|Reintroducing the Condor to Oregon
A Feasibility Study
Dr. David Shepherdson
Deputy Conservation Manager
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was first documented in Oregon on October 30th, 1805 at the mouth of the Wind River in the Columbia River Gorge by Captains Lewis and Clark. Condors played a significant role in Native American culture and were an integral component of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem. However, following European settlement, Condor numbers declined rapidly until they were listed as an endangered species in 1967. The last population of condors became extinct in the wild in California in 1987 when the last individuals were captured to start a captive breeding and reintroduction program
The USFWS California condor recovery goal is to reclassify the species from endangered to threatened by 2010, (Recovery Plan, 1996). This transition requires specific criteria including the establishment of at least two non-captive populations and one captive population. Each of these groups must be self sustaining with a positive growth rate including a minimum of 150 individuals containing at least 15 breeding pairs (Recovery Plan, 1996). Currently Condors are being released at four sites in Arizona, California and Mexico. However, the recovery goal is unlikely to be achieved unless more release sites are established within the Condors more recent former range. Historically, biologically and geographically Oregon is central to this range.
Up until the mid 1800’s this conspicuous bird was a thriving member of the ecological communities of the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Early descriptions of this bird in Oregon come from the journals of Lewis and Clark, David Douglas, John Townsend, and Titan Peale, among others, who often reported condors as, “numerous” or “abundant” in the region, especially along the lower Columbia River from Celilo Falls to the Coast and inland near the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers. Anthropological evidence indicates that the former condor population along the Northern California coast was connected to the population in and around the Puget Sound. Traditional knowledge of the presence and cultural importance of this species is partially retained in the oral record of many Northwest tribes including those in Northern California. These records combined with the archaeological record account for the presence of a residential breeding population of western condors with a long history in Oregon. Although the rich cultural context of condors in this region has been diminished on account of the damages associated with settlement, the cultural significance of condors in this area has persisted through tribal customs such as storytelling, basket weaving, and other traditional art forms.
The Role of the Oregon Zoo
Six years ago the Oregon Zoo partnered with the USFWS Condor Recovery Team to build and operate a major captive breeding facility for California condors. This facility (located in the western foothills of Mt. Hood near the rural community of Carver, OR), which opened in November 2003, is now the largest of four Condor captive breeding facilities (the others are located at the San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo and the World Center of Birds of Prey in Boise, ID). In five years of breeding condors at its Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, the Zoo has fledged 9 birds and this year’s four healthy chicks are expected to join their ranks. To date, four Oregon-fledged Condors have been released into the wild in California and Arizona.
Returning Condors to Oregon
In addition to the work described above, we have been hard at work on a closely related endeavor – the return of the Condor to Oregon. This is truly a visionary project and one of great conservation and cultural significance.
Our first step was to fund a study in 2006 by Portland State Graduate Student and former Condor field biologist David Moen. Moen established relationships with Tribal scientists, cultural historians, researchers and former wildlife agency professionals and was able to document many cultural, ethnographic and first-hand references to Condors in Oregon. Based on this information, the Oregon Zoo partnered with OZF and USFS in 2007 to fund a one-year AmeriCorps position (September 2007 to August 2008) for Moen to continue and expand the work with support from Oregon Zoo staff.
Based on the information that Moen has collected, other published information and consultation with leading state wildlife biologists, we have been able to identify three areas within Oregon that are likely to have been former Condor nesting areas and could therefore be suitable for reintroduction. It has also become clear from initial meetings that there is a growing community of stakeholders that are favorable to the concept of bringing the Condor back to Oregon. On the basis of this information we have put together a team at the Oregon Zoo consisting of conservation biologists, education professionals, curators and marketing experts. Our goal is to study the feasibility of reintroducing the Condor to Oregon.
We have established four primary objectives for this feasibility study:
1. Conduct biological assessment for reintroduction of condor to Oregon
Our work to date has revealed a number of areas with a high probability of being former nesting locations for the Condor in Oregon. For confirmation we plan to visit potential nest sites and conduct archeological excavations for Condor remains. We are currently working with state and Federal agencies for the required permits. We also plan to use GIS data layers to further refine the location of our potential release areas and assess their current biological suitability as Condor habitat. This will be followed up with field visits to check the suitability of these locations using nest site preference data from studies of extant and extinct Condor populations in California.
2. Eliminate use of lead in potential release areas
The biggest current challenge to the reintroduced Condor population is poisoning from lead ingested from ammunition fragments retained in scavenged carcasses. The Recovery Team will likely require that use of lead ammunition be largely eliminated from any potential release site before reintroduction is considered. Of the many challenges to reintroducing Condors to Oregon this may be the biggest. However experience in Arizona with voluntary control and in California with legislation suggests that this is achievable. Viable alternatives to lead ammunition do exist but this change in behavior will require extensive community outreach, education, lobbying and possibly legislation. It will also require support from state agencies and NGO’s. In May 2008 Shepherdson and St Michael both attended “Spent Lead Ammunition: Implications for Humans and Wildlife” a conference hosted by the World Center for Birds of Prey to draw attention to and find solutions for the problem of lead poisoning in Condors, other raptors and humans.
3. Build support among stakeholders
It takes a state to bring back an extirpated species! The support of many stakeholders will be needed in order for Condors to come back to Oregon. Our goal will be to identify stakeholders, connect with them, build support and leverage resources (financial and other). We plant to host meetings with stakeholder groups and develop a community of support for our plan throughout Oregon. Significant stakeholders include the various Native American Tribes, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, other state and Federal agencies such as USFWS and USDAFS. NGO’s include environmental organizations, hunting organizations, avian interest organizations and academic institutions. Of course a key stakeholder is the USFWS Condor Recovery Team (one of our staff is a member of the team). We are also planning to conduct environmental education programs in the Columbia Gorge and potential Condor release areas.
4. Identify necessary resources to proceed
Many resources will be needed to successfully meet our goal. Clearly further funding is required both for this feasibility study and for the ultimate goal of returning the Condor. The goal of this feasibility study is to identify what resources are needed and potential sources for those resources. Funding will be needed for further survey and biological feasibility studies, for community outreach, and possibly for subsidizing use of non-lead ammunition. Funding and staff will be needed to conduct releases and to monitor birds, supply supplemental food when necessary and provide veterinary care.
We are making significant progress on all these goals. Research collaboration with United States Geological Survey biologist Dr. Susan Haig at Oregon State University has resulted in two doctoral research studies to assess the biological feasibility of an Oregon reintroduction. Funding has been received to enable Moen to continue researching the historic breeding range of the condor and search for potential nesting sites. In addition to attending the May 2008 lead conference, the Oregon Zoo has entered into discussions at the highest level with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on the future reduction in the use of lead ammunition in Oregon. Zoo representatives have held meetings with many tribal, federal and state agencies, and NGO groups to build stakeholder support. Meetings will continue this summer as we seek support from the stakeholders and request that they support our efforts by notifying the regional Director of USFWS of their support. We also look with anticipation to the publication of a Blue Ribbon Report commissioned by the American Ornithologists Union in August 2008.