California Condor May Fly Over the Northcoast Again
The high-flying California Condor, believed by members of the local Yurok Tribe to carry their prayers to the heavens, may once again soar overhead here on the Tribe’s ancestral lands, thanks to a multi-agency effort to expand the range of this critically endangered bird.
In a time when environmental concerns are being pushed aside and hopelessness grows among those who follow the numbers and observe the trends, this beacon of life’s tenacity is a welcome symbol of survival.
The Yurok Tribe, along with Redwood National Park and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have been working on a plan to reintroduce the condor on the Tribe’s traditional lands since 2003. The project is going through the final planning stages with an estimated time of first release being Fall of 2019.
Yurok tribal member and wildlife biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen has been involved since the project’s inception. In 2003 a Yurok panel designated to help prioritize actions to be taken toward restoring Yurok ancestral territories decided that the California Condor was the most important terrestrial species to restore to Yurok territory. Understanding that traditional practices mixed with modern scientific input would be the best method to advance the Tribe’s wishes, the Tribe began working toward a plan to gather cultural knowledge of the condor’s ancestral role while conducting habitat assessments to ensure a safe homecoming for the bird.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service first gave funding to the Tribe in 2008 to begin habitat analyses. Because of logging and agricultural practices having altered the ecology of the bird’s onetime habitat since condors last flourished here, data needed to show that the great birds would have ample space and foraging opportunities in the changed landscape. Unlike other scavengers, such as our locally abundant turkey vultures who will eat smaller carrion, the condor is better suited to larger animals like deer, elk and marine mammals by virtue of its huge bill and strength. The smaller turkey vultures, abundant in our area, are less able to tear into the larger animals’ hides.
“The landscape characteristics that make Yurok ancestral territory such a good home have remained relatively constant,” says Williams-Claussen. Great foraging and flight corridors are still present, and Williams-Claussen notes that Redwood National Park’s Bald Hills area is an especially promising habitat for the condors.
Lead poisoning, which contributed to the demise of the condor throughout last century, may be less of a factor in Humboldt, where tested levels in surrogate species like turkey vultures are seemingly lower than in areas already supporting new condor populations. Also encouraging is the vast remoteness of local habitat, important for a bird that may fly over 150 miles one way in search of a meal.
The long bureaucratic road to approval, which will culminate in an approval process under the jurisdiction of the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act is moving towards the writing of an Environmental Assessment (EA) which is expected to include a recommendation by the tribe and agencies. At present, the thousands of comments submitted during the original scoping sessions are being compiled and sorted so that when the EA comes out early this summer it will include responses to major concerns.
The writing of the EA, a joint process of the co-leads of the project (US Fish and Wildlife Service, Redwood National Park and the Yurok Tribe) as well a specialized environmental contractor will also include a digest of all of the scientific analyses performed so far that support the project.
At present, two of the multiple alternatives proposed have stood out. The first would be for the full protection of the released birds as spelled out under the Endangered Species Act. This would make any disturbance of the condors, accidental or not, a federal violation. A second alternative would be to designate the project “10j” which would allow the managers to tailor what constitutes a violation to the concerns of the project’s many stakeholders, allowing more local input and control. The latter is seen as a relaxation of protection, allowing local stakeholders and land managers more freedom to manage the project as they wish as long as best practices are followed to protect the environment, including condors.
“The 10j designation would enable us to make sure the practices of our stakeholders are less infringed upon,” says Williams-Claussen. “We have spent a long time working with all of our partners to ensure safe and effective management that makes sense to all. The cool thing about this project is the coordination and partnership that has come about between all of the parties involved,” she continued. “At the Eureka scoping session there was a huge amount of positivity and excitement, including a lot of great suggestions.”
For Williams-Claussen and other local tribal members, the project goes deeper than merely restoring a species to a former habitat.
“There are clear parallels between restoring the condor and restoring the Yurok people themselves. We went through a really hard time after contact,” says Willams-Claussen. “It was illegal to be Indian. We were forced off our lands and a lot of our territory was destroyed. We weren’t allowed to practice our ceremonies openly or speak our language, but we are committed to restoring our culture. When we pray for our wildlife, our wildlife pray for us. One of our beliefs is that when you include the condor feather in a dance, his spirit is included with that dance as well. It’s all very integrated. We came very close to losing some significant parts of ourselves, including the White Deerskin Dance.”
According to Williams-Claussen, it was only through great commitment of tribal elders along with a huge coordination effort that the dance was restored and is now being performed every two years. Because the ceremony’s purpose is to renew and restore the earth, its comeback symbolizes the tribe’s recommitment to restoring itself as well as the many creatures with which the Yurok share their ancestral lands, including the hugely significant condor.
During a public scoping meeting in December 2016, Williams-Claussen recalled seeing a condor for the first time. “There’s really nothing like a condor, there’s no other way to say it. I remember the first time I saw one from afar and I realized I was seeing him from miles away. He was so huge, you can’t even describe it until you are right next to one.” Williams-Claussen was visiting Ventana Wildlife Society as part of an effort to help the facility rebuild after a fire. “I put my arms around one and it was like holding a bear.”
Condor feathers are used in Yurok regalia and Yurok tribal council member Joe James says the bird’s feathers are used in the tribe’s White Deerskin Dance and Jump Dance, both ceremonies performed to renew and maintain the earth’s vitality.
James says, “It’s part of the balance that makes us whole as Indian people, to bring this bird back. People talk about paying it forward, but this is paying it backwards, with respect for our ancestors who were able to see this bird at one time.”
Willams-Claussen describes the sound of the condor’s feathers when one flew by close to her. “I could hear the zzzzing of the air as it rushed through his feathers. I don’t know why, but that was so impactful to me.”
The magnificent scavenger once ranged widely over the west and thousands of years ago was present even in Florida and New York. Their range still covered most of the west, from Idaho, Utah, and Arizona to the Pacific Ocean at the time of the arrival of European Settlers.Yet numbers dropped dramatically over the course of much of the twentieth century, indicating a near certainty of extinction. A daring and unproven experiment began in the mid-1980’s when all of the remaining 22 free-flying condors were captured to be bred in captivity in the hopes of saving the species.The birds reproduced well in captivity and in 1995 reintroductions began in Southern California with new release sites eventually established in Central California, Arizona, and Baja California. The reintroduction program is considered a success, with over 400 condors now living, 270 of them in the wild.
A major milestone was reached in 2015 when more condors were hatched in the wild than died. Because it takes condors six years to reach breeding age and because pairs only produce one egg every other year, wild breeding success has been a delicate balance that continues to draw attention to ongoing threats to condor success.
That the local landscape can provide the space, habitat, and food necessary to support another population is a tremendous step for the species and for the Yurok who take very seriously their role in the preservation of the well-being of the planet. According to Williams-Claussen, the condors’ cleaning up carcasses from the landscape, turning death into life, acts as an agent of renewal and in a meaningful way symbolizes the cultural renewal of the Yurok people also demonstrated through removal of dams, revival of the language, reconnection of youth to tribal culture, and revitalization of nearly lost ceremonies.
As condors may once again carry the tribe’s prayers to the heavens, perhaps this one small corner of creation will carry a hopeful message of renewal and restoration abroad.