Last May biologists from the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National and State Parks released four captive-bred California condors into the wild. They were the first condors to soar above the towering coast redwood trees in Northern California in more than a century. The reintroduction effort had been years in the making.
A second cohort of four condors joined the small flock in autumn. A bird known as A6, whose Yurok name is Me-new-kwek’, was the last to leave the release pen, Nov. 16. He immediately took flight.
“A6 went down to the bottom of the hill canyon and got a little bit stuck,” says Tiana Williams-Claussen, wildlife department director for the Yurok Tribe.
Me-new-kwek’, which means “I’m bashful,” spent 19 days exploring his new world at the bottom of the canyon. Some of the other young condors visited A6 and even roosted near him at night during his odyssey. Finally he made his way back up to the release site, where he eagerly fed on a carcass the biologists had provided to keep the flock close to home.
Watching the young condors claim their independence is a little like watching your kid go off to school for the first time, says Williams-Claussen. “It makes you happy, but there’s still a niggling worry as they start to spread their wings.”
Me-new-kwek’ (A6, 1101) takes to the sky! Final release of 2022 and 8th #Californiacondor now wild over @TheYurokTribe ancestral lands and @RedwoodNPS. His name means “I’m bashful” or “I’m shy” because of his reserved demeanor. The journey is just beginning! Many thanks! pic.twitter.com/KWB4KB6zHV
— Northern California Condor Restoration Program (@YurokCondors) November 16, 2022
Those worries are well-founded: California condors are critically endangered, and every bird alive today is a descendant of a captive-breeding program that prevented the species’ extinction.
Condors still face real dangers out in the wild, the greatest of which is lead poisoning. As scavengers, they only eat carrion and risk ingesting lead when they consume the remains of animals killed with lead ammunition. This includes hunted game like deer and elk as well as “pest” animals such as coyotes and ground squirrels, who are frequently shot by ranchers and farmers.
Late last fall the remains of three poached elk were discovered in Northern California in areas the condors are known to frequent. X-rays revealed lead fragments in the neck of one of the carcasses — enough to kill several condors.
“This is about as close as you can get to a worst-case scenario,” Chris West, Yurok wildlife department manager, wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.
At least four condors were just a 10-minute flight away from the poaching event when it happened. Fortunately, the carcasses were recovered before the birds discovered them. But experts worry that other condors might not be so lucky in the future.
A Barrier to Recovery
It takes very little lead — a gram or less, or about 1% of a typical rifle bullet — to sicken or kill the giant raptors. It’s a slow, painful death: The lead shuts down digestion, weakens muscles, and eventually damages organs, including the brain. In the period between 1992 — when nearly extinct condors were released back into the wild — and 2021, 120 birds died of lead poisoning, accounting for over half the deaths among wild birds. Even condors who don’t ingest a lethal amount of lead can experience side effects that further threaten their development or survival.
As early as 2010, the Yurok Tribe began reaching out to hunters, first within the tribe, then outside, to educate them about how lead ammunition harms wild animals.
“We had a lot of individual success; 85-95% of hunters we talked to said they didn’t realize lead was an issue and of course they would switch,” says Williams-Claussen.
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Part of the Tribe’s Hunters as Stewards program involved handing out free nonlead ammunition. That had to stop in 2018, after a new California law limited ammunition distribution to licensed vendors. The Tribe has since partnered with Ventana Wildlife Society, which holds such a license, to distribute a limited amount of lead-free ammunition.
“As Tribal members, harvesting game has been part of our life forever,” says Williams-Claussen. “We’re really hoping to increase nonlead availability to help folks make that transition.”
In July 2019 California banned hunting wildlife with lead ammunition, although it still allowed sales for other purposes.
That should have helped condors. But since the law went into effect, lead poisoning deaths have gone up, not down.
The reasons for this are complicated, says Kelly Sorenson, executive director for Ventana Wildlife Society, which co-manages the wild condor flock in Central California with Pinnacles National Park. The overall market share for nonlead ammunition is around 10%, and at least one major wholesaler has stopped shipping to California, further tightening supply.
California also requires that ammunition transactions happen face to face. “When you go to the store you have an extremely low probability of getting the ammo you want, especially .22 [rifle ammunition],” says Sorenson. This is frustrating for rural ranchers who must drive long distances to purchase ammunition, he adds. Too many customers who might have been willing to switch end up driving home with lead ammo.
Since 2012 Ventana has provided nonlead ammunition to local ranchers and hunters in Central California, which is home to a flock of about 100 free-flying condors. As ammo availability has shrunk, this service has become even more vital.
Private land holds some of the best condor habitat, and in many cases, once landowners understand the dangers of lead ammunition — not just for condors, but for other animals and humans — they become vital partners in conservation, says Sorenson.
One by One
A recent incident shows how technology and outreach work together to help protect condors.
