HomeOutdoorsPlight of the California Condor: An Outsider’s Guide, From Gold Rush-era Decline to Now

Plight of the California Condor: An Outsider’s Guide, From Gold Rush-era Decline to Now

by Jon D. B.
California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus, in wild, Arizona. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As the first California condor takes flight into the state’s redwoods in over a century, it’s time to take a look back at how we got here.

At 10:12 AM Pacific on Tuesday, May 3, California condor A3 looked to the blue sky above ancestral redwood trees. With little hesitation, she leaped out into the wild; free, and the first of her kind to greet this homeland in 130 years. And it’s all thanks to a historic partnership between the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National and State Parks.

With a wingspan up to 10 feet, California Condors are the largest flying birds in North America. In 1982, the world population of California condors had dropped to only 22. Extinction was eminent, so biologists captured every extant condor to begin captive breeding and release programs.

Great rehabilitation success has come in Southern California and Arizona. But soon, condors will fly Northern California and Oregon skies for the first time in well over a century. That’s the hope, anyway. Any sort of true self-sustaining, breeding population is still 20 years off. This is just the beginning. And these next two decades will tell if humanity can undo 200 years of catastrophic damage.

Timeline: The Plight of the California Condor

  • For Millennia, California condors inhabited Northern California and Oregon, roosting in giant redwood trees, circling the skies, also inspiring much of the Yurok Tribe’s customs.
  • In the Early 1800s, European emigrants began settling – and damaging – the American West. This began the rapid decline of the California condor.
  • The Mid-1800s saw the West’s Gold Rush Era, in which condors were frequently shot for sport and trophies. Condors were also put into museums at this time.
  • At the Turn of the 20th Century, California condors were nearing total extinction. Many succumbed to poisons used to eradicate large predators like grizzly bears and wolves.
  • Rehabilitation began in the 1980s, when a fortuitous decision came to collect the last 22 birds from the wild. This would establish the first captive breeding program to save the species.
  • In 1983, NPS also teamed up with the LA Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. The first-ever captive breeding facilities launch.
  • The last 40 years have been spent meticulously breeding and reintroducing California condors across the American West. This is an attempt to not only save the species from annihilation, but return them as an integral part of their ancestral ecosystems.

Flight of the Prey-Go-Neesh

Rare and endangered California condors fly near the Vermillion Cliffs and Marble Gorge, east of Grand Canyon National Park, on March 22, 2007 in Arizona. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Today, both California’s Redwood National and State Parks and the Yurok Tribe are spearheading an effort to restore the condor – their prey-go-neesh – to the heartland of its original territory. The Yurok are the largest California tribe and are indigenous to this same heartland. These great fishermen, eelers, basket weavers, canoe makers, storytellers, singers, dancers, healers and strong medicine people are as intertwined with the condors as the redwoods and the land itself. And they know the plight of the California condor best, because it is a shared history.

As the Yurok Tribe describes:

“The decline of the condor started shortly after arrival of European settlers in the American West. During the Gold Rush era, numerous condors were shot for sport and collected for museum displays. While others succumbed to poisons used to eradicate large predators, such as grizzly bears and wolves.

One of the first species placed on the federal endangered species list, condor numbers continuously plummeted from 1800 to the 1980s. Then, a fortuitous decision was made to collect the last 22 birds from the wild. This would establish the first captive breeding program to save the species.

In 1983, the Service teamed up with the LA Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park to launch the first-ever captive breeding facilities. Today, thanks to the California Condor Recovery Program’s continued success, approximately 300 wild condors are flying free in California, the Southwest and Baja California. There are also now four captive breeding centers. Each supplies birds for the release sites in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Northern California Condor Restoration Program facility.”

Yurok Tribe

Yurok Connection to the California Condor is Paramount

“For the Yurok Tribe, the recovery of this sacred species signifies significant progress toward the restoration of an intricately interconnected ecosystem and the people who are responsible for taking care of it,” cites the tribe in their May 3 press release. “Prey-go-neesh plays a principal role in the Yurok creation story and prominently features in the Tribe’s White Deerskin Dance and Jump Dance. During the ten-day world renewal ceremonies, the condor is represented via the fallen feathers incorporated into tribal regalia and prayers for the earth and all of its inhabitants.”

The Yurok Tribe has been working in earnest on condor reintroduction for over a decade now. In 2008, the Yurok received a tribal wildlife grant from the National Park Service to conduct a study. The intent? To determine if Yurok ancestral territory could still support North America’s largest terrestrial bird. 

With support from Redwood National Park, the Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as the Administration for Native Americans, Pacific Gas and Electric and many other contributors, the Yurok Wildlife Department completed the tremendous amount of work required to reintroduce a critically endangered species.

‘The loss of the condor has limited our capacity to be Yurok… Prey-go-neesh is such an important part of our culture and traditions’

A California Condor soars along the Pacific Ocean shoreline in Big Sur, Calif. on Tuesday August 17, 2010. (Photo By Michael Macor, also The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

“The loss of the condor has limited our capacity to be Yurok… Prey-go-neesh is such an important part of our culture and traditions. In a very real way, restoring condor habitat and returning condor to Yurok skies is a clear restoration of the Yurok people, homeland, ecological systems, culture, and lifeway,” offers Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen.

Williams-Cluassen is also a Yurok citizen and traditional culture bearer. She has dedicated her entire professional career to condor reintroduction. And because of her people’s joint efforts with the NPS and dozens of other organizations, her 3-year-old daughter will be of the first generation in a century to grow up with California condors overhead.

“I have a 3-year-old-daughter. She is going to grow up with condors in her sky for her entire life. She is not going to know what it is to miss condors,” Williams-Caussen continues. “And she will always live in relationship with condors, which is really what this project is all about. Bringing condor home, back into our communities, back into our conversations. Back into our households, and into the minds and hearts of our children on behalf of the hearts of our elders.”