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Yurok Tribe Restores Condor Population in Redwood National Park

The Yurok Tribe of Northern California has long celebrated the spiritually significant condor, and now it is helping to bring back the near-extinct raptor.
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The California condor, known to some Indigenous Peoples as “thunderbirds,” have long been revered, especially by the Yurok, who have always lived along the Klamath River in northern California. The condor soars higher than all the winged ones, carrying their prayers to the heavens. The Yurok name for the raptor is “prey-go-neesh.”

Condors, whose wings stretch 9½ feet from tip to tip, have been spiritually tied to Yurok ceremonies since time immemorial. Its feathers are used and its songs sung in the World Renewal ceremonies, where Yuroks pray and fast in order to balance the world. But the majestic bird has been virtually absent from the skies since nearly becoming extinct by the 1980s.

Condor feathers

Condor feathers, from the magnificent raptor that flies high and forms a key component of Yurok spirituality.

Now, in a major effort to restore the condor population, the Yurok Tribe has teamed with the National Parks Foundation, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and the National Park Service to fund a proposed facility and monitoring program that will soon allow condors to be released into Yurok ancestral territory, within Redwood National Park. The funding for the project is part of the National Parks Foundation’s $350 million Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, commemorating the service’s first century of preservation.

This project will allow condors to regain their foothold in their former northern California range and further strengthen the condor population overall. Establishing release sites on their own land is an effort the Yurok’s team of biologists has worked on since 2008.

“We started doing habitat analysis with U.S. Fish and Wildlife funding,” tribal biologist Tiana Williams told Indian Country Media Network. “Pesticide residue like DDT is still a problem in California, but we’re at one of the lowest levels here. We look for roosting, nesting, foraging sites. We came up with a top ten list of potential sites to release condors. We’re looking at 2018, 2019 for condors to happen.”

Exposing a new population of condors to the profuse biological diversity found in Redwood National Park and the surrounding area has a very real potential to aid in the soaring scavenger’s long-term recovery.

Yurok tribal biologists release condor in Big Sur, CA

Yurok Wildlife Program biologist Tiana Williams releases a condor in Big Sur, California.

“The park staff at Redwood National and State Parks is excited to work alongside the Yurok Tribe to return the iconic California condor to its historic range along the north coast,” Redwood National Park superintendent Steven Prokop said in a statement. “This cooperative effort is required to restore the ecological and cultural vitality of the coast redwood forests, and expand the range of California condors, key factors in the long-term survival of the species.”

California condors, the largest land birds in North America, once ranged from British Columbia to Baja California and inland to the Rocky Mountains, according to the Yurok Tribe. They bred in the Pacific Northwest, but a number of pressures during the first half of the 20th century saw their numbers plunge to 27 or fewer birds during the 1980s. They were lost to the region for more than a century.

The last remaining wild condors were captured in 1987, and breeding began in zoos, which formed the nucleus of today's California condor recovery program, according to the Oregon Zoological Society. The first birds were reintroduced into the wild in 1992.

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Their sharp decline was blamed on overhunting of their food sources, exposure to DDT (the same poison that thinned the eggshells of eagles), and to carcasses laced with strychnine to eliminate predators and unwary condors. Their biggest threat continues to be lead poisoning from leaded bullets, scientists say.

California is phasing in a ban on lead bullets to save scavenging wildlife, as reduction in use of lead ammo has proven beneficial to condors in other regions. Non-lead bullets are decreasing in cost, and some wildlife conservation organizations give away non-leaded ammo to hunters and ranchers for free.

The Yurok strive to inspire a voluntary switch that if made, saves wildlife. They’ve had an ongoing education program for five years, and a hunter’s safety curriculum training for youth. They engage hunter’s groups and offer to discuss the reasons for using non-lead ammo.

“A large problem in California is there wasn’t a lot of engagement. People didn’t know why the ban on lead bullets had been enacted, they hadn’t been told,” Williams said. “We try to engage the hearts and minds of hunters, hunters as stewards. We’ve been handing out non-lead ammo, letting them know it works, and 85 percent said they liked it as well or better.”

Williams, who returned home to work for the Yurok in 2007 after graduating from Harvard University, said that more often than not, hunters have been willing to be part of the solution.

A 2014 study published in the journal Conservation Biology found that 62 to 91 percent of condors sampled in a given year in California between 1997 and 2011 had elevated levels of lead in their blood. And although DDT is now banned, condors can still ingest the chemical when they eat the remains of a contaminated marine mammal.

Condors play a critical role in ecosystems by recycling nutrients and disposing of dead, disease-ridden animals. But as scavengers, condors readily eat lead-studded gut piles and carrion shot with lead bullets and so succumb to lead poisoning.

According to the National Park Foundation, the Yurok Tribe started the region’s first condor reintroduction effort, and has since spearheaded efforts to reintroduce condors in the Pacific Northwest, as are scientists, zoos, national parks and wildlife organizations. Establishing condor release sites within the Yurok’s Ancestral Territory is mandated by the Constitution of the Yurok Tribe, which requires that they restore habitat and species integral to Yurok cultural and religious practices. In other words, bringing the condor back is part of the Yurok Tribe’s obligation to heal the world.

“The condor has played a major part in Yurok ceremonies and culture since time immemorial,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. said in a statement. “It is through collaborative projects like this that we will bring balance back to our natural world.”

One only needs to look at the numbers to understand that. At the end of 2015, there were 435 California condors, an increase of nearly 20-fold over the past 30 years. Of those, 268 live in the wild, and 167 live in captivity.

“Condors have been so important to many cultures in the Pacific Northwest. For us, he helps renew our world, while others may use his feathers for medicine,” Williams said. “As a Yurok woman giving her life to restoration, the Yurok lifeway, the condor epitomizes our own restoration. I’m really excited to be a part of that, making the change that needs to happen in our world.”

Follow Terri on Twitter @TerriHansen