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California Condors in the Pacific Northwest

By Jesse D’Elia

Arguably one of the most iconic endangered species in North America, the California condor once soared the skies of the Pacific Northwest.  In our new book “California Condors in the Pacific Northwest, Susan Haig with USGS and I reviewed the evidence of condors in the region. Fossil records and eye witness accounts showed  the condors were culturally significant to many Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest and were regularly encountered by early Euro-American and Russian explorers.

Our review, which is part of my Ph.D. dissertation at Oregon State University, stemmed from discussions around whether or not reintroducing condors to the northern half of their range is biologically feasible.  Looking at the history of condors was a natural place to start.  We asked questions such as where were they, how common where they, were they resident or migratory, and why did they disappear?  The book tackles these questions through the lens of history and discusses opportunities and challenges of a reintroduction effort. 

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Perspective is everything.  The beauty of a soaring California Condor along the Big Sur coastline. Photo credit: Jesse D’Elia

Probably the most fascinating aspect  of our review is that in fairly recent times (about 150 to 200 years ago) condors were not rare or endangered. In fact, some described them as common.  That they were once common seems wrong at first blush.  Yet, humans are afflicted by something called “environmental generational amnesia,” where each generation views degraded environmental conditions as the norm (see Peter Kahn’s book “The Human Relationship with Nature”).  No one alive today has known California condors to be anything but rare, so that is how we perceive them. By the time Carl Koford conducted the first detailed field study of California condors in the 1950s, they already numbered less than 100 birds.  

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Fun and games with condors?  William Finley’s wife, Irene Finley, taunts young condor ”General” by playing a game of keep away at the Finley home along the Willamette River near Portland, Oregon circa 1906.  “General” was taken from a nest in southern California and kept as a pet for some time in Oregon.  His story is detailed in the book.  Photo credit: USFWS

Delving into the history of condors in the Pacific Northwest provides us a unique window into the species’ life history and ecology that can’t be obtained through field studies.  It also acts as a remedy for our collective amnesia, allowing us to fully appreciate how much we’ve lost, and why.  The good news from our review is that the things that caused the collapse of the condor’s range and reduction in numbers are well known and reversible: direct shooting and secondary poisoning (mostly from early predator control activities).   This means there is hope for restoring this magnificent part of the Pacific Northwest’s natural heritage.   While the USFWS has no immediate plans for a reintroduction effort, our review provides foundational information for such an effort if it is decided that these giant birds should be returned to the region.

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Jesse D’Elia, USFWS wildlife biologist and lead author, above Hell’s Canyon on the Idaho/Oregon border.  In the Fall of 1818, Donald McKenzie, traveling through this area wrote: “Eagles and vultures, of uncommon size, flew about the rivers.”  Detailed accounts and maps of encounters with condors throughout the Pacific Northwest are provided in the book.

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