“A sacred responsibility”: the Yurok tribe prepares to send the condors back into the sky | California
Nestled among tall redwoods in a remote part of northern California, four young California condors await their chance to take flight.
The fluffy juveniles – housed in a facility where they playfully peck each other and hop between perches – will help usher in a new era. Designated as prey-go-neesh by the Yurok people who call this land home, the Sacred Scavengers are the first group to be reintroduced to their original range since disappearing from the region over a century ago.
“For countless generations, the Yurok people have borne the sacred responsibility of maintaining balance in the natural world,” said Joseph L James, Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “The reintroduction of Condor is a concrete manifestation of our cultural commitment to restoring and protecting the planet for future generations.”
The California condor, the largest flying bird in North America, with a wingspan that spans between 9 and 10 feet, was one of the first animals listed as endangered. Once abundant in the skies of Northern California, the birds were pushed to the brink of extinction by white settlers who arrived during the Gold Rush. They have not been seen in northern California since 1892. By the 1980s, there were fewer than two dozen left in the wild, and the few survivors were taken captive for protection.
Since then, around 300 have been released back into the wild, but this is the first time they will be released in northern California. If successful, the plan would help restore this majestic ecosystem to its former glory and cement the partnership between the Yurok Tribe and the state and federal agencies working to restore it.
After decades of planning, the release could be in a few weeks. The process is long and deliberate, a carefully considered strategy to ensure the survival of young birds in the wild.
Work began in 2008, when the tribe received a federal grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine if condors could still live in their historic but rapidly changing range. Once it was clear they could survive, the tribe designed and built the condor release management facility on park land. The remote site includes all the young birds they need to acclimatize as they take small steps towards freedom.
There is a mock utility pole, two small pools, and a perch with a view of the tall redwoods that line the ridge. Two high-definition cameras give handlers and the public a glimpse of them through a live feed, and the custom-welded shipping containers they’re housed in provide a fire-resistant viewing station where birds can receive examinations and treatment. The three chicks – 3 males and 1 female, all two to three years old – are now almost ready to be released.
Facing 40 miles of rugged coastline, the area where they will be released was once rich with life. Ancient redwoods and grassland systems have supported thriving salmon runs traversed by elk, bears, deer and mountain lions. The discovery of gold in the 1800s brought settlers to the area who felled trees, developed the landscape, and slaughtered the indigenous people who lived and cared for the land.
The legacy of these atrocities lives on. Even though the Yurok people and park officials work together to restore balance to the land, about two-thirds of the park is at risk, damaged by logging and industry. The birds could be threatened by toxic contaminants including lead poisoning from ammunition left in game, pesticides from nearby agricultural centers and DDT which persisted in the environment long after it was banned. The climate crisis will also bring new dangers related to fires and drought.
But those who have worked hard to bring the condors home have been careful to consider the risks and are confident that the condors will thrive.
“We always look back to help guide our future,” Tribe Vice President Frankie Myers said, speaking to a small group of reporters gathered in the snow outside the facility. “We look to our elders, to those who have gone before us, to guide us. We believe that is what they wanted us to achieve.
Learn to survive in nature
In the wild, baby birds are followed by their parents as they learn to fly and survive on their own. These birds don’t have their parents to show them the ropes, but an older mentor, a nearly eight-year-old male, has been housed with the juveniles to teach them.
Young condors also learn by observing red-headed vultures and crows, other scavengers they will interact with around carcasses, while navigating the terrain. The bait has been left outside the enclosure and the juveniles can already see other birds feasting nearby. When the condors are ready, they will be released directly into a feeding event.
“It allows them to dominate the red-headed vultures – which is really a good thing – and they get a food reward,” said Chris West, Yurok Condor’s restoration program manager. “Much of condor social life happens around carcasses,” he added. “It’s like sitting around the dinner table and chatting with family and friends.”
Two condors will first be released together; then the last two, one at a time. The mentor will remain in the pen, attracting the newly released birds to socialize and eat, and giving program officers the ability to monitor them or take them back if something goes wrong.
Even after their release, they will be closely monitored. Each bird will be equipped with a radio transmitter and cellular satellite hybrid transmitters that will provide key GPS data. It will also emit mortality signals if the condor stops moving. Workers will then be able to find the birds and rescue them if they are injured or sick, or recover deceased condors for autopsy and analysis to better understand why they perished.
Twice a year, the condors will be recaptured for control. Blood tests will be taken to check for lead or other toxins and their transmitters will be replaced. Program officials said keeping a close eye on the condors is an important part of ensuring success.
Condors are slow breeders and do not mate until they reach maturity around eight years of age. Females produce only one egg every two years. Their wild population growth will be slow, but it will be supplemented by between four and six condors expected to be released each year for the next two decades. There is hope that, by the end of the 20-year program, over a hundred birds could inhabit the area.
A new kind of collaboration
Even with strict monitoring, risks remain. Lead bullets left in game continue to be one of the main killers of condors in the wild, a problem Yurok leaders are working directly with hunters to solve.
Rising temperatures, intensifying drought and forest fires also pose a deadly threat. Condors in other parts of the state have already lost their lives in fires, including the 2020 Dolan Fire in Big Sur.
But in addition to bringing lost species back to earth, officials and tribal leaders hope to build resilience and balance. This release and the future of California condors in this region is not limited to conservation.
Looking ahead, those involved in the project say the collaboration between the tribe and US government officials, including those at California State Parks and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is indicative of a new era. collaboration and common purpose.
“We are listening to the original people and following their lead in how we manage the park to restore this badly damaged landscape,” said Superintendent Steven Mietz of Redwood National Park. “As we heal this landscape and bring back the condors, and begin to restore the majestic glory of the redwood forest, we also heal the relationship with each other and we heal our relationship with the original indigenous peoples. “
Healing the land will also help heal the people who once inhabited it.
“As a people, we will not recover from the traumas of the last century until we repair our environment,” said Myers, vice president of the Yurok Tribe. “Our culture, our ceremonies, our well-being and our identity are inextricably linked to the landscape.