Yurok tribe works to protect a raptor it reveres: California condor

SAN FRANCISCO — The Yurok name for the bird that soared closest to the creator and could deliver the people's prayers is "prey-go-neesh."

The English name for the Pleistocene-era throwback with the 91/2-foot wingspan is California condor, and by 1982 there were just 22 left.

Now, California's largest tribe has come closer to reuniting with the raptor whose feathers grace its sacred regalia, while working to revive the species.

An agreement signed by the tribe last month with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ventana Wildlife Society begins a process that could make Yurok ancestral land California's northernmost condor release site.

The deal resulted from the tribe's extensive evaluation of habitat and likely food supply — carcasses of marine mammals, downed livestock and bullet-scarred game left behind by hunters.

"This is the culmination of five years of work ... but our journey is continuing," said wildlife biologist Chris West, who directs the condor program for the Yurok tribe.

West said California and Oregon wildlife agencies as well as private landowners will most likely join the effort as it moves forward.

Though the memorandum of understanding does not guarantee future release of the birds, it marks the first potential expansion of the California Condor Recovery Program in more than a decade.

"We want to help," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which began releasing captive-bred condors on the Big Sur coast 17 years ago. "We have a lot of faith in the Yurok tribe."

When Europeans arrived in North America, the raptors' range stretched from British Columbia south to Baja California and into Arizona and Nevada. By 1900, it had shrunk to Southern California. Habitat loss, a decimated food supply, poisoning and power lines were among the causes.

Remaining condors were captured and placed in captive breeding programs in 1987. Releases began five years later, first in Ventura and Kern counties, then the Big Sur coast and what is now Pinnacles National Park. They are also being released in Arizona and Baja.

The results: Today there are 407 condors alive, including 128 in the wild in California, said Sorenson.

Yurok land in Del Norte and Humboldt counties offers an "excellent" area for release because of lower contaminant levels in the region's marine mammals, among other reasons, he said.

West's team has also been working to educate hunters about the dangers of lead ammunition — the single largest cause of condor death in the wild — and persuade them to switch to non-lead options. (A California law that bans lead bullets takes effect in five years.)

Biologist Tiana Williams, a tribal member and Harvard graduate who works with West, has been striving for condor reintroduction since 2003.

Regalia for the Jump Dance and White Deerskin Dance — world renewal ceremonies — rely on condor feathers taken as "gifts" from unharmed birds.

Though the tribe has made strides in acquiring federal permits for feathers, she said, "we need to have condors back up here living, as the creator has intended, interacting with us and us with them."


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