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Bringing Prey-go-neesh Home

After a century, the condor may soon return to Yurok land

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In Yurok tradition, the condor is sacred.

Considered to be among Earth's first creatures and the one that carries their prayers to the Creator, the tribe's connection with the bird they call prey-go-neesh goes back to the beginning of time.

The condor also plays an integral role in the Yurok World Renewal dances — the White Deer Skin Dance and the Jump Dance — joining in the ceremonies that bring balance to the world through the gift of their feathers that are used for the dancers' regalia.

But more than a century has passed since the last known condors soared over the Yuroks' ancestral lands, meaning entire generations of elders have lived and died without ever seeing the majestic birds fly overhead.

That may change very soon, with the tribe on the brink of bringing the prey-go-neesh back home.

"In a very real way, in bringing the condor back to Yurok territory, we're not only physically restoring our world, we are culturally and spiritually restoring our world," says Tianna Williams-Claussen, a tribal member and wildlife biologist who has been working on the recovery project since its inception more than a decade ago.

Rooted in the Yurok Constitution's principles to "preserve and promote" the tribe's culture, language and religious beliefs, as well as restoring their land's natural resources, Williams-Claussen says a council of elders identified the condor as the first and most important terrestrial species to bring back.

"The condor was really the birth of the wildlife program for the Yurok Tribe," she says.

Still teetering on the edge of extinction, the birds were last seen in the region around the turn of the 20th century, decimated by settlers who poisoned and shot the condors, as well as depleted their food supply by overhunting the game and marine mammals on which they depended.

By 1982, only 22 remained in a small pocket of mountainous area in Southern California. Five years later, the last of the wild condors were placed into captive breeding programs in a race against time to save the largest bird in North America.

Over the intervening years, the California Condor Recovery Program has seen many success stories. From those handful of birds, there are now close to 500 and release sites are operating in California — including Big Sur and Pinnacles — as well as Arizona and Baja California, Mexico. But the species remains vulnerable.

The Redwood National Park location spearheaded by the Yurok Tribe would be the first effort to bring the endangered birds back to the northern reaches of its historic range, which once stretched to the Canadian border and east to Utah, Montana and Colorado.

Williams-Claussen says the hope is the release site slated for the Bald Hills area will act as a "gateway to the Pacific Northwest," where the last recorded sighting took place near Drain, Oregon, in 1940.

Now, if all goes as planned, the first condor in more than 100 years will once again glide over the North Coast by the fall of 2020.

"I'm having the opportunity to fulfill the prayers of my elders," says Williams- Claussen, a Del Norte County native and Harvard graduate, as her 10-month-old daughter babbles in the background.

Williams-Claussen pauses, saying that in many ways having a child brought her full circle in appreciating the immensity of what the recovery project will be accomplishing. Her daughter, she notes, will be among the "first generation to grow up with condors in the sky in more than 100 years."

Getting to this point has been a long journey, with the tribe reaching out to local landowners — both public and private — as well as federal and state agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which leads the California Condor Recovery Project with more than a dozen partners, to establish a collaborative effort.

The Yurok Tribe's wildlife team has spent the last decade laying the groundwork for the birds' return by mapping potential habitat, working to educate hunters about non-lead ammunition options and trapping fellow scavengers — turkey vultures and ravens — to test their blood for lead exposure, which is the single greatest threat to condors' survival in the wild.

The prep work also included the sampling of marine mammals, which are expected to be one of condors' major food sources, to check for toxins that could impede the already slow-to-reproduce birds' ability to successful lay and raise the one precious egg a female will produce every other year.

On top of that, condors are late bloomers for the avian world, not reaching sexual maturity for five to seven years. Add those stats to the condors' vulnerability to human interaction and an uphill battle for survival in a modern world is set.

At a recent Sequoia Park Zoo lecture, the tribe's senior biologist Chris West, who brings decades of condor reintroduction experience to the Yurok effort, used the dichotomy between how many chicks an eagle could potentially produce in a decade versus a California condor.

Over 10 years, a breeding eagle pair might hatch 20 to 30 eaglets while a condor couple would see a maximum of five offspring during that same time period.

"It's this slow reproduction cycle that does cause problems for condors," he says, noting "we don't know how long they live" but its cousin to the south, the Andean condor, has been known to live up to 80 years in captivity.

Joined by Williams-Claussen at the lecture, West also lays out plans for the local release — which he says all the research up to this stage indicates is a promising landing spot, including "quite an abundance of high quality" habitat and lower levels of lead in potential food sources than other areas where condors have been returned.

