Inside the Yurok Tribe’s mission to make critically endangered condors thrive

Hunters, dairy farmers, utility operators, loggers, government agents, and conservationists have all supported the tribe in helping North America’s largest land-based birds.
A condor.
Each condor will receive a Yurok name based on its personality or behavior, Tiana Williams said. For now, they have alphanumeric codes. Paul Robert Wolf Wilson/High Country News

This article was originally featured on High Country News.

A dead seal washes ashore in Northern California. Ravens and turkey vultures peck at its eyes and tail end, but they’re not strong enough to break into the blubbery carcass. For that they’d need the help of the Western Hemisphere’s largest land-based bird: the condor. With feathers as long as your femur and the body weight of a human preschooler, a condor can hold down a big carcass and rip into it with the torque of its meat hook-shaped beak. It may seem macabre from a Western perspective, but condors clean up with an efficiency other animals—including humans—cannot match. It’s one reason the Yurok Tribe has spent over a decade working to bring them home.

To the Yurok people, the California condor, whose Yurok name is preygoneesh, embodies the spirit of renewal. It heads the scavenger sanitation crew: When preygoneesh eats, so does everybody. But preygoneesh has been absent from this beach for over a century. The ravens and vultures have to look elsewhere for a meal. The seal carcass bloats in the sun, wasted.

Preygoneesh’s decline accompanied Americans’ push Westward in the mid-1800s, a manifest casualty of the usual suspects: habitat destruction, novelty hunting by collectors and killings out of misplaced fear. Preygoneesh once ranged from what’s now called Mexico to British Columbia, from the Pacific to New York. The birds can travel 100-200 miles per day on 9.5-foot wingspans that can take them to 15,000 feet (2.8 miles), even higher than eagles. But by the 1980s, only 22 were left, their range diminished like a reservation to a sliver of skies over central and Southern California. Because they declined so early, Western scientists were never able to study healthy condor populations in the wild. What their thriving looks like is a mystery.

Except to Indigenous communities like the Yurok. 

On an unusually wintry day in late March, snowflakes piled on redwood boughs, fluffy and silent one hour, slushy and dumpy the next. But Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams was confident the tribe’s four adolescent condors could handle the weather. They’d just arrived from the Ventana Wildlife Society in Monterey, which held them while the tribe finished constructing its own condor pen.

Tribal Chair Joseph L. James spoke to the press while snare hits of slush plopped on the overhead canopy. “It is a historical moment in the Yurok Tribe, as we introduce our condors back home to fly back above the sky, providing that balance for us,” he said. Vice Chair Frankie Myers followed, saying it took generations of work, and fulfills the dream of Yurok grandparents. “This is how government is supposed to represent its people,” Myers said.

Standing alongside tribal leadership were Redwood National Park Superintendent Steven Mietz and Victor Bjelajac, superintendent of California State Parks’ North Coast Redwoods District, representatives of the tribe’s original condor restoration partners. Numerous other agencies joined later, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sent staff out to help build the tribe’s condor facility.

“This is how government is supposed to represent its people.”

The historic day arrived with the help of some unlikely partners, too. PG&E, the power company whose equipment started the Dixie Fire last summer, donated $200,000 to the Yurok condor restoration program. Pacific Power, whose parent company owns the Klamath River dams the Yurok have been fighting to remove, is also involved. Then there are local dairy farmers who donate stillborn calves to feed the fledglings. The tribe even approached timber companies, although, according to Mietz, logging and other industries have damaged two-thirds of Redwood National and State Parks, part of the Yurok’s ancestral homelands.

“As we heal this landscape and we bring back the condors, and we start to restore the previous majestic glory of the redwood forest, we’re also healing the relationship with each other, and repairing our relationship with the original Indigenous people,” said Mietz. “We’re following their lead in how to manage the park, to restore this very damaged landscape.”

The tribe and its partners built the holding pen from shipping containers, in part because they’re fireproof. (In 2020, a California wildfire killed 12 condors.) The facility is tucked away in a discreet location and surrounded by electrified fencing. This protects preygoneesh not just from roaming predators, but from a well-meaning public, said biologist Chris West, the tribe’s lead condor program manager, flashing a still-red finger wound where a feisty fledgling took a chunk just days before.

A mentor bird—an 8-year-old adult condor, distinguishable by its bald red head—mingled with the adolescents. “If you just threw a bunch of teenagers into an area and expected them to behave themselves, at some point you might want to throw an elder in there to straighten them out a little bit,” West explained. “That’s kind of what’s going on with our mentor bird.”

Condors are social animals, with a literal pecking order that includes other, smaller scavengers. In the wild, a condor’s parents follow it around to teach it; here, the mentor plays that role. Bait outside the pen attracts turkey vultures and ravens, allowing the condors to get used to the animals they’ll dine with in the wild.

The adolescents, a female and three males, are 2 to 3 years old. Some hatched at the Oregon Zoo, others at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise. And after their stay in Monterey, they needed to acclimate to Yurok country and socialize for a few weeks before release. There was no rush, said West. “We’re on condor time.”

Adult condors reproduce slowly, laying just one egg every two years. And they face one extremely lethal adversary. Lead poisoning from ammunition, which contributed to preygoneesh’s decline, remains their number-one killer, accounting for half of all known wild condor mortalities. A piece of lead the size of a pinhead can paralyze pregoneesh’s powerful gastrointestinal system, causing an agonizing death. “There’s some indication that if we were able to get rid of the lead problem,” Williams said, “that we could potentially stop managing condors.”

“We’re on condor time.”

California banned lead ammo in 2019. Nevertheless, 13 condors died in the wild last year from lead poisoning. The tribe reached out to hunters with information about alternatives, like copper ammunition. “Anywhere from 85%-95% of hunters we talked to came to our events, saying, ‘I had no idea, and of course I’ll make the switch to non-lead,’” Williams said. “I’m not surprised by that, being a hunter myself, coming from a hunting family.”

Hunters, like dairy farmers, utility operators, loggers, and park superintendents, all seem to want preygoneesh to succeed. Yet it’s the Yurok’s leadership that has brought these unexpected allies together in the name of renewal.

According to Williams, the Yurok people’s fundamental reason for being is to keep the world renewed and in balance. She said preygoneesh is a critical part of the Yurok’s 10-day Jump Dance, a world-renewal ceremony that uses preygoneesh feathers and songs. Every other year, before the ninth full moon, participants fast and pray, dance and sweat. “We pray for our river, we pray for our streams, we pray for our salmon,” Chair James told HCN. “We pray for our condor to come home.”

On a morning in early May, the Yurok’s livestream showed two of the fledglings hopping to the edge of the release door and taking wing past a bait carcass. They’ll build their mental map around this location as a key place to return to for food and socializing.

The tribe won’t stop with these four birds: A new cohort arrives later this year, and West hopes to release four to six birds every year for the next 20 years, 80 to 120 birds from this site altogether.

“Our prayers are answered. They’re coming home now,” James said with a smile. “It’d be icing on the cake, being able to dance and have a condor fly over us. It’ll happen.”