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Condors could fly over Southern Oregon skies soon

file photo An Andean Condor spreads his wings while flying to his trainer, Joe Krathohl, the Jackson County Expo.

The largest flying bird in North America has a new, wild home. California condors — endangered for the past half-century — may be welcomed back to the northern part of their historic range by autumn, owing to a collaboration between the Yurok Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.

A final rule establishing a “nonessential experimental” population of California condors was published in the federal register Wednesday, jumpstarting creation of a new condor release facility in Redwood National Park.

Redwood National and State Parks and the Yurok Tribe will run the facility jointly through the Northern California Condor Restoration Program, according to FWS spokesperson Susan Sawyer. Condors will be released from the facility in fall 2021 or spring 2022, pending facility completion and bird identification.

Per the rule, the FWS may establish a population of condors under a section of the Endangered Species Act, facilitating bird reintroduction and defining prohibited actions related to species conservation. The rule goes into effect April 23.

Prohibited actions include condor habitat manipulation and visual or audible disturbance within 656 feet (200 meters) of an occupied nest, with the exception of emergency fuels treatment and fire response by federal, state, tribal or local government agencies.

Nonessential experimental population status affords flexibility with managing condors and regulating their interactions with humans and infrastructure, said David Roemer, Redwood National and State Parks deputy superintendent. The rule does not carry repercussions for unintentional harm done to the birds.

“The birds travel great distances — they’re not going to stay inside the national park boundary, they’re not going to stay inside Yurok ancestral territory,” he said. “Anywhere they go, we want condors to have allies and friends.”

In recounting the project, Roemer emphasized the value of strong collaboration with the Yurok Tribe, which took charge of the reintroduction effort over more than a decade. The tribe catalyzed restoration of the ecosystem and of integral cultural traditions focused on the species, which laid dormant for the past century while condors slowly recovered, he said.

“It makes sense for us for many reasons, both ecological and for working with tribes in a meaningful way that truly values partnership and co-management,” Roemer said.

Thorough environmental assessments, contaminant analysis and community outreach were elements of the initiative to fold the California condor back into a “sacred cultural landscape,” according to a FWS press release.

“For the last 20 years, the Yurok Tribe has been actively engaged in the restoration of the rivers, forests and prairies in our ancestral territory,” said Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “The reintroduction of the condor is one component of this effort to reconstruct the diverse environmental conditions that once existed in our region. We are extremely proud of the fact that our future generations will not know a world without prey-go-neesh. We are excited to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Redwood National Park on the final stages of the project and beyond.”

The California condor once spread its near-10-foot wingspan from coast to coast in the U.S., before poaching and poisoning caused drastic population declines in the mid-1900s. By 1967, the species was listed as endangered, and 15 years later, just 23 birds existed worldwide.

FWS attributes success bringing the species back to more than 300 condors along the West Coast to “exemplary conservation partnerships and intensive captive breeding and reintroduction efforts.”

Lead poisoning from ingesting lead ammunition left behind in animal carcasses remains the primary threat to the species in the wild today, Roemer said. However, by leaving carcasses and innards on the landscape free of lead, hunters can help the birds to survive, he said.

“We’re not seeking any kind of regulatory change to ammunition or hunting in this,” Roemer said. “We believe that hunting and condors are natural allies. Condors need large dead animals to feed.”

In 2017, during a public scoping process, project members initiated outreach to hunting groups, advocating for non-lead ammunition, according to media reports.

Timber producer Green Diamond Resource Co. and utility companies Pacific Power and Pacific Gas and Electric have signed onto an agreement for the return of condors to the Pacific Northwest, Roemer said.

Condors build their nests in tall trees and can be electrocuted by power lines. Sparse utility infrastructure makes the park an ideal fit for stakeholders concerned about liability and wildlife, he said.

Redwood National Park features the tallest trees in the world, miles of coastline and prairies maintained by fire — important habitat elements for condors, Roemer said.

FWS breeding partners help identify birds suitable for different flocks, including the four condors from zoos and captive breeding facilities that may be sent to the new Redwood National Park facility for release this year, he said.

“It’s a big chess game,” Roemer said. “They have to figure out what to provide to the other release facilities within the U.S. and even Baja, California in Mexico, where they release condors. It’s all part of a recovery program that’s bigger than just us.