Bringing the California condor home will make Yurok land whole and complete, wildlife biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen said Thursday.
Noting that her people have gone through “a lot of bad stuff” since contact with white people, Williams-Claussen says seeing these flying giants soar above Yurok ancestral territory makes a strong case for tribal sovereignty. But her colleague Chris West and David Roemer, deputy superintendent with Redwood National and State Parks, say reintroducing the condor will have impacts that extend beyond the North Coast.
“Some people say if they’re roosting at the mouth of the Klamath in the morning, they could be foraging over Mt. Lassen in the afternoon,” said West, a senior wildlife biologist with the Yurok Tribe, who has been working with condors for about 20 years.
The Yurok Tribe, Redwood National and State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been leading efforts to restore the California condor to the Pacific Northwest since 2008. On Thursday, Roemer and the two tribal biologists, along with Michael Long, chief of endangered species for USFWS’s Pacific Southwest region, gave the public more information on how those efforts would work.
The three agencies are asking for public input on an environmental assessment and hope to reach a decision on the project this summer. If all goes well, condors could be foraging over Redwood National and State Parks starting in the fall of 2020, Long said.
The proposed project calls for building a flight pen in the Bald Hills area of the national park and releasing six birds a year over about 20 years. According to West, most would be juveniles from captive breeding programs. The birds would be monitored with radio and satellite transmitters to determine where they go and any potential threats they may encounter, he said.
Noting that condors released in Redwood National and State Parks could have a foraging range spanning spanning the entire state of Oregon, parts of Nevada and Northern California, the three lead agencies have reached memorandums of understanding with 16 different partners including Green Diamond Resource Company, Pacific Gas and Electric and Pacific Power, according to West.
During a previous public scoping period about two years ago, the three agencies held meetings in Eureka, Portland and Medford to gather input from residents there, Roemer said.
“Condor recovery and restoration all fits together,” he said. “The park is a less real place with the condor missing.”
Though they live to be about 80 years old, condor reproduction is slow. Adults typically have one chick per year, West said, making them especially vulnerable to threats such as pesticides and, primarily, lead bullets.
In the mid 1980s, with only 22 birds left, breeding programs were established at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
There are currently 488 condors existing in the world today with a wild population of 312. This includes roughly 88 birds in the Grand Canyon region of Arizona, 36 in Baja, California, and 188 in Southern and Central California, according to West.
West noted that adult condors are able to fly 200 miles a day and reach breeding age at 7 years old, though parents kick their young out of the nest at about 2.
For efforts to restore the condor to Yurok ancestral land, the public is currently asked to comment on an environmental assessment that looks at the implications of establishing a “non-essential experimental” population of birds in the region. According to Long, this population would be established under rule 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which would allow for reduced prohibitions associated with the bird.
“The condor right now is listed as an endangered species. There’s prohibitions against taking the animal so we can’t harm the animal, we can’t harass the animal, shoot, pursue, trap, all those kinds of things,” Long said. “Under 10(j) the condor would be considered a threatened species within the experimental population area. Not outside of that area, they’d still be endangered, but in here for the purposes of what prohibitions come along with the condor, it’s considered a threatened species. As a threatened species, that’s what allows us to reduce the prohibitions associated with the bird.”
Under the 10(j) rule, most routine human activities would be allowed within the condors’ proposed Pacific Northwest range, according to Long. This includes fuels management activity to prevent catastrophic wildfires, livestock grazing, recreational activities and the use of existing roads. Timber harvest would also be allowed as long as it’s occurring 200 meters away from an active condor nest, Long said.
“None of these activities would be prohibited,” he said. “If a take occurs because of any of those, it would not be illegal. However, the take must be unintentional — you can’t purposely go out and take a condor — and it can’t be due to negligence.”
The 10 (j) rule would prohibit an incidental take of a condor caused by habitat alteration, significant visual or noise disturbances within 200 meters an active nest including the use of chainsaws and explosives, Long said.
“There is one exception to work within that 200 meter zone and that is work by federal or state agencies to do fuels management activity to (reduce) the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said.
If the project is approved, there would be no intention of removing the Pacific Northwest condor population from non-essential experimental status, said Amedee Brickey, USFWS’s California condor recovery coordinator. Because it takes the birds so long to breed, it could take 20 years to evaluate whether the program is successful, she said.
Brickey noted that the condor population in Arizona is a non-essential experimental population because of the existence of a trophy hunting area in the nearby Kaibab Plateau. People working to restore the endangered bird there have worked with hunters to get them to use non-lead bullets, she said, including implementing exchange and giveaway programs.
Organizations such as the Ventana Wildlife Society in Central California, the Peregrine Fund in Utah and the Oregon Zoo have friendly relationships with ranchers and hunters, which made those condor rearing and reintroduction programs successful, Brickey said. But, she said, 5 percent of the wild condor population dies every year and half of those deaths are from lead poisoning.
“It’s the biggest mortality source,” she said.
According to Roemer, one challenge with condor recovery efforts in Redwood National and State Parks will include assessing the impact they’ll have on another endangered bird, the marbled murrelet.
Roemer noted that when Redwood National Park was established in 1968, it was thought that there was “very little we could do wrong with them.” This includes removing roads and engaging in landscape recovery efforts. But, he said, since the parks were established, the marbled murrelet, the Northern spotted owl, coho and chinook salmon and steelhead were listed as threatened species and that had to be incorporated into Redwoods’ management plans.
Marbled murrelets nest in old-growth redwoods, and the assumption is the small seabirds fully occupy all the old-growth trees in the park, Roemer said.
“Fish and Wildlife Service wants to know if there’s a condor nest in a redwood tree, how are we going to climb up and observe that egg if we need to without having an impact on marbled murrelets?” He asked. “Since it’s so time-intensive and somewhat ridiculous to try to find murrelet nests, we had a lot of discussions of what our management protocol would be with condors.”
Comments on the 10(j) rule associated with the Pacific Northwest Condor Restoration program are due by June 4.
To comment on the Pacific Northwest Condor Restoration Program, visit http://www.regulations.gov. In the search box, enter the docket number FWS-R1-ES-2018-0033. On the left side of the screen, click on the box next to proposed rules to find the document and submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
To submit a hard copy, mail to
Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R1-ES-2018-0033, Division of Policy, Performance and Management Programs, US Fish and Wildlife Service,
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .