California condors have been absent from the Pacific Northwest for over a century. But the Yurok tribe — whose ancestors lived along the Klamath River in Northern California — still revere and celebrate them. According to their beliefs, when the creator asked each animal spirit to deliver a prayer in song, the California condor uttered the most beautiful prayer of all. The sight of a condor flying over the redwoods has been erased from living memory, and, as tribe chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke told Audubon last March, “His absence is a hole in our hearts.”
Yurok elders resolved to reintroduce condors to their ancestral lands in 2003. Since then, the tribe has garnered support from the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as 14 other agencies and organizations. Before receiving widespread backing, however, the tribe hired biologists to study the landscape and answer one crucial question: Will reintroduction in Northern California be successful?
In 1982, only 22 California condors remained on Earth, and the species seemed doomed to extinction. Their chief threat was (and is) lead poisoning from carcasses contaminated by lead ammunition. By the time condors seized the attention of researchers, as a species worth studying and saving, the only remaining populations lived in Southern California. When reintroduction programs began in the ‘90s, it seemed like less of a gamble to start where condors had last been observed.
But now, two decades later — after successful breeding programs at San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland and Oregon Zoos — we have enough condors to go around, a surplus if you will, and Yurok tribe biologists regard reintroduction in Northern California with well-founded optimism.
In September, Yurok tribe biologists published results from a multi-year study measuring lead and other contaminants in the Klamath River area. (They published their results, coincidentally, in The Condor: Ornithological Applications.) From 2009 until 2013, they captured turkey vultures and common ravens using no-kill traps baited with carrion. Like the California condor, vultures and ravens are scavengers likely to ingest lead ammunition. The biologists drew blood from each bird and sent the samples to Michigan State University, where they were analyzed for lead.
Results show that lead continues to be a risk, but that it shouldn’t render a reintroduction program futile. Lead concentration among common ravens increased six-fold during the hunting season compared to the offseason, and nearly a quarter of turkey vultures showed “elevated” levels of lead in their blood, which indicates exposure to a point source. On the other hand, a statewide lead ammunition ban takes effect in 2019, which should reduce lead in carcasses. Although Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned the federal ban on using lead ammunition in wildlife refuges, California’s ban remains intact, at least for now. (external link)
Even so, the Yurok tribe doesn’t expect regulatory processes to be a cure-all for condors. The tribe’s Hunters as Stewards program disseminates information through Northern California and Oregon to gun clubs and other circles, hoping to persuade hunters to give up lead ammunition on their own accord. If all goes well, the sight of a condor flying over the redwoods and across the Klamath River will soon become a reality.