Tribe, park collaboration represents next evolution in endangered species recovery
At 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, May 3, the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National and State Parks will facilitate the release of the first two California condors to take flight in the center of the bird’s former range since 1892. Prior to their release, the condors must voluntarily enter a designated staging area with access to the outside world. If the birds do not enter the transition zone by 4pm, a second attempt to release the birds will occur at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 4. The carefully designed release procedure is one component of a comprehensive management plan for the reintroduction.
“For countless generations, the Yurok people have upheld a sacred responsibility to maintain balance in the natural world. Condor reintroduction is a real life manifestation of our cultural commitment to restore and protect the planet for future generations,” said Joseph L. James, the Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. On behalf of the Yurok Tribe, I would like to thank all of the individuals, agencies and organizations that helped us prepare to welcome prey-go-neesh condor back to our home land."
“The return of the condors to the skies over the redwoods represents a significant milestone in the restoration of this magnificent forest to its former glory,” remarked Redwood National and State Park Superintendent Steve Mietz. “This project is a model for listening to and following the lead of the park’s original stewards, healing both our relationship with the land and its original people."
“The reintroduction of condors into Northern California is truly a monumental moment,” said Paul Souza, Regional Director for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region. “This effort builds upon the program’s collective knowledge and history of releasing condors and showcases the benefit of partnering with Tribes and others to implement recovery of listed species. We are proud to support this collaborative and innovative partnership with the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National Park. Together we can recover listed species for future generations.”
The livestream will begin at 7:30 on the Yurok Tribe’s Facebook page, which can be found here: www.facebook.com/TheYurokTribe/. The livestream can also be viewed here: https://www.yuroktribe.org/yurok-condor-live-feed
Comprised of biologists and technicians from the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National Park, the Northern California Condor Restoration Program (NCCRP) will collaboratively manage the flock from a newly constructed condor release and management facility in Northern California, near the Klamath River. The NCCRP team will work collaboratively with the other condor field teams as part of the larger California Condor Recovery Program guided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).
Two more condors will be released at a later date. Staggering condor releases is a management strategy that allows close observation and management of individual birds. Following releases, biologists must monitor condors to see that they display appropriate behavior. The four condors, including one female and three males, are between two and four years old, which is within the ideal age range for the successfully releasing condors to thrive in the wild. Two of the males were hatched at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho. The other two condors were hatched at the Oregon Zoo and raised at the Idaho center. In September, the four birds were transferred to the Ventana Wildlife Society’s flight pen in San Simeon while finishing touches were put on the NCCRP facility. They were transported to the NCCRP site in late March.
Over the last 30 years, the Service’s California Condor Recovery Program has developed an exceptionally effective blueprint to guide the reintroduction process, which begins long before the birds are released. For example, reintroduced condors are reared in large flight pens with exposure to the natural environment and when possible, other condors of various ages for mentorship. The extremely social avian scavengers acquire life skills from their elders and their own experiences. Elder or mentor birds assist the juvenile condors in obtaining the worldly knowledge they need to survive outside of captivity. The World Center for Birds of Prey provided the NCCRP a seven-year-old condor to fulfill this important function for the four birds as they transition into the wild. Condor 746 will remain in the flight pen and is expected to mentor future release birds at this location. Similar to the reintroduced condors in Arizona, the Northern California flock will be considered a nonessential, experimental population under the Endangered Species Act. This pragmatic approach was selected because it has proven to be an effective method of recovering federally listed species. Additionally, the stakeholder driven strategy better facilitates proactive conservation and reduces the regulatory impact of reintroducing a federally listed species.
At regular intervals, the NCCRP will be releasing new condor cohorts into Redwood National Park. Over time, the birds are expected to disperse across Northern California and Southern Oregon. Through careful management, the NCCRP’s primary goal is to develop a self-sustaining condor population in the rural region, which will fill a currently vacant ecological niche in the redwood forest ecosystem as well as aid in the overall recovery of the species.
“Every year, the Yurok Tribe completes multiple, largescale river and forest habitat improvement projects in our ancestral territory. We also manage a 15,000-acre Old Growth Redwood-Forest and Salmon Sanctuary. Condor reintroduction is a major part of our long-term plan to restore the diverse ecosystems within our homeland,” said Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman. “As a people, we will not recover from the traumas of the last century until we fix our environment because our culture, our ceremonies, our wellbeing and our identity are inextricably linked to the landscape.”
