SOUTHERN OREGON and NORTHERN CALIFORNIA — Southern Oregonians and those in the Northstate area could soon see some of the country's rarest and largest birds flying overhead after it disappeared from its native landscape over a century ago.
After over a decade of work towards re-introducing California Condors into the Redwood National Forrest areas, the Yurok Tribe finally received a clear Environment Impact Statement last year and has successfully built a re-introduction and handling facility.
The first four juvenile condors are currently receiving mentorship from an elder bird at the facility and are scheduled for release in the coming weeks.
The Yurok Tribe initiated the process of applying for re-introduction in 2003. Tiana Williams-Claussen, Director of the tribe's Wildlife Department said the decision was made by tribal elders.
"(They) understood how deeply culturally important they (condors) were to us as a species," she said "They relate to our foundational reasons for being which is as world renewal people and contributing to our world renewal ceremonies which we consider to be our high ceremonies."
She said elders deemed condors to be "the single most important species to bring back to Yurok ancestral territory."
In 2008 the tribe received funding from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin a feasibility analysis for re-introduction.
"We spent the first few years working on "does our landscape have the habitat requirements that they need for their life sufficiency? Is there sufficient roosting and nesting and foraging opportunities," she said ultimately the analysis did not find that the landscape had changed enough to impede upon the re-introduction of a bird that she said is "actually highly resilient."
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, "as people settled the West, they often shot, poisoned, captured, and disturbed the condors, collected their eggs, and reduced their food supply of antelope, elk, and other large wild animals."
These factors along with contamination from lead and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a pesticide that was used widely before it was banned in the '70s due to its environmental impacts, caused the species to become nearly extinct.
In the 1970s biologists and conservationists counted only 27 total birds. The species was the first to be listed federally on the Endangered Species Act. To prevent extinction in the mid-1980s federal conservation programs brought all of the remaining condors from the wild into zoos for breeding and protection.
Through successful reintroduction programs across the nation, the condor population has increased to over 500 with 300 of those successfully re-introduced in central California (including release sites in the Big Sur area and Pinnacles National Park), southern California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. The Arizona population has expanded into Utah.
"They are just this incredible comeback story, their conservation has been going on for decades now with countless individuals contributing to it with just so much love from the national and even international community," Williams-Claussen said.
She noted that since residual DDT is not a significant issue in Northern California, one of the major hurdles to the successful re-integration of the condor is lead contamination. She explained that condors, like Ravens, Turkey Vultures and Bald Eagles are highly susceptible to mercury poisoning through lead.
When studying the other species, the initial assessment for condor re-introduction in Northern California, found high levels of lead contamination. Williams-Claussen said the main source is lead ammunition left inside hunters' discarded gut piles.
She noted that this is chiefly unintentional. Studies that have looked at contamination through lead ammunition are relatively recent and have not yet translated into widespread public knowledge.
As part of the re-introduction efforts, the Tribe has also been working with the hunting community to shift ammunition use towards non-lead alternatives such as copper and steel.
She said the effort began, "first, within our tribal community then expanding outwards into the border community."
"Anywhere from 85 to 95 percent of the hunters we talked to said A, "I had no idea this was an issue --that there is this much contamination in the meet and gut pile," and B, "of course I will make the switch to non-led alternatives," she said.
The Oregon Zoo which provided two of the Nothern California facilities' birds is also working with the Oregon Hunting community to bring about a shift towards non-lead alternatives.
Leland Brown, who heads up the Zoo's Non-Led Hunting Education program that started in 2015, said it is important to look at the initiative as a collaboration with the hunting community which he described as in favor of conservation efforts and willing to participate in the preservation of the species.
"Our program is really about working in partnership with hunters to learn about what options are available what is actually happening on the landscape," he said. He noted that non-lead alternatives like copper can be sometimes marginally more expensive than lead but said the program does offer some incentives for switching over.
"Hunters are not going out there saying "hey you know what I want to do today is leave this (gut pile) behind and have an Eagle come in and feed on it," he said. "It's just incidental, its stuff we need to learn about we need to figure out and we need to work together to find out what the best solution are to continue to have hunters going out there buying licenses providing all of that funding also providing those food sources and engaging with being out in the field as conservationists."
Brown said he actually learned about the dangers of lead ammunition while he was working to remove invasive species in the wild.
"I worked down and Pinnacle National Park doing a feral pig removal project and that is where I was introduced to a lot of this information," he said. "I got asked to use non-lead ammunition and probably had the same response as most hunters when they first hear this information it's just, "what is that, why would I do that? how does it work."
He said that is also the first time he saw condors out in the wild.
"I was removing these invasive species these feral pigs on the landscape and had condors flying overhead while I was doing it," he said. "They are impressive birds and really important for the Yurok Tribe obviously and their history and traditions but also just generally to make sure that we are recovering the species that we have had impacts on."
The partnership with the Oregon Hunting community is integral to the species' success because the rare bird can fly up to 200 miles in one day so it is likely that Southern Oregonians will begin to see the impressive sight in a year or two once the young birds have had a chance to acclimate to their environment.
Williams-Claussen said the re-introduction facility came together thanks to a partnership with 16 different organizations between non-profits as well as federal and state agencies.