Ventana’s biologists keep close tabs on their flock using signals from the birds’ GPS transmitters. “We can map out where these birds are on a daily basis and even infer when they are feeding,” says Sorenson. One day last fall, they noticed several condors feeding in a new location. Mike Stake, who runs Ventana’s nonlead program, knew that area ranchers are constantly battling with ground squirrels over their hay crops and other property damage. He reached out to a rancher in that area to see if they were using nonlead ammunition.
“The guy wrote back, ‘It’s terrible. I can’t find it anywhere and I have condors flying and feeding all over the place,’ ” says Sorenson. Stake immediately drove to the ranch and delivered lead-free ammunition. The rancher told eight of his neighbors. All eight called within a week, requesting lead-free ammo.
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As successful as Ventana’s nonlead ammunition program has been, its scope is limited. In the long run, full recovery of the species will require reducing lead use across the condor’s present and future range.
“We know that the death rate due to lead poisoning is so high that without ongoing releases from captive flocks the population [of wild condors] would not be self-sustaining,” says Sorenson. “The good news is, if we can just lower those lead deaths to a reasonable level, there’s every reason to think condors will bounce back, much like bald eagles and peregrine falcons have.”
Reducing the Lead Threat in Oregon
The Yurok regard condor, or Prey-go-neesh, as sacred. The condor plays an important role in the Tribe’s creation story and ceremonies, and its relationship with the birds extends back thousands of years. In restoring the condor, the Yurok are restoring their cultural landscape, too.
Condor fans are anticipating the day when the giant scavengers spread out through the Pacific Northwest and return to the skies above Oregon. Leland Brown, manager for the nonlead hunting education program at Oregon Zoo, has been preparing for that day for years. Since 2015, the zoo, which breeds condors for the wild population, has worked to reduce lead exposure in “nontarget” wildlife, primarily raptors.
“We’re providing options that allow hunters to be successful but remove or mitigate lead exposure to wildlife,” explains Brown. This includes sharing information and hosting events where hunters can test nonlead ammunition in their own firearms.
In 2018 the Oregon Zoo partnered with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on a pilot incentive program in northeast Oregon for elk-hunters on the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, which is managed by The Nature Conservancy. The program is still active today. Before the hunt, Brown sends hunters a request to consider using nonlead ammo. A check-in process allows hunters to show that they are using nonlead ammunition and explain the reasoning behind their choices. Participants are entered into a drawing to win gift cards.
When the program started, only 20-25% of nearly 300 hunters used nonlead ammunition. By 2019 and 2020, the number had risen to over 75%.
The partners are building on this success and expanding the program statewide. They are also launching a study with Portland State University and recruiting hunters to test the performance of different types of bullets.
Nonlead ammunition isn’t as scarce in Oregon as it is in California, says Brown. One of the biggest barriers he observes stems from doubts about how the ammunition will perform.
“Some hunters wait several years to draw a tag,” says Brown. “They have concerns that they might be switching to ammunition that isn’t as effective.” Although research studies and filmed demonstrations prove the efficacy of lead-free copper ammunition, forums where people can ask questions and, better yet, test the products and decide for themselves, are critical.
“As much as we like to think conservation is about wildlife, it’s just as much about human behavior,” says Brown, who cofounded the North American Non-lead Partnership in 2018. “If we’re able to accomplish the same effect [as legislation] using voluntary efforts then we’re probably building a more durable outcome in the long run.”
Every Bird Is Sacred
Condor crews working in Yurok ancestral territory are dedicated to helping their small flock thrive and grow. They plan to release at least four birds each year for 20 years, and they will continue to provide lead-free carcasses sourced from local ranches (and occasionally, road-killed animals) to help reduce the condors’ exposure to tainted meat. Biologists will capture the birds twice a year for health checks. Any bird found to have lead in its system can be treated through a blood-filtering process called chelation.
But stopping the poisoning before condors eat lead remains key. Condor crews closely monitor the birds’ movements; if they suspect the birds are “wild foraging” on a carcass, they will visit the site and make sure it isn’t contaminated with lead.
Understanding where lead is in use is key: The National Park Service has partnered with the Tribe on joint funding proposals to investigate the risks of lead contamination in the recently released birds, says Karin Grantham, resource management and science program manager for Redwood National Park. The two entities are also working with nonprofits to help educate the public on the dangers of lead ammunition to all wildlife, especially condors.
Will the eight birds in the burgeoning flock encounter deadly toxins in their new home? The condors are starting to fly farther afield, says Williams-Claussen. They’ve explored as far as the Klamath River and even made it to the coast — about 80 miles.
Watching the young birds acquire skills has been fun, says Williams-Claussen, adding that the second cohort of condors, taking cues from the first, has been much quicker to venture out.
“Every condor is critical and sacred,” Williams-Claussen wrote in a Facebook post about the elk-poaching incident. “Older condors teach younger birds how to make it in the wild. When a condor dies prematurely from lead poisoning, all of the knowledge it amassed throughout its life…is lost.”