Inside the Yurok Tribe’s mission to make critically endangered condors thrive

Inside the Yurok Tribe’s mission to make critically endangered condors thrive thumbnail
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This article originally appeared on High Country News .

A dead seal washes up on the shores of Northern California. Turkey vultures and ravens eat its eyes and tail, but they are not strong enough to penetrate the blubbery carcass. They would need the assistance of the largest land-based bird in the Western Hemisphere, the condor. Condors can hold down large carcasses with feathers as long and strong as your femurs. They can also rip into them with the torque of their meat hook-shaped beak. Condors can clean up with a level of efficiency that other animals, including humans, cannot match. It may seem strange from a Western perspective. It is one reason why the Yurok Tribe spent over a decade trying to bring them home.

To the Yurok people, the California condor, whose Yurok name is preygoneesh, embodies the spirit of renewal. It heads the scavenger sanitation team: Everyone eats when preygoneesh eats. Preygoneesh has been absent on this beach for more than a century. The ravens, vultures and other birds have to find food elsewhere. The seal carcass is bloated in the sun and becomes useless.

Preygoneesh’s decline accompanied Americans’ push Westward in the mid-1800s, a manifest casualty of the usual suspects: habitat destruction, novelty hunting by collectors and killings out of misplaced fear. Preygoneesh once inhabited the area now known as Mexico, British Columbia, and the Pacific. They can also be found in New York. The birds can travel 100-200 miles per day on 9.5-foot wingspans that can take them to 15,000 feet (2.8 miles), even higher than eagles. But by the 1980s, only 22 were left, their range diminished like a reservation to a sliver of skies over central and Southern California. Because they had declined so quickly, Western scientists were unable to study healthy condor populations in wild. It is unknown what their thriving looks like.

Except for Indigenous communities such as the Yurok.

On a cold, windy day in March, snowflakes were piled on redwood branches, and were fluffy and quiet one hour and then slushy, dumpy the next. Tiana Williams, Yurok Wildlife Department Director, was confident that the four adolescent condors of the tribe could weather the storms. They had just arrived from Monterey’s Ventana Wildlife Society, where they were held while the tribe built its condor pen.

Tribal Chair Joseph L. James spoke with the media while snare hits were thrown from the overhead canopy. He said, “It’s a historic moment in the Yurok Tribe as we introduce our condors home to fly back over the sky, providing that balance.” Vice Chair Frankie Myers, who said it took generations of hard work, followed. It fulfills the dream that Yurok grandparents had envisioned. Myers stated, “This is how government should represent its people.”

Standing alongside the tribal leadership were Steven Mietz, Redwood National Park Superintendent, and Victor Bjelajac (superintendent of California State Parks’ North Coast Redwoods District), representatives of the original condor restoration partners of this tribe. Later, many other agencies joined the group, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who sent staff to help build the condor facility for the tribe.

“This is how government is supposed to represent its people.”

The historic day was made possible by some unlikely partners. PG&E, the power company whose equipment started the Dixie Fire last summer, donated $200,000 to the Yurok condor restoration program. Pacific Power, whose parent company is the Klamath River dams, the Yurok have been fighting to remove ,. Local dairy farmers also donate stillborn calves to the fledglings. Mietz said that the Yurok tribe approached timber companies. However, Mietz says that logging and other industries have caused damage to two-thirds Redwood National and State Parks. This is part of the Yurok’s ancestral homelands.

“As the park is restored and the condors are brought back, and we begin to restore the redwood forest’s former glory, we’re also healing our relationships with each other and repairing our relationship the Indigenous people,” said Mietz. “We are following their lead in managing the park, to restore this very badly damaged landscape .”

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The holding pen was built by the tribe and its partners from shipping containers. This is partly because they are fireproof. (In 2020, a California wildfire killed 12 condors.) The facility is hidden away and surrounded with electrified fencing. This protects preygoneesh from predators but also from well-meaning people, according to Chris West, the tribe’s lead condor program manger. He flashed a still-red finger where a fledgling had taken a piece of the tribal’s land just days earlier.

A mentor bird, an 8-year-old adult condor distinguished by its bald-red head, mixed with the adolescents. West explained that if you were to just throw a bunch teenagers into a place and expect them to behave, you might want to throw in an elder to help them out a bit. “That’s sort of what’s happening with our mentor bird .”

Condors can be described as social animals with a hierarchy that includes smaller scavengers. Condors are taught by their parents in the wild. Here, the mentor is that role. Bait outside the pen attracts ravens and turkey vultures, which allows condors to become more familiar with wild animals.

The three males and a female are between 2 and 3 years old. Some were born at the Oregon Zoo, while others were born at the World Center for Birds of Prey (Boise). After their stay in Monterey they had to adjust to Yurok country for a few weeks and socialize before being released. West said that there was no rush. “We’re on condortime .”

Adult condors reproduce slowly and lay one egg every two years. They also face a very lethal opponent. Preygoneesh’s decline was largely due to lead poisoning from ammunition. It is responsible for half of all wild condor deaths. A pinhead-sized piece of lead can paralyze pregoneesh’s powerful gastrointestinal system, leading to an agonizing death. Williams stated that there are indications that, if we can eliminate the lead problem, we may be able to stop managing condors .”

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“We’re on condor time.”

California banned lead ammo in 2019. Nevertheless, 13 condors died in the wild last year from lead poisoning. The tribe reached out and provided information to hunters about alternative ammunition, such as copper ammunition. “Anywhere from 85%-95% of hunters we talked to came to our events, saying, ‘I had no idea, and of course I’ll make the switch to non-lead,'” Williams said. “I’m not surprised that they did that, being a hunter myself and coming from a hunting family

Hunters include utility operators, loggers and dairy farmers. They all want preygoneesh success. These unexpected allies have come together under the leadership of Yurok for the sake of renewal.

According to Williams, the Yuroks’ fundamental purpose is to maintain balance and renewal in the world. She said preygoneesh is a critical part of the Yurok’s 10-day Jump Dance, a world-renewal ceremony that uses preygoneesh feathers and songs. Participants fast, pray, sweat and dance every other year before the ninth full moon. Chair James explained HCN , “We pray to our river, we ask for our streams, and we pray that our salmon return home.” “We pray for our condors to return .”

A Yurok’s livestream captured two fledglings jumping to the edge the release door and taking flight past a bait carcass on a morning in May. They will build their mental maps around this location to find a place they can return to for food or socializing.

The tribe won’t stop with these four birds: A new cohort arrives later this year, and West hopes to release four to six birds every year for the next 20 years, 80 to 120 birds from this site altogether.

” Our prayers have been answered. James smiled and said, “They’re coming home now.” “It would be the icing on top, being able dance and have a condor fly above us. It’ll happen.”

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