Restoring NW wildlife: Come home, condor?

The endangered, huge-winged California condor was once a resident of the Pacific Northwest. Is it time to bring this endangered species back?
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The endangered, huge-winged California condor was once a resident of the Pacific Northwest. Is it time to bring this endangered species back?

Imagine looking skyward from the Columbia River Gorge and seeing the slowly soaring figure-eight turns of a bird with a nine-foot wingspan. Too big to be a vulture or a Golden eagle. What is it? Is it the legendary Thunderbird in flesh and feather?

In the 19th century, one didn't have to imagine such things. Visitors to the region starting with Lewis and Clark spotted, shot and sometimes captured giant California condors in our region. To hear such stories is reminiscent of scenes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," where dinosaurs survived into the modern age.

In earlier millennia, the fossil record indicates, huge birds did sweep our skies, some even bigger than the condor. But evidence strongly suggests that the Northwest, west of the Sierras and Cascades from northern California to southern British Columbia, was home to California condors as recently as the early 20th century.

The species nearly went extinct everywhere, and did in the wild. It barely lived on in captivity, numbering a paltry 22 birds at one time. Since the 1980s, however, scientists, zoo managers and volunteers have worked hard to revive the extremely endangered California condor in the wild. Today, over 200 of them fly the skies of southern California, Arizona, Utah and Baja, representing one of the great species recovery stories.

But the success is qualified: No one can yet walk away and call it done. The "wild" condor population is "heavily managed," according to experts. The modern landscape is fairly hostile to the birds. Contaminants and threats from power lines and wind farms are among the challenges. And the condors are hardly free of reliance of human intervention. They get ongoing help with breeding, supplemental feeding (carcasses left out for them to scavenge), their nests are cleaned of microtrash (glass, bottle caps, plastics), they're monitored for lead poisoning from bullets and shot, and tracked by GPS. In short, free of zoos, the condor's success is clear but also tenuous, according to biologists.

One aspect of the bird's recovery that hasn't been fully addressed is its reintroduction to its full range, which used to include the Pacific Northwest. If you've witnessed condors soaring today, you've likely seen them at the Grand Canyon or perhaps a preserve like southern California's Pinnacles National Monument. They are a stunning sight — a bit like super-sized buzzards, but with a kind of majesty, grace, and mouth-dropping scale. They are an exciting reminder of the world as it was. But we tend to think of their habitat as the hills of canyon country. That wasn't always so. The wet, woody Northwest apparently can serve as condor county, too.

That is the subject of a fascinating new book, "California Condors in the Pacific Northwest" by Jesse D'Elia and Susan M. Haig (Oregon State University Press, $19.95). The co-authors are wildlife specialists — D'Elia a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, and Haig an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center and professor at Oregon State in Corvallis. They take an in-depth look at the history of the condor in the territory ranging from the Redwood coast to the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Was the condor simply a visitor here, or did they breed in these climes? And why have they disappeared? D'Elia and Haig attempt to lay out a complete record of the condor here, from the fossil records to eyewitness accounts to Native American stories and practices.

While the book is partly a Ph.D. dissertation (D'Elia's), it is also for the lay reader interested in history and the environment. It surveys every recorded condor sighting in the historical record and gathers evidence for why condors ventured this far north, what they ate and where the might have nested. They come to several interesting conclusions.

One is that is that it is very likely that Northwest condors lived and bred here, as opposed to simply being seasonal migrants. They were here year-round in large numbers, according to recorded sightings, and there are a couple of cases of young condors being taken as specimens by naturalists. Condors are slow to mature and tend to stay close to home in their early years. The Northwest had, and still has, plenty of habitat condors are known to like: high hills and cliffs with notches and caves for nesting. Also, they have been known to nest in old-growth trees and hollow tree trunks —redwoods and sequoias in California for example.

