‘A sacred responsibility’: Yurok Tribe poised to return condors to the skies

The birds have not been seen in northern California for more than a century. Now they could help restore an ecosystem

Tucked among tall redwood trees in a remote part of northern California, four young California condors await their chance to take to the skies.

The fluffy juveniles – housed in a facility where they playfully peck at each other and jump between perches – will help usher in a new era. Referred to as prey-go-neesh by the Yurok people who called this land home, the sacred scavengers are the first group to be reintroduced to their native range since they disappeared from the region more than a century ago.

“For countless generations, the Yurok people have upheld a sacred responsibility to maintain balance in the natural world,” said Joseph L James, the chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “Condor reintroduction is a real-life manifestation of our cultural commitment to restore and protect the planet for future generations.”

The California condor, the largest flying bird in North America, with a wingspan that stretches between nine and 10 feet, was one of the first animals listed as endangered. Once abundant in the skies over 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 remaining were taken into captivity for their protection.

condor stretches wings in enclosure
two condors in enclosure
Housed in a remote facility, juvenile condors are viewed through small windows of reflective glass so they do not become too comfortable around humans. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Since then, roughly 300 have been reintroduced to the wild, but this is the first time they will be released in northern California. If successful, the plan would help return this majestic ecosystem to its former glory and cement the partnership between the Yurok Tribe and state and federal agencies who are working to restore it.

After decades of planning, the release could be just weeks away. The process is lengthy and deliberate, a carefully considered strategy to ensure the young birds survive in the wild.

The work began in 2008, when the tribe received a federal grant to conduct a feasibility study on whether the 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 need to acclimate as they take small steps toward freedom.

There’s a simulated power pole, two small pools, and a perch with a view of the tall redwood trees that line the ridge. Two high-definition cameras provide handlers and the public a glimpse at them through a live feed, and the custom-welded shipping containers they are housed in provide a fire-resistant observation station where birds can receive check-ups and care. The four baby birds – three males and one female, all between two and three years old – are now nearly ready to be released.

Set against 40 miles of craggy coastline, the region where they will be released was once abundant with life. The old-growth redwoods and prairie systems supported thriving salmon runs traversed by elk, bears, deer, and mountain lions. The discovery of gold in the 1800s drew settlers to the area who felled trees, developed the landscape, and massacred the Indigenous people who lived on and cared for the land.

three men behind podium, with one man putting a necklace around another
Chairman Joseph L James and vice-chairman Frankie Myers, honored the Redwood national park superintendent, Steven Mietz, during a press conference held in a remote area on their ancestral lands in Redwood national and state parks. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

The legacy of those atrocities lives on. Even as the Yurok people and park officials work together to bring balance back to the lands, roughly two-thirds of the park is in peril, damaged by logging and industry. The birds could face threats from toxic contaminants, including lead poisoning from ammunition left behind in game, pesticides from nearby agricultural hubs, and DDT that has lingered in the environment long after it was outlawed. The climate crisis will also spur new dangers from fire and drought.

But those who have worked adamantly to bring the condors home have been careful to consider the risks and are confident the condors will thrive.

“We always look back to help guide our future,” the tribe’s vice-chair, Frankie Myers, said, speaking to a small group of reporters gathered in the snow outside the facility. “We look back to our elders, to people who came before us, to help guide us. We believe this is the goal they wanted us to achieve.”

Learning to survive in the wild

In the wild, fledglings 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 male of nearly eight, has been housed with the juveniles to teach them.

The young condors also learn by watching turkey vultures and ravens, fellow scavengers they will interact with around carcasses, as they navigate the terrain. Bait has been left outside the pen and the juveniles can already view the other birds feasting nearby. When the condors are ready, they will be released directly into a feeding event.

“This allows them to dominate the turkey vultures – which is a really good thing – and they get a food reward,” said Chris West, manager of the Yurok Condor Restoration Program. “A lot of condors’ social life happens around carcasses,” he added. “It is like sitting around the dinner table and chatting with family and friends.”

Two condors will be released together first; then the last two, one at a time. The mentor will remain in the pen, luring the newly freed birds back to socialize and eat, and giving program workers the chance to monitor or recapture them if problems arise.

Even after they are released, they will be heavily monitored. Each bird will be equipped with a radio transmitter and cellular satellite hybrid transmitter units that will deliver key GPS data. It will also emit mortality signals if the condor stops moving. Workers will then be able to find the birds and render aid if they are injured or sick, or retrieve deceased condors for necropsy and analysis to better understand why they perished.

landscape with green trees and water
The birds will soon be released in a remote part of Redwood national and state parks in northern California. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Twice a year the condors will be recaptured for a check-up. Blood tests will be conducted to check for lead or other toxins and their transmitters will be replaced. Program leaders said keeping close watch on the condors is an important part of ensuring success.

Condors are slow breeders and don’t mate until they reach maturity at around eight years old. Females only produce a single egg every two years. Growing their wild population will be slow, but it will be supplemented with between four and six condors expected to be released every year for the next two decades. There’s hope that, by the end of the 20-year program, more than a hundred birds could call the region home.

A new kind of collaboration

Even with strong oversight, risks remain. Lead bullets left in game continue to be a top killer of condors in the wild, an issue Yurok leaders are working directly with hunters to solve.

Rising temperatures, an intensifying drought, and wildfires also pose a mortal threat. Condors in other parts of the state have already lost their lives to fire, including the 2020 Dolan fire in Big Sur.

A California condor takes flight in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur, California.
A California condor takes flight in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur, California. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

But along with bringing lost species back to the land, officials and tribal leaders are hoping to build in resilience and balance. This release and the future of California condors in this region is about more than just conservation.

Moving forward, 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 of collaboration and common purpose.

“We are listening to the original people and following their lead in how we manage the park to restore this very damaged landscape,” said Superintendent Steven Mietz of Redwood national park. “As we heal this landscape and bring back the condors, and we start to restore the previous majestic glory of the redwood forest, we are also healing the relationship with each other and we are healing our relationship with the original Indigenous people.”

Healing the land will also help heal the people who once called it home.

“As a people, we will not recover from the traumas of the last century until we fix our environment,” Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s vice-chairman, said. “Our culture, our ceremonies, our wellbeing and our identity are inextricably linked to the landscape.”

• This article was amended on 16 April 2022 to correct a misspelling of DDT.


Gabrielle Canon in Orick, California

The GuardianTramp

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