An additional benefit is the region's relatively low human population.

eWest says the releases will begin with a "cohort of six birds that had been well socialized during captivity for two to three years." They will be placed in a release management facility — basically a big, open cage — where they will live together for several months before their release.

If needed, West says the team can bring in what he calls "mentors," older condors that for one reason or another can't be released but have "valuable condor social skills that they can impart on these young birds."

From there, the condor cohort will have an opportunity to test out their wings while watching others in the wild, like turkey vultures, flying on the nearby air currents — which condors can soar on for hours, travelling up to 150 miles in a day.

After an acclimation period, the wildlife team will set out some carcasses to create a feeding opportunity with the local turkey vultures, then let the condors out to reclaim their historic top spot in the scavenger hierarchy.

Even though the condors will be out in the open, the wildlife team will be able to constantly monitor their whereabouts and will conduct annual trappings and testing of the birds to keep a close eye on their welfare.

It's something that Williams-Claussen, West and other members of the wildlife team have been practicing at other release sites in California.

With the lilt in her voice lifting a bit, Williams-Claussen describes what it's like to stand underneath a soaring condor displaying a wingspan of nearly 10 feet and handle one during a release, saying, "It's so hard to describe them unless you actually see how huge they are."

"It's a very impactful sort of moment," she says, adding that she had to fully extend her arms to reach around one.

Intelligent birds that are known to play with sticks or feathers, Williams-Claussen says condors are "very fun to watch" and definitely have individual personalities that become apparent if you spend enough time with them.

"They're very special creatures," she says. "They're definitely the boss of the scavengers. They're top dog."

Williams-Claussen laughs at the memory of watching how ravens would come up and tug at the feathers of condors during a feeding to try to irritate and distract them.

"They're just a lot of fun. ... They're very interesting," she says. "I'm looking forward to growing our own population here so we can get to know them as individuals, as well."

That goal is one step closer to reality with the opening of the public comment period on the environmental assessment report for the Northern California Restoration Program centered in Redwood National Park, which is required by National Environmental Policy Act.

Two public meetings on the 238-page document are scheduled to take place May 9, the first from 10 a.m. to noon at the Yurok Tribal headquarters in Klamath and the second from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Arcata Community Center.

"The condor plays an integral role in the Yurok Tribe's worldview, and as the condor population slowly rebuilds throughout its historical range, condors act as a powerful symbol to the Yurok Tribe, which is simultaneously taking steps to revive its own culture," the assessment states, noting the condor "also fulfills a renewal and healing role for several of the Yurok's neighboring tribes, including the Hupa, Karuk, Wiyot and Tolowa Dee-ni,'" as well as other tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

"The purpose of this action is to further the recovery of the California condor by establishing a new population in the species' historical range in the Pacific Northwest through captive releases at the park, while simultaneously reintroducing condors to Yurok Ancestral Territory."

Along with the many state and federal agencies playing a role in the Northern California Condor Recovery Project, the Sequoia Park Zoo — the oldest in California and one of the smallest in the nation — will be what Zoo Director Gretchen Ziegler describes as a "pretty pivotal, crucial link," providing a rehabilitation and treatment center if a bird falls ill.

Without the nearby zoo, the wildlife team would have to transport any sick condors north to Portland or south to Oakland. Ziegler says her staff, which has been training at other release sites, is "very excited" about being part of the effort.

Plans for a treatment center — funded by proceeds of a Zootini auction — are done and the simple building, basically comprised of holding pens, will be ready if needed by the time the first condors are set to fly.

"We are the only zoo facilities here that can do that kind of help," Ziegler says. "We've got the expertise in our staff and the staff presence here every day to work with sick condors."

While the vulnerable birds will not be on display for the condors' "calmness and protection," Ziegler says the zoo is working to fit the rehabilitation role into the visitor education experience by perhaps having a video feed of the holding pens or giving tours of the facilities when the building is not in use.

"It's just going to be hard to predict how often the facility will be in use with condors," she says.

The current goal of the recovery efforts is allowing the condor to build up a self-sustaining population that no longer needs to have its numbers boosted by captive breeding programs and then, ultimately, to reach the status West describes as "birds without tags."

"(It's) getting them to the point where they don't have to be monitored anymore, where they can just be out and be wild condors and they don't have to be messed with by us," West says.

Kimberly Wear is the Journal's assistant editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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