The observational record of 19th century naturalists is not complete, but tends to suggest that condors certainly congregated where they had large food sources and uplifting drafts. It turns out condors don't like to flap their enormous wings — burns too much energy and their wings are heavy — so they're drawn to areas where they can soar and float on the thermals and spot food with their keen eyesight. That might include dead mammals of various sorts (deer, elk). The early Northwest salmon runs produced scads of dead and dying salmon at places like the traditional native fishing grounds at Celilo Falls on the Columbia, where condors were seen feeding. They could also find sustenance at the river's mouth or along the coast on dead or dying whales, seals and sea lions. It's not surprising that many 19th century sightings were along the Columbia, Umpqua, Cowlitz, Klamath, Fraser and other rivers.

A number of tribes incorporated condors into their ceremonies and costumes. Indian flutes of California condor bones have been found and their feathers were highly valued by some tribes. A condor feather cape was collected by a Russian scientist near Sacramento in the 1840s and resides in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology. The fur-hunting voyageurs liked to make pipe stems from the shafts of condor feathers. The book debunks the notion that the Thunderbird of Indian lore is exclusively tied to the condor, as many tribes had separate words for "condor" and "Thunderbird," and tribes outside the condor's habitat also had Thunderbird tales.

The book examines why condors might have disappeared from the region.  It clearly seems to coincide with the growth of the European population. Observations of the bird were not uncommon until the mid-19th century, then declined and petered out shortly after the turn of the 20th century, with a some unconfirmed reports as late as the 1920s. Could they have been hunted out? They made large targets for hunters and specimen collectors, and could be easily killed when on the ground scavenging and filling up on dead deer. Did logging impact habitat? Did their food sources, like the salmon, dwindle beyond sustainability as commercial fishing expanded? Understanding why they disappeared is important to assessing whether or not they can be successfully reintroduced.

The authors conclude that the most likely culprit in the condor demise is similar to what threatens the recovery program today: poison. As the Northwest was settled and turned toward agriculture and livestock in the 1830s, the Hudson's Bay company, missionaries and farmers began a war against wolves to preserve their flocks. Strychnine was shipped in and used on a massive scale to poison meat. Condors weren't the target, but may have been the victims of secondary poisoning by either feeding on the poison bait or the carcasses of other animals that did. In the effort to eradicate wolves — which was successful — condors were probably collateral damage. Evidence for this includes the role of poison in wiping out other vulture and scavenger species elsewhere in the world where poisons have been used.

Today, the condor recovery is challenged by poison too, particularly the impact of lead bullets and shot in the carcasses of hunted animals that free-range condors might feed on. Recovery efforts are now tied to getting hunters — who are important to the condor's food supply — to use better, less toxic ammo, such as copper bullets. Another option is banning use of lead ammunition  altogether. It turns out the condors are quite susceptible to lead poisoning. A toxicologist who studied the phenomenon told the Los Angeles Times that "It only takes one exposure to poison a condor." Until something is done, lead poisoning is a threat to the birds.

Could condors really be brought back here? The book makes the case that they could — and that the Pacific Northwest ought to be considered as part of the bird's traditional range. Can the species be said to have truly recovered if it hasn't return to its full homeland?

The wolf, of course, is making a major comeback in Washington and Oregon, though not without controversy. It seems only right to consider finding a way to manage the ecosystem to welcome the free condor home again. There is no evidence that condors ever gathered in the Puget Sound area, but the Columbia Gorge is one place they could possibly fly again. The Umpqua River area around Drain in Oregon has also been suggested. The 19th century Scottish naturalist David Douglas (namesake of the Douglas fir) described condors as "common" on the Columbia and as "plentiful" in the Umpqua. The Oregon Zoo has a condor breeding program at Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation in Clackamas County.

Still, introduction and recovery wouldn't be cheap, it would have to be heavily managed, and challenges beyond lead (like the proliferation of wind turbines) would have to be addressed. It might be a lovely idea, but no one is saying it isn't complicated.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.