M o re than a century after it disappeared from the region, a Yurok Tribal effort to bring the California condor back to their native lands could be realized as early as this fall

“Studies indicate that Yurok ancestral territory has the capacity to provide excellent habitat and human-caused damage has been largely rectified under current environmental policies,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph James told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday. “Low human populations minimize and decrease risk of negative human interactions. The climate is likely to remain buffered (according to) 100-year projections, maintaining viable habitat. A memorandum of understanding has been signed with multiple federal and state regulatory partners. We’re undergoing environmental assessment under NEPA to plan the release of the birds in fall 2019.”

Speaking before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs during an oversight hearing focusing on grant programs funded through the Administration for Native Americans, James said the Yurok Tribe’s Environmental Regulatory Enhancement grant will “provide the final critical infrastructure needed for successful recovery of the condor that provides cultural, social, environmental and economic benefits to our tribal communities.”

The Yurok Tribe has spearheaded efforts to reintroduce the California condor to the Pacific Northwest after receiving a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008. It has since partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Redwood National and State Parks and other agencies to return North America’s largest land bird to their ancestral land.

“Our ties to the condor go back to the beginning of time when the creator was devising how the world would be managed,” said Yurok wildlife biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen. “We’re missing a part of ourselves.”

According to an interview Williams-Claussen’s colleague Chris West gave to the Triplicate in 2017, the California condor’s prehistoric range extends to the East Coast, through southern North America and into British Columbia. Evidence of condor breeding sites have been found in Florida and upstate New York. Their range also included Baja, California, and mainland Mexico, according to West.

But exposure to lead ammunition used to harvest deer, elk and other large animals brought the condor to the brink of extinction. Twenty-two birds were left by the 1980s when scientists at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park began a rearing program to increase their numbers, West told the Triplicate.

As of 2017, the condors’ population has increased to about 450 birds, half of which are in the wild, Williams-Claussen said. Breeding facilities for the condor currently include the Oregon Zoo and a Peregrine Fund site in Idaho, she said.

When the Yurok Tribe originally partnered with Redwood National and State Parks, national park scientists were working with the tribe’s biologists to determine if the region would still be a good home for condors, said RNP Deputy Superintendent Dave Roemer. This consisted of trapping turkey vultures and testing the level of lead in their blood, he said.

The partnership between the tribe and the national park kicked into higher gear in 2016 with the memorandum of understanding, Roemer said.

The tribe has also been working with condor recovery programs at the Ventana Wildlife Society, Pinnacles National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura County, Williams-Claussen said. She noted that memorandum of understanding now includes more than 16 partners.

The Yurok Tribe has also received a three-year, $900,000 Environmental Regulatory Enhancement grant from the Administration for Native Americans, according to Williams-Claussen. It will use those grant dollars to renovate a building on National Park Service land as a condor management and operations center for staff participating in the reintroduction efforts, she said.

Grant money has also paid for training with existing release and breeding programs on how to safely handle the birds, Williams-Claussen said. Pacific Gas and Electric has also donated money through the National Parks Foundation since the condors will be released on Redwood National Park land, she said.

“The Bald Hills is considered most highly under the environmental assessment process,” Williams-Claussen said, adding that the tribe is hoping to reintroduce six birds per year. “For one, it’s beautiful foraging land. Condors need open prairies for looking for ungulates or bears or the other large animals they prefer for food. There’s the beautiful elk herd that will probably provide food and a bear population — you can’t work there without running into the bears — and various other large species.”

The Bald Hills also provides a good corridor to other mountainous areas as well as the coast, Williams-Claussen said.

Redwood National Park also offers the old growth redwood trees condors once roosted in, Roemer said. Most people think of the Grand Canyon when they think of California condors because of successful reintroduction attempts there, but ocean thermals of the North Coast provide good soaring habitat and marine mammal carcasses are a staple of the birds’ diet as are land animals, he said.

“One of my talking points is basically it’s going to be awesome and cool to see these birds flying over the park again,” he said. “And flying over, I’m sure Tiana would say, through Yurok ancestral territory. It’s both an ecological restoration and it’s a cultural restoration.”

For Williams-Claussen, who recently had a baby girl, restoring something her people have been missing for more than a century restores the tribe’s traditional role of managers of the land and reinstates its sovereignty. Working with the birds, even a 2-year-old juvenile, has been very exciting, she said.

“I’m excited because I like to think my daughter will be the first generation of Yurok children to have condors in their skies (after) 100 years,” she said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .