For the first time in more than a century, the shadow of the great-winged California condor may soon be cast on the North Coast after an agreement to reintroduce the majestic bird locally was signed between the Yurok Tribe, a conservation group and numerous government agencies.
Over the last five years, the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Program -- with the aid of several government agencies -- has performed studies to determine whether the endangered avian could be reintroduced back to the North Coast. After the studies showed promising results, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed last month between the tribe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, California Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society to work toward reintroducing captive-bred condors to the region.
Program director and wildlife biologist Chris West said he is “optimistic,” but also “cautious.”
”We can all sit down and brainstorm to see what the condor needs to survive to make this program successful, but there could be things we haven't thought of yet,” West said. “We are trying to get as many qualified specialists to talk about those potential issues before we get the birds out there into an environment where they're taking the brunt of things we maybe hadn't thought of.”
Once spanning from Baja California to British Columbia and tracing its origins back to the time of the sabertooth cat over 10,000 years ago, the condor population dwindled toward extinction during the late 20th century, with only 22 birds remaining by 1987.
West said that the condors' disappearance from the North Coast during the late 19th century was also influenced by a lack of resources -- mainly dead seal and sea lion carcasses to feed on.
Recognizing the birds were leaning over the brink of extinction, the remaining condors were taken into captivity at the San Diego Safari Park and Los Angeles Zoo in an attempt to save the species. Since the California Condor Recovery Program was implemented 20 years ago, the population has risen to more than 400 birds, with about 230 in the wild.
In order to bring the condors to Northern California, the interdisciplinary group will determine the logistics behind the reintroduction, including what sites are most suitable, how many birds will be used and how they will be monitored. The findings will be presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for final approval.
West said he hopes to have six condors released to start off, but the group will make that decision together.
”They aren't really the loners people considered them to be, and really function as a larger flock,” West said. “Releasing a group is really the best thing for the bird. It makes it a safer environment, which they can team up in to move across the landscape to find food and other resources.”
Like the common turkey vulture, California condors have bald heads, a trait that helps keep them clean and disease-free when feeding on dead animal carcasses. Condors are the nation's largest bird, with wingspans up to 9 feet. They can fly as far as 150 miles to find their next meal. As condors have been reintroduced in the central and southern portions of the state, West said adding a northern population will strengthen the recovery efforts.
”With all the food resources coming back and the way that the forest is being more thoughtfully managed, the North Coast is probably a great habitat,” West said.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Matt Baun said having populations in different locations will lend to the program's overall effectiveness.
”Smaller, more dispersed release sites will increase recovery, as it will reduce a single catastrophic event from wiping them out,” Baun said.
With Redwood National and State Parks aiding in the tribe's past feasibility studies, park Chief Resource Management and Science coordinator Dave Roemer said he is excited at the prospect of condors returning to their lost habitat -- especially as a birder.
”What could be cooler than seeing those birds flying over the redwoods and linking the past to the present, as well as to the future,” Roemer said. “I think any national park unit would feel honored to have a successful species reintroduction.”
West said the condors will likely be tracked by wildlife biologists using satellite and radio transmitters attached to wing and tail feathers. The researchers will note whether birds are using certain areas more frequently and what the root of certain behaviors may be.
Yurok wildlife biologist Tiana Williams said it is important to the tribe to play a role in reintroducing the condors because they play such a large role in their culture and history.
”Condor feathers are used in the Jump Dance and White Deerskin Dance, and there is also a song called 'The condor song,'” Williams said. “It is considered to be very powerful. A former tribal councilman once said that as the condor flies the highest, he is the one who gets our prayer to the Creator.”
The costs of the statewide recovery effort have added up to more than $40 million during the last 20 years, with about half of the funds paid by government agencies. West said this reintroduction study is estimated to cost about $400,000, but public funding is not going to be a likely option.
”For this to be a long-term project, we need to diversify our funding base by reaching out to private foundations, tapping into potential funders and also asking other North Coast tribes to be a part of our efforts,” West said.
Though he would love to see the condors soaring above the Yurok tribal lands once again, West said much more needs to be worked out over the coming months.
”This is going to be a work in progress, adaptively moving toward the goal of the group,” West said. “Right now, we don't even have the entire group set up yet. We haven't even sat down at the same table. There is not any kind of rush being put on this.”
At a glance: California condors
Length: 46 to 53 inches
Weight: 15 to 21 pounds
Wingspan: 9 feet
Nesting: Cliffs and tree cavities
Breeding: Lays one egg, usually every other year
Maturity: Begin breeding at 6 to 8 years
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology