Over the next 20 years, the Yurok Tribe's Condor Recovery Program — in cooperation with Redwood National Park and State Parks — will release up to six condors annually within their historic range in the Northern California redwoods.

Biologists and technicians will manage this growing flock from a new facility near the mouth of the Klamath River — working collaboratively with other condor field teams as part of the larger California Condor Recovery Program guided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“For countless generations, the Yurok people have upheld a sacred responsibility to maintain balance in the natural world. Condor reintroduction is a real-life manifestation of our cultural commitment to restore and protect the planet for future generations,” said Joseph L. James, chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “On behalf of the Yurok Tribe, I would like to thank all of the individuals, agencies and organizations that helped us prepare to welcome prey-go-neesh (condor) back to our homeland.”

“This project is a model for listening to and following the lead of the park’s original stewards, healing both our relationship with the land and its original people,” said Steve Mietz, Redwood National and State Parks superintendent.

The recovery effort began when the California condor — the largest North American land bird — was adopted as the poster child for the newly minted Endangered Species Act in 1973. In the mid 1980s, when biologists found just 23 condors surviving in Southern California, those remaining individuals were captured and placed in breeding programs to prevent extinction.

A multi-entity coalition, the CCRP is composed of biologists, technicians and advocates from agencies, conservation and community groups, tribes, zoos and universities — all working together in a remarkable alliance over several decades to pull the condor back from the brink of extinction. Many private companies have also become integral to facilitating the effectiveness of condor reintroduction plans.

With the success of the captive breeding program, the CCRP began releasing condors into the wild in the early 1990s: first in Southern California; then Arizona and central California; and in 2002, in Baja California, Mexico.

Bringing prey-go-neesh home

In 2008, the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Program was created, and Tiana Williams-Claussen, a tribal member and Harvard-educated scientist, was hired to become the Wildlife Department director; and Chris West, a biologist with decades of condor repatriation experience, became the manager of the Yurok Condor Program. Their job was to bring prey-go-neesh home.

The initiative was supported by the CCRP because of challenges faced by the other four reintroduction sites in achieving self-sustaining condor populations. With relatively lower human population densities, fewer anthropogenic threats, and more abundant resources, the Yurok homelands within the ancient redwood forests seemed well-suited as a favorable region for condor recovery.

“We assessed the potential risk from lead contamination and organochlorine pesticides, the two major contributing factors to condor declines,” Williams-Claussen said.

“Sea lions in this region had 4-fold lower levels of DDT contamination than sea lions in central California near the other coastal condor release site,” she said, noting that while DDT is no longer used in the U.S., it still persists in the environment and in the tissues of long-lived animals.

Lead ammunition left behind in the gut piles of deer and other game causes about 50% of known wild condor mortalities. So while condors have successfully reproduced at all four release sites, there are not yet enough new individuals to offset mortality and achieve self-sustaining populations.

What's the outlook for the stabilization of the species in the wild?

Williams-Claussen’s team developed the Hunters as Stewards program, and she said, “based on post-outreach surveys, as many as 95% of hunters in our program indicated they would voluntarily make the switch to nonlead ammunition. If we can overcome the lead problem, I believe the species can become self-sustaining at some point in the future.”

“Engaging hunters as partners rather than doing a lot of finger-pointing is more effective,” West added, “because hunters can really help make it a safe environment for the condors as well as many other species of animals.”

“Plus the tribal community is full of a lot of love for this project, and the other local communities are also well-engaged,” Williams-Claussen said. “People really respond to the majesty of the birds.”

The four condors now living along the Klamath River awaiting release include one female and three males. They are between 2 and 3 years old, which is the ideal age range for the birds to flourish in the wild. Two of the males were hatched at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho. The other two were hatched at the Oregon Zoo and raised at the Idaho center. They were transported to the Northern California Restoration Program facility in late March.

The condors are scheduled to be released around May 4 — dependent on weather and how the birds are doing — and the team is confident they’ll stay close together. The CCRP’s blueprint for release includes mentor birds that help the juvenile condors learn the skills needed for survival. Also, a carcass on site will lure in wild turkey vultures. The condors will have both food and companionship.

“We’ll also be using satellite and cellular tags on the birds, so we’ll know where they’re flying and what resources they’re using — and we’ll track them down in the field so we can screen them for lead poisoning each year,” Williams-Claussen said.

While clearly delighted about their impending release, she admitted she'll miss them. “They’re very personable, I enjoy watching them preen and cuddle.”

Condors are smart

The California condor can weigh up to 23 pounds, which is huge for a bird, and can live up to 60 years. They don’t mature sexually until 6 or 7 years of age, and they lay only one egg per year. Biologists visit most nests to check on egg viability, replacing any infertile eggs with fertile, captive-bred eggs to keep the wild pairs nesting successfully.

“Condors are smart,” West said. “There's a lot of competition for food at scavenger kills, a lot of complexity. They have to interpret intentions of lots of other species — and there seems to be a certain depth to how they take things in. They’re also very social and hang out in pairs or small groups. When they see the turkey vultures riding a thermal, they'll think, ‘there’s a chance for food’ and link in with them; or, if they spot a group of vultures on a carcass, the condor will pretty much take control of it.”

What caused the condor’s near-extinction?

“Tragically, our world was almost torn apart. The California Gold Rush ignited a wildfire of greed that nearly consumed our home,” Williams-Claussen said. “A surge of new people arrived, overharvesting wildlife for food and profit, razing old-growth redwoods, scarring the land, diverting and draining the water and laying waste to the carefully balanced ecosystem of which we — and the condors — were a part.

“Many condors were shot for sport, collected for museum displays and poisoned with bait put out to eradicate grizzly bears and wolves,” she explained, “and this loss of the condors left a gaping holes in the ecosystem.”

Condors feed exclusively on dead animals — utilizing their powerful bills to tear through tough hides, making those carcasses available to smaller scavengers, such as turkey vultures, ravens, crows, raccoons, foxes and skunks. Williams-Claussen said that with the loss of other large scavengers such as wolves and grizzly bears, condors become even more important. They remove large carcasses, and their specialized digestive systems can eliminate harmful bacteria and toxins from the environment: including anthrax, botulism and cholera.

“Prey-go-neesh is of deep cultural importance to many tribes throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. Many families — my own included — taught that the condor was a sacred creature, not to be harmed,” Williams-Claussen added. “Considered a kind-hearted spirit, and one of renewal, prey-go-neesh helped carry our prayers to the heavens, asking for the world to be in balance.”

There’s about 500 California condors in the world now, with over 300 flying in the wild. They can travel up to 150 miles a day. So folks throughout the region can tilt their heads back to scan the sky for the giant wingspan of prey-go-neesh sailing on the thermals. Perhaps such a sight might instill hope — and motivation — that yes, we can work together to make the critical differences. That there is still time.

Prior to their upcoming release, the condors can be viewed online at www.yuroktribe.org/yurok-condor-live-feed

The upcoming release of the four birds can be seen on that feed or at www.facebook.com/TheYurokTribe/

Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in the Illinois Valley.