Bringing California Condors Back to Humboldt Skies

October, 2016

The Yurok people believe the world is out of balance. Human beings have tilted it out of balance by misusing our resources and through lack of respect for one another.  Condors soar into the sky carrying prayers on their wings. Returning the condor toward our skies is a step to bringing balance.  

There are condors in Humboldt County right now. The Clark Historical Museum in Eureka has a specimen caught about 1890 near Kneeland. Another specimen that flew over Humboldt over 100 years ago is in Eureka High School. But can we bring California condors back to life in the Humboldt wild? 

Condors soaring overhead in Humboldt in just a few years is the dream of the Yurok Tribe and the goal of staff at Redwood National Park. Chris West, Senior Wildlife Biologist for the Yurok, states “Returning the California condor to the Pacific Northwest is part of the Yurok Tribe’s obligation to heal the world.”

When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Northwest in 1806, they recorded seeing condors for the first time. Dave Roemer, Assistant Superintendent of Redwood National Park, says the oldest documentation of California condors comes from the culture of tribes such as the Yurok, who lived here before Lewis and Clark and other European explorers arrived. The tribes documented condors in art, dance and story.  But what happened to them?

Condors have suffered from a deadly combination of human activities. Their habitat was destroyed and they were shot by people who mistakenly believed condors were predators of livestock. Condors, however, are scavengers—carrion feeders, not predators. They only eat animals that have already died. 

Pesticides also have contributed to their decline. DDE, a breakdown biproduct of the pesticide DDT, was released in large amounts, especially in Southern California. DDE bioaccumulates in body tissue—the chemical is stored in fat layers once ingested, resulting in higher and higher concentrations in the body over time. The carcasses of marine mammals with thick fat layers, such as seals and whales, make up a significant part of the diet of coast populations of condors. 

In birds such as eagles and condors, DDE results in thin-shelled eggs that are easily cracked when parent birds try to incubate them. Although use of DDT in the U.S. was banned in the 1970s, marine mammals traveling to Southern California and Mexico still ingest DDE and other toxins such as PCB, an oily substance used to insulate electrical transmission systems. 

Today, however, Chris West and Dave Roemer agree that lead poisoning is the most significant problem for condors. Lead from ammunition remains in wildlife carcasses that are then ingested by condors. Lead ammunition was banned in California in 2014 but will be available to hunters on shelves through 2019. The first chick born in a redwood snag near Big Sur died, not from a forest fire in the area, but from deadly levels of lead in its blood system.  Condors in release programs must be tested for lead and treated if blood samples show high levels of lead.

In 1987, biologists feared the extinction of this continent’s largest soaring bird was near. They captured the last bird and moved it to a zoo along with the 25 or so other remaining condors for protection. Biologists used these...captured birds to study their natural history and breeding. Thanks in large part to those researchers, condors were eventually released as experimental populations in Southern California, Arizona and Big Sur. “Experimental populations” can be manipulated to study how to assure their successful reentry to the environment and can be moved to re-populate their original habitat.  

Biologists believe the North Coast could play a significant role in insuring continued condor recovery. Studies have found that northern marine mammals have lower levels of dangerous toxins in their bodies than some southern populations.  Less toxic food, combined with the eventual reduction in lead from ammunition, might provide a window of recovery for condors here along the North Coast.  

The Plan:Birds of varying ages (including adults) could be brought from existing experimental populations in the west-—as well, perhaps, as some of the captive-raised birds—to assure genetic diversity and adaptation for younger birds. Birds would be placed in protected natural areas where they can gain experience and survival skills in their former native environment. Biologists would continue to minimize any human contact with the condors to assure the birds can survive independently from human intervention. The birds and their offspring would, for now, require testing for lead and other toxins. Including birds of varying ages should enable the experimental population here to gain a jump start on reoccupying historic habitat.  The hope is that older condors that have adjusted to their environment will be able to teach younger birds to
socialize and survive. 

Condors in Northern California offer researchers an opportunity to gain important information on survival of wild condors.  Primary partners in the program so far include the Yurok Tribe, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Many other partnerships will likely develop as the program progresses. Principal leaders are talking with other tribes as well such as Hoopa, Karuk and the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. Other potential partners include the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, a host of state agencies, the Portland Zoo and Oakland Zoo. Sequoia Park Zoo has offered to provide quick veterinary treatment for birds suffering from toxin poisoning or injury.

What You Can Do: Public meetings have been scheduled in January to discuss the condor reintroduction proposal and get public feedback. 

Jan. 23: Sacramento (6-8 p.m.): Federal Building. 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, CA

Jan. 24: Eureka (6-8 p.m.): Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, Eureka, CA

Jan. 25: Klamath (10 a.m. -12 p.m.): Klamath, CA

Jan. 25: Medford (6-8 p.m.): Jackson County Auditorium, Central Point, OR

Jan. 26: Portand (6-8 p.m.): Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR

The End Game: When asked, “What does success look like?”  Dave Roemer responded, “De-listing [from the endangered species list]. Delisting means the bird has recovered and can exist without continued human manipulation; it is free again.” 

Chris West agreed: “I look to a time when you can be in the backcountry and see a condor and not be able to identify the bird because of a tag or location transmitter attached to its wing; [When] condors are safe on the landscape with no human intervention.” Success will look different to different people but perhaps for tribal people, success is one more step toward putting the world back in balance. 

You can learn more about the Yurok’s program by listening to a 2013 radio interview with Chris West, Mike Palermo and Tiana Williams with the Yurok Tribe about the Yurok condor reintroduction program at www.yournec.org/ENR/ENR080813.

To learn more about the Yurok Tribe Condor Program or to donate toward condor reintroduction, visit www.yuroktribe.org/departments/selfgovern/wildlife_program/condor/condorproject.htm.

All photos on this page by Gavin Emmons, National Park Service (NPS).

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