Yurok Connection to the Condor
For the Yurok Tribe, the recovery of this sacred species signifies significant progress toward the restoration of an intricately interconnected ecosystem and the people who are responsible for taking care of it. Prey-go-neesh plays a principal role in the Yurok creation story and is prominently featured in the Tribe’s White Deerskin Dance and Jump Dance. During the ten-day world renewal ceremonies, the condor is represented via the fallen feathers incorporated into tribal regalia and prayers for the earth and all of its inhabitants.
“The loss of the condor has limited our capacity to be Yurok because prey-go-neesh is such an important part of our culture and traditions. In a very real way, restoring condor habitat and returning condor to Yurok skies is a clear restoration of the Yurok people, homeland, ecological systems, culture, and lifeway,” added Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen, a Yurok citizen and traditional culture bearer, who has dedicated her entire professional career to condor reintroduction. “I have a 3-year-old-daughter. She is going to grow up with condors in her sky for her entire life. She is not going to know what it is to miss condors. She will always live in relationship with condors, which is really what this project is all about — bringing condor home, back into our communities, back into our conversations, back into our households, and into the minds and hearts of our children on behalf of the hearts of our elders.”
The Yurok Tribe started working in earnest on condor reintroduction in 2008.The Yurok received a tribal wildlife grant from the Service to conduct a study to determine if Yurok ancestral territory could still support North America’s largest terrestrial bird. With support from Redwood National Park, the Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the Administration for Native Americans, Pacific Gas and Electric and many other contributors, such as the Global Conservation Fund and the Redwood National Park Foundation, the Yurok Wildlife Department completed the tremendous amount of work required to reintroduce a critically endangered species. The following tasks represent a small fraction of what they had to accomplish in order to make condor reintroduction a reality: extensive environmental assessments, contaminant analyses, constant fundraising, planning, designing and constructing facilities, performing intensive community outreach and coordinating with numerous stakeholders and collaborators.
“The National Park Foundation is excited to be part of this collective effort to welcome the iconic California condors back to their historic range,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation (NPF). “This celebratory moment affirms the importance of long-term collaborations between the NPF, the National Park Service, Tribes, and other essential partners and should serve as a model for future partnerships.”
The Plight of the Condor
The decline of the condor started shortly after arrival of European settlers in the American West. During the Gold Rush era, numerous condors were shot for sport and collected for museum displays, while others succumbed to poisons used to eradicate large predators, such as grizzly bears and wolves. One of the first species placed on the federal endangered species list, condor numbers continuously plummeted from 1800 to the 1980s, when a fortuitous decision was made to collect the last 22 birds from the wild and establish the first captive breeding program to save the species. In 1983, the Service teamed up with the LA Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park to launch the first-ever captive breeding facilities. Today, thanks to the California Condor Recovery Program’s continued success, approximately 300 wild condors are flying free in California, the Southwest and Baja California. There are now four captive breeding centers, which supply birds for the release sites in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Northern California Condor Restoration Program facility.
On-the-ground efforts have been led by Senior Biologist and Yurok Condor Restoration Program Manager Chris West, who has nearly 25 years of condor research and management experience. Working in collaboration with the Ventana Wildlife Society, the Tribe designed and built the NCCRP release and management facility on National Parks land. The cutting-edge facility boasts a blend of the best elements from all of the rearing and release sites in the US. The flight pen has a simulated, shock-wired power pole (to teach the birds to avoid this threat after release), two four-foot diameter pools, and a perch overlooking the redwood forest. Two high-definition cameras stream a live feed from the site, which is available here. Yurok Condor Program staff can observe the birds on-site from custom-modified shipping containers which form a fire-resistant structure, complete with isolation pens, where birds will receive regular health assessments and
treatment if needed.
“We are fortunate to be able to develop our program based on an immense quantity of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and thirty years of real-world condor recovery experience from our partners within the California Condor Recovery Program. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. For these reasons, I have no doubt that our reintroduction will serve as a gateway to bring the condor back to the Pacific Northwest,” concluded West.