The case against condors in Hells Canyon

Researchers contemplate introducing the endangered bird in Oregon— but why meddle?


The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded the Nez Perce Tribe $200,000 to study introducing California condors into the Hells Canyon area between Idaho and Oregon.

I can save everybody time and money by announcing right now: California condors can almost certainly survive in the Snake River Canyon once introduced there. I can make the same prediction about any number of locations from the Pacific Coast to the Black Hills. I base my conclusion on almost 50 years of studying the condor and its history. My question: Why would anybody want to put condors in Hells Canyon?

The north view of Hells Canyon, where the Nez Perce Tribe is reasearching how viable California condors would be if introduced there.
ArtBrom/Flickr user

Hells Canyon was almost certainly not within the historic breeding range of the condor. Condors in the 19th century might have occasionally wandered that far east, but if nesting ever occurred in Oregon, it would have been in the western part of the state, at least 300 miles from Hells Canyon, and in far different environmental conditions. Call me a purist —which, indeed, I am, when it comes to environmental tinkering — but I think species belong where they belong.

Some might suggest that we set aside “purism” and introduce condors where they haven't been before, if that's what it takes to save the birds. I like condors enough that I might agree, if there were no places in their recent habitat into which they could expand. That isn't the case. There are locations in California, and perhaps in western Oregon, that look highly suitable for condor reintroductions. They lie within the bird’s recent— meaning the last 150 years or so — historic habitat, and they are not likely to be pioneered by condors expanding their range from current release sites. So, why fiddle with Mother Nature if we don’t have to?

Max Rae/Flikr user

There are strong socio-political reasons to keep condor introductions out of eastern Oregon and Idaho. First, there are few areas in the country where “We hate the government” feelings are stronger. Twenty years after the fact, wolf introduction in Idaho and the wolves’ subsequent spread to Oregon is still a hot-button issue. You can't deny that wolves have killed some livestock, and some people are still afraid of the “big bad wolf.”

Recently, the citizens of Harney County, Oregon, were traumatized by armed agitators from mostly outside the area who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, many in the county were — and still are — sympathetic to the movement to “take back” Western public lands currently administered by the federal government.

This leads me to believe that anything that looks like an increased federal presence in this part of the West is bound to provoke suspicion and hostility among local people. And condor introduction comes with its own built-in controversy: lead poisoning.

The first press releases on the grant to the Nez Perce Tribe noted that lead ammunition for hunting has been banned in California, principally because of the threat of condors dying from lead fragments found in the animal carcasses they eat. Sportsmen’s groups and anti-gun control groups quickly expressed concerns about the future of hunting if condors were introduced. Sadly, this adds one more reason for some locals to “hate the Feds.”

The federal government does a lot of good work in the region, and most of its land management has benefited local economies as well. Many residents know this, and there are many examples of excellent cooperation between the government, communities, and individuals. Why, then, inflame anti-government feelings with something that is biologically illogical, and probably unnecessary?

If increasing the chances of condor survival is the issue, why not put the full force of the government behind first expanding the condor recovery program in California? The Yurok of northwestern California have much stronger cultural ties to condors than do any of the Northwestern tribes, and they have been working on a reintroduction strategy for years. Let’s concentrate on doing that first.

While the ban on using lead ammunition in California may not have completely resolved what most threatens condors, it is a done deal, and it doesn’t have to be re-fought with every new release proposal. Involving the Yurok Tribe in condor survival will also open the door for condor releases in other areas.

Let’s not let the recovery of California condors become yet another anti-government cause for a vocal minority in the Mountain West.

Sandy Wilbur is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a wildlife biologist and historian who headed the California condor research and recovery efforts from 1969-1980,

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Robert Hooper
Robert Hooper Subscriber
Nov 10, 2016 08:43 AM
Dr. Wilber, your opinion piece is one of the very few I have read in HCN that was based on rational thought. I thank you for your expert opinion.
Doug Pineo
Doug Pineo Subscriber
Nov 11, 2016 03:18 PM
I respect Sandy Wilbur's opinion. I don't agree California condors should not be established in Hell's Canyon. I'd be delighted to see them there. Peregrine falcons once again breed in Hell's Canyon today, where 30 years ago they didn't. For big game hunting, I moved to 100% copper bullets, giving up nothing in ballistics or stopping power. I've discussed this with Pete Jenny, the recently retired president of The Peregrine Fund, where a part of the captive condor population is housed and propagated. Like many biologists and lay conservationists, Pete is an avid deer and elk hunter. The Peregrine Fund is a leading voice in promoting hunters' adoption of use of non-lead ammunition. In both center fire and muzzleloader ammunition, the marketplace already reflects hunters' changing attitudes and growing awareness of the adverse impacts of lead, not only for our growing yet fragile wild condor population, but for other species as well. Lead shot has been banned in waterfowl hunting since 1991. Over a generation later today's duck and geese hunters don't care.

To cave in to an unproved fear that condors would be hated in Hell's Canyon would be craven in a societal sense. It also dismisses the Nez Perce vision. To suggest these birds were never regularly present and culturally significant to first peoples in the inland Northwest may be an overreach, given their 12,000 year history here. The Spokane Tribe tenaciously envisions the salmon's return to the upper Columbia, without which emerging technology might not be pursued to realize this dream. Without a strong, abiding vision for recovery of wild salmonid populations in the Snake River watershed, we may give up on breaching the 4 increasingly irrelevant lower Snake River dams. There were many voices arguing it was best to let the final 22 wild condors "die out in dignity" rather than capture and propagate them in captivity, releasing progeny back to the wild. Since bold, hopeful initiative backed by a bright vision won out over despair in 1987, there are now well over 400, most in the wild. That's almost a 2,000% increase, Wild condors are moving north along the California coast, with a nesting attempt at Big Sur, and a condor seen near Pescadero, south of San Francisco. Faunal remains are recorded from from New Mexico and Texas, which should chasten us against assuming they were never regularly present in the Inland Northwest.

From a conservation biology standpoint, condor recovery will be more assured and resilient with several concurrent populations. The case is much stronger for establishing (perhaps re-establishing) condors in Hell's Canyon, than smothering the idea in its crib. After last Tuesday, now's the time for conservationists of stripes to mount the parapets to defend our western public lands, and to help the Nez Perce bring condors to Hell's Canyon.
Sanford Wilbur
Sanford Wilbur Subscriber
Nov 13, 2016 02:56 PM
My argument on condors and Hell's Canyon contained four segments.
  First: California condors could live there. A recent computer of condor habitat needs concluded that the area "met all the criteria." I could suggest any number of areas "from the Pacific Coast to the Black Hills" that I'm confident would also meet the criteria.
   Second: There is no evidence that California condors were ever regular visitors to the Hell's Canyon area, let alone nesting there. Even prehistorically, there is no reason to think that the species was ever regularly found east of Nevada and Oregon, or north of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. There is also no reason to think that California condor populations survived past the late Pleistocene or middle Holocene in any location more than about 200 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Every sight record beyond that area is suspect in some way; no condor relics have been found in any archaeological sites east of California or western Oregon; and I have not located any information to suggest that condors were known to aboriginal populations beyond the West Coast. Details are in "The Condor Before History" and "Condors and Indians," reprinted on my website from "Nine Feet from Tip to Tip: the California Condor through History" (Symbios Books 2012).
   Unlike many North American Indian groups, the Nez Perce have remained in (parts of) their original homeland, and have been able to maintain their cultural identity. (In contrast, many Northwest "tribes" are a mixture of remnant peoples gathered together and forced into reservations.) With an intact history, one would expect any background with the condor to be more identifiable that it is with some other Native American groups. It isn't.
   Three: There are locations in California and western Oregon that not only "meet all the criteria" for condors, but have been "recently" (within 150 years or so) occupied by condors. These are not areas into which current populations will expand on their own. However, once established, birds from the new populations might eventually mix with wanderers from the closest sites, helping to maintain genetic diversity across the range of the species.
   Four: Only after I'd covered the biological objections did I note the socio-political implications of a Hell's Canyon introduction. Why cause problems if there isn't a need? Just like it's a good idea to consider the possible results of rushing into a burning building, or poking a bear, it's good to remember that all actions have consequences.
   If the main reason for introduction is so people could see condors in another wild environment, there are "natural" locations available. If we don't mind a slightly greater degree of "nature faking," Andean condors from South America, lappet-faced vultures from Africa, or cinereous vultures from Europe would almost certainly survive in Hell's Canyon. All are big birds with bald heads and near-nine foot wingspreads, that look pretty much alike when soaring, and (like California condors) would be outside of their "native habitat." Any would fill the bill.
Matt Chew
Matt Chew Subscriber
Nov 15, 2016 10:16 PM
The argument here seems to hinge on different beliefs about where California condors belong. Sandy Wilbur makes a case that condors belong only where they evidently have existed before; the linchpin of that argument is that absence of evidence equals evidence of absence. Doug Pineo suggests that condors belong wherever they might now be transported, released and managed, by whomever is inclined and equipped to do so.

That leads us to a problem neither writer reminded us of: California condors as presently constituted are effectively bred and fed as public pets, numbered if not named, tethered to the Vermillion Cliffs by a "carcass leash" of dead Arizona dairy calves. Since (with very few exceptions) reproduction only occurs in captivity, the extant roster of condors qualifies more as an inventory than a population.

Whether ideas like 'dignity' ever really applied to condors is unclear. We cannot know whether California condors have conceptions of individual mortality, of their collective status as a taxon, of their potential extinction, or any sort of existential interest at all. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. In that regard we can only project our own desires and fears onto them, as the drafters of the Endangered Species Act did as a general prospect.

It is clearer that clashing socio-bio-geographical ideologies have little to do with the welfare of individual birds. Strangely, perhaps, at the same time, concern for the welfare (or at least the persistence) of individual birds has little to do with achieving the goal (if indeed it is a goal) of 'recovering' California condors as a self-perpetuating 'wild' species. As long as they are seen primarily as symbols rather than organisms, perhaps as long as they remain countable and trackable, the argument is primarily political. It's about us, not them; and the eventual winners (if any) of the argument will not be feathered.
Peter Sandrock
Peter Sandrock Subscriber
Nov 25, 2016 08:25 PM
There is historical evidence of condor presence in the Greater Hells Canyon region.

The Nez Perce referred to nearby Joseph Canyon as “ah nun,” the canyon of the condors. Oral tradition describes apparent condors as nesting in a cave at the mouth of the canyon. The birds were so large and so frightening that “it was considered dangerous to go in or about the cave especially during nesting season.” The birds were said to live only on dead things and always built their nests in caves and cliffs. This information was reported in a letter dated February 21, 1934 from Otis Halfmoon, a Nez Perce, to John H. Horner, a Wallowa County historian. Halfmoon was born in 1870, seven years before the Nez Perce were driven from their ancestral homeland. Halfmoon later appeared before Congress as an interpreter on behalf of Northwest tribes. Horner was also born in 1870 and emigrated with his parents to the Imnaha Canyon, halfway between Hells Canyon and Joseph Canyon.

On October 20, 1917, General T.E. Wilcox spoke to the Biological Society of Washington regarding his sighting of condors near Boise in the fall of 1879. According to the minutes of the meeting, General Wilcox stated:

“I have been requested to record, as it has been doubted, the occurrence of the California vulture in ldaho, then a territory. In the fall of 1879 I came upon two which were feeding on the carcass of a sheep. They hissed at me and ran along the ground for some distance before they were able to rise in flight. They were much larger than turkey buzzards, with which I am quite familiar, and I was very close to them so that I could not be mistaken in their identity. The cattlemen said that the California vulture or buzzard was not uncommon there before they began to poison carcasses to kill wolves. Dr. Coues gives as their habitat "Rocky Mts. to the Pacific." Boise River mountains rise to over 7000 feet, just back of where the vultures were feeding. The exact locality was near the Hot Springs above Boise City. Poison and population have now destroyed that far northern habitat. The Boise Statesman, if any of Editor KeIIy's time are now Iiving may be able to confirm the above statement.”

I agree with Mr. Wilbur that the first priority is to release condors in Northern California under the stewardship of the Yurok Tribe. That’s scheduled to occur in 2019 with 40 birds from the Oregon Zoo.

I also agree with commenter Doug Pineo