The Nez Perce and Condors–and Alvin

On Friday night, Angela Sodenaa, Precious Lands Coordinator for the Nez Perce Tribe, gave a stirring talk at Wallowology in Joseph, “The Nimiipuu and the qúˀnes: Condor Recovery in Hells Canyon.” She recapped condor demise and recovery across the West, and the Tribe’s work in establishing the feasibility of condor return to the Snake River and tributaries, and advocacy work on behalf of that return.

For the past seven years, the Tribe has looked at the potential for reintroduction and recovery, and the hazards in its way. Is there habitat? Are there places remote enough with nesting caves and perches high enough to get the giant birds into the air for their great soaring hunts? Will there be feed for California condors—Gymnogyps californianus—who rely solely on carrion? Do power lines that can disrupt and kill birds pose a severe threat? Are there large human populations, including shooters who might unthinkingly kill endangered birds?

And what about lead bullets and the food chain? In the recovery programs that are happening from Mexico to the Yurok Reservation in Northern California, lead is the biggest killer of condors. Lead from the bullets that kill rabbits, bothersome ground squirrels, marmots, and even game animals like deer and elk, shatter on impact, leaving small fragments of lead in the bodies that lie to rot, and even in game animal remains that are left on the ground. Lead works its way up the food chain to the apex predator, the California Condor, qúˀnes in Nez Perce. Lead is the killer in half of the confirmed cases of condor deaths since recovery programs began.

The Tribe’s inventories of all of the above are impressive. Angela showed photos of craggy shelfs that we could envision as launching pads for the birds, and caves she said would be perfect for condor nesting and chick raising. Hidden and inaccessible enough to keep predators away from the precious eggs.

There’s the rub. Condors lay an egg every two years, and then have to coddle the chicks, hauling more carrion to them for months after their births. It’s nice that condors can live for 60 years, but they don’t get started with eggs and chick-raising until they are six or seven years old. It’s a slow process. They need those remote caves.

The number of successful births in the wild is low—single digits or a dozen in a given year. Most chicks are born and reared in captivity. The Portland Zoo and a raptor center in Boise are the two most successful programs. A new site, once selected, has to get in line for 2-3 year-old birds to start a program, and then wait for them to get accustomed to the new home and old enough to breed. Most programs, including the most recent, the California Yurok tribe, start with four pairs. And new birds are added from captivity stocks until a vital population is established. The captive breeding places produce more chicks than are produced in the wild, but still barely 25 each year.

The Nez Perce Tribe is now finding area partners and developing a management plan for condor recovery. They are in the que!

It’s interesting and somehow fitting that my mentor, Alvin Josephy, wrote about condors before he learned about the Nez Perce! In June of 1951, when he was not long back from the War in the Pacific, not yet at Time Magazine, scrambling to make a living in Southern California, he wrote a piece for Blue Book: Magazine of Adventure in Fact and Fiction, about the California Condor. At the time there were about 20 breeding pairs in the wild, and the only nesting site in the San Pedro National Forest was under siege by oil companies. The California and National Audubon societies had previously taken up the birds’ cause, but the possibility of an oil strike was sending them and the condors into trouble.

It’s a fine story. I’ve told the story before about the movie industry grabbing it and rewriting the script. “Something for the Birds” has the Audubon lady and the Washington lobbyist for the oil industry falling in love. Alvin didn’t write the screenplay, but he was equally deft at titling his Blue Book essay. “Condors Don’t Pay Taxes,” he wrote, quoting one of the oil men distressed by the biologists and ornithologists who were sticking up for qúˀnes, the bird Angela Sodenaa says would have been better named the “Columbia River,” rather than the “California” condor.

Alvin would have loved the plan to bring the bird home to the Nez Perce.

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photo: Brad Quicksall, National Park Service

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