North Coast tribe biologists launch condor study

Eureka, California (AP) August 2010

Biologists with the Yurok tribe are studying how to reintroduce the endangered California condor to the state’s northern coast, where the majestic birds flew a century ago.

Funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tribe biologists have been looking at similar local birds – turkey vultures and ravens – to determine what conditions are needed to help condors survive again in the wild.

Wild condors – which can live as long as 60 years and have wingspans of more than 9 feet – were last spotted along the North Coast in the early 1900s. Populations throughout the state declined over the century as the birds were poisoned, hunted and driven away.

The return of the condor would have cultural significance for the Yuroks, who have a sacred dance inspired by the giant birds. Condor feathers are traditionally used during the Jump Dance, a ceremony for world renewal.

“To actually have condors here would be hugely impactful for the people, the dance and just the concept of having a whole world again,” said Tiana Williams, a wildlife technician with the tribe.

In the 1990s, the federal government backed a plan to reintroduce condors bred in captivity, but most have been unable to survive on their own. The biggest threats are food contamination from lead hunting ammunition and water contamination from pesticides, biologists said.

A 2008 law banned the use of lead bullets within the 15 counties that make up the endangered species’ territory, which today covers the state’s central coast and valley. The North Coast is not covered by the lead ban.

Recently, Yurok biologists trapped turkey vultures and ravens in an attempt to assess the risk of lead and pesticides to the Pacific Northwest birds, which have a similar diet to the condor.

Chris West, a senior wildlife biologist for the Yurok tribe, said the study is about halfway done, adding that the tribe was recently awarded another grant that it plans to use for educating hunters about the dangers of lead bullets.