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News / Northwest

Tribe striving to bring condors back to Pacific Northwest

By K.C. Mehaffey, Columbia Insight
Published: February 10, 2024, 6:02am

Angela Sondenaa was jet-boating up the Snake River through Hells Canyon. Looking at the steep cliffs and rocky crags, an idea struck her: “Man, there needs to be condors here,” she recalls thinking.

It was 2015, and Sondenaa — the Nez Perce Tribe’s Precious Lands Wildlife Area project leader — was surveying for bighorn sheep. She’d never considered bringing condors back to the Columbia River Basin, but once it hit her, she said, “This idea would not leave me.”

Sondenaa pitched her idea to the tribe’s wildlife director, and they submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a condor viability assessment in the Snake River Basin.

Winning the grant in 2016 put the Nez Perce Tribe — or Nimíipuu — on a path that could lead to the first reintroduction of condors north of California since they disappeared from this region about 160 years ago.

If all goes well, the tribe will release its first group of captive-raised birds within five to seven years.

Columbia Basin history

While there’s no living memory of condors among the Nimíipuu people, this largest land bird of North America appears in tribal origin stories, languages and cultural histories throughout the region.

The Nimíipuu’s Ananasocum — also known as Joseph Canyon — roughly translates as “the canyon where condors nested,” Sondenaa said.

There are also early trapper reports of condors, and a record of a military officer who reportedly saw one near Boise.

Lewis and Clark were the first Europeans to document condors’ presence in the Columbia River Basin. Clark wrote on Feb. 16, 1806, that two members of the expedition “brought in to us today a Buzzard or Vulture of the Columbia which they wounded and taken alive. I believe this to be the largest Bird of North America.”

Clark noted that the condor weighed 25 pounds and had a 9-foot, 2-inch wingspan.

“Skin of the beak and head to the joining of the neck is of a pale yellow, the other part uncovered with feathers is of a light flesh Colour,” he wrote. He included a sketch in his journal entry.

Condors were once fairly common in the Columbia River Basin. Scientists believe “predator wars” were the main cause of their demise here.

“Folks would take a carcass and lace it with strychnine, attempting to kill cougars, bears and wolves,” Sondenaa said.

Because condors eat only meat that’s already been killed, the campaign to rid the countryside of predators had an even greater impact on scavengers, like the condor.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent five-year review of California condors, the birds were once widely distributed across North America. By the time European explorers arrived, however, they mostly lived only in the West, from Mexico to British Columbia, and inland to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range.

By 1950, condors remained in only six counties of California.

“Though no definitive causes of the condors’ decline during the early 1900s have been established, it was likely the result of high mortality rates due to direct persecution, collection of specimens, and secondary poisoning from varmint control efforts” along with DDT poisoning, the status review says.

The agency reports that by 1982, there were only 23 condors left worldwide. In 1987, the remaining condors were captured for a breeding program in hopes of saving them from extinction.

Since then, the population has been rebuilt to more than 500 individuals, more than half of them living in the wild.

Currently, there are six active release sites — four in California, one in Arizona, and one in Baja, Mexico.

The most recent reintroduction effort was spearheaded by Northern California’s Yurok Tribe, in partnership with the National Park Service.

In 2022, after assessing habitat and working on a plan for 14 years, the tribe released eight birds on ancestral lands in a partnership with Redwood National and State Parks. Three more condors were released there last fall.

Sondenaa said the Nez Perce Tribe has been following the Yurok model.

“They’ve done wonderful things, and it’s very exciting to see the successes,” she said.

Favorable habitat

The Hells Canyon Condor Project has been underway for eight years.

It began with the three-year viability assessment, which included surveying hundreds of miles of shoreline habitat in the Snake River Basin, including parts of Northeast Oregon, Southeast Washington and Western Idaho.

The survey identified condor nesting and roosting sites, foraging habitat and availability of carrion.

Condors are cavity nesters, so they need caves or crevasses in the rock cliffs, along with tall, broken-off trees for roosting. They also feed only on dead animals — usually medium to large mammals.

The tribe surveyed the canyons of the Snake River and its tributaries — the Salmon, Imnaha, Lower Clearwater and Grand Ronde rivers, including Joseph Canyon.

They found suitable habitat “in abundance,” Sondenaa said.

Because condors won’t kill for food, they need to have enough carcasses left by hunters or other predators in order to have a self-sustaining population.

Sondenaa said that compared to the habitat and food availability in Arizona, where condors have already been reintroduced, the Nez Perce assessment found just as many — and, in some cases, more — of the predators and prey that are needed.

Due to the presence of wolves in the region, condors on Nez Perce ancestral lands would have access to year-round healthy carrion.

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“That’s a big advantage that we have here that some other existing populations don’t have,” Sondenaa said. “Overall, the assessment concluded that condor habitat was really good in our area.”

Over 50 percent of the land is in public ownership, so it’s not likely to be developed. Wind farm development is a concern, but that would mostly occur on the periphery of the condors’ range.