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Condor Territory Could Expand to California's North Coast

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Headed for the redwoods? A California condor in a typically pensive mood | Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Associated Press is reporting that a Native tribe that lives along the Klamath River in Northern California is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore California condors to Humboldt County.

The Yurok Tribe, California's most populous Indian nation based in the 85-square-mile Yurok Indian Reservation along the lower 44 miles of the Klamath River, has reached an agreement with USFWS to release captive-raised condors in as-yet undetermined locations in the wild country south of the Klamath River.

The first release, likely to happen no sooner than 2015, will mean a sixth territory for the critically endangered bird, the subject of an intensive captive breeding program since the species' numbers fell below 30 individuals in the late 1980s.

Before the 19th Century, California condors ranged from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Coast. The large scavengers, North America's largest land bird, proved particularly vulnerable to modern industrial society, suffering collision with and electrocution from power lines, toxicity from DDT and lead shot in their scavenged meals, as well as other more immediate health effects from lead shot in its high-velocity state: the birds were once a favorite target for random gunfire from hunters who should have known better.

According to AP, the Yurok Tribe has been surveying potential release sites for such environmental hazards, including testing turkey vulture carcasses for lead shot and assaying washed-up sea lions for DDT. As with other birds such as brown pelicans and bald eagles, California condors exposed to DDT laid eggs with shells too thin to support the weight of incubating adults, the result of the pesticide's interference with the birds' metabolism of the calcium needed for strong eggshells. Parents would attempt to sit on the eggs and crush the chicks inside.

Since the USFWS' captive breeding program started releasing condors in 1991, the bird's wild population has grown tenfold from the bird's pre-breeding-program nadir, with 232 birds in the wild as of March. Wild populations have been established in the Tehachapi Mountains and nearby ranges, in Big Sur and the Pinnacles National Park, in the Grand Canyon area and in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California. A Yurok population would theoretically bolster the species' chances of survival by starting up a new population more than 400 miles removed from its nearest neighbor in Pinnacles.

That's assuming the new territory proves habitable to condors. In their other ranges, condors breed too slowly to sustain themselves and they still fall prey to hazards such as poisoning from lead shot in hunters' "gutpiles," despite a law passed last year in California banning lead shot. If USFWS' breeding program ceased new releases, the condors would almost certainly die out in the wild within a few years.

One hazard that may face North Coast condors went unmentioned in the AP piece: the threat from anticoagulant rat poisons increasingly used in large amounts by growers at illegal marijuana plantations in the northwestern corner of the state.

All that said, it would be hard to find better stewards of a proposed condor population than the Yurok, who signed a condor release agreement in March with USFWS, the National Park Service, California State Parks, and the Ventana Wildlife Society, a condor restoration group.

When wild condors flew above the Klamath river in years past, Yuroks held the birds in special regard as messengers to other planes, and prized their feathers for ceremonial use.

"Condors have been spiritually tied to Yurok ceremonies since the beginning of the world, " says an explanation of the condor program on the Tribe's website. "Its feathers are used and its songs are sung in the World Renewal ceremony where Yuroks pray and fast to balance the world."

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