Shadow of the Condor: Act 3

A condor soars in the blue sky

Act 3: A Spark of Hope

On January 15th, 1992 hope sprang anew when two captive-raised condors, alongside a pair of Andean condors, were released into the wild by Red Star, a Chumash Indian, together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Together with chanting and the soft beating of a leather drum, Indigenous leaders helped encourage the condors out of the cave and back into the vast skies, once again. Unfortunately, the moment proved to be a bit anticlimactic as the mighty birds did not immediately take to the skies. Scientists later speculated that the particularly gusty winds that day caused their initial hesitation, which took a few hours to overcome.

This momentous, though slightly delayed, occasion would mark the beginning of a new chapter for the thunderbird. 

LA Times article describing the first rewilding of California condors.

Between that first condor release in 1992 to the present day, the total number of free-flying condors in the wild has risen to around 330. An effort to return a native species to its historic range is also known as “reintroduction” and for the condor, has mostly occurred at sites across the Southwest and Southern California, with plans underway to change that. 

A graphic from the Oregon Zoo charting the recovery of the California condor.

“All of these sites I'm talking about are kind of on the southern edge of what used to be California condor range at the time of Euro-American arrival to this area. But the birds at that time ranged all the way up into British Columbia, so there was a huge expanse of the northern portion of historical range that has not been tapped into by the recovery program.” 

- Chris West, Yurok Tribe Condor Restoration Program Manager

Which was a major reason the Yurok Tribe, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, began an effort to bring condors back to the Pacific Northwest skies. 

“The decision to return California condor, prey-go-neesh, to Yurok ancestral territory was made by a particular panel of elders called the Tribal Park Task Force who were chosen because of their capacity to speak about the natural resource restoration needs of the tribe and they actually voted all the way back in 2003 that prey-go-neesh was the number one most important terrestrial-based species to return to Yurok ancestral territory.”

- Tiana Williams-Claussen, Wildlife Department Director for the Yurok Tribe

Similarly, the Nez Perce tribe has begun exploring the possibility of a  future reintroduction of condors into Hells Canyon.

“Our first project for condors in this area was a detailed habitat assessment. So we looked at the Hells Canyon ecoregion, including the Snake River, the Grande Ronde, Imnaha, the Salmon River, lower Clearwater, Joseph Canyon, and we assessed habitat for condors within this huge landscape.”
 

- Angela Sondenaa, Wildlife Program Project Leader for the Nez Perce Tribe

“We also evaluated what we thought would be potential risks to having condors in this landscape. So many of our native lands are impacted by human activity or human infrastructure that pose dangers to wildlife. So we wanted to make sure and look at that in the Hells Canyon ecoregion to make sure that condors could be safely reintroduced here”  

Ensuring there is a healthy, robust, and self-sustaining population of condors in the wild will take time, as there are several challenges this imperiled species faces on the path toward recovery.

As Chris West, Yurok Tribe Condor Restoration Program Manager explains...

“When I started working with California condors back in the late 90s we had inklings of various issues. Some of the primary concerns we had at the time was collision with powerlines…”

Conservationists working with condors started putting mock power poles with shock wires in captive pens and outside release facilities to teach the birds to not land on power poles and reduce their proximity to powerlines. 

“So, if a condor lands on it, it gets zapped... And it only takes one or two encounters with a mock power pole and you will never see a condor land on a power pole again.”

That’s good considering there are bigger threats standing in the way of condor recovery. Small pieces of broken glass, bottle caps, soda can tabs - items that are commonly referred to as microtrash - are hazardous to condors as these fragments of plastic and other indigestible materials are often eaten by the vultures. They then bring back microtrash to their nests to feed their chicks, which is a huge problem. Over time the fragments accumulate in the stomachs of baby birds, leading to death through starvation. 

Condor chick
Microtrash removed from a condor chick that died. 

Though microtrash poses a major obstacle, efforts are underway to educate the public about the importance of cleaning up all trash, especially near release sites. However, one issue ultimately has risen above them all: lead poisoning.

Chart depicting causes for California condor death from the US Fish and Wildlife Service's California condor recovery program.

“That has been the single biggest impediment to wild condor recovery throughout their range - poisoning from lead. And that lead has been tied directly to bullet fragments from gut piles, in particular, or carcasses that are not recovered in the field by hunters & shooters. So it's sort of an emerging thing, this realization that an activity that does provide food for condors may be inadvertently, accidentally, unintentionally poisoning them.”

- Angela Sondenaa, Wildlife Program Project Leader for the Nez Perce Tribe

Lead bullet fragmentation.

“We really discovered that the mortalities from ingestion of spent lead ammunition was a huge deal... Really they're breeding enough to recover themselves. Whereas, if you include lead in the equation, and you keep pumping out birds at the rate that we have been for the last 20+ years, you get increases. As we’ve seen, there’s condors on the landscape. But as soon as you stop inputting new birds and releasing birds, they just drop back down and go back to extinction.”

- Chris West

The condor situation sounds dire, but if we continue to harness the power of collective human care and compassion into solving these mounting problems, the future for this iconic vulture remains hopeful.


Written and expanded chapters of the special audio program will be released each week for the next month. Be sure to check back to learn more about the tumultuous history California condors endured, their fight to return and future efforts to recover this native and endangered species. Follow this story at oregonwild.org/shadowofthecondor

This project would not have been possible without grants from Mountain Rose Herbs and the Siletz Tribal Foundation. Special thanks to Jessica Riccardi and all our guests.

Photo Credits
Microtrash: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Fragments of lead bullets: National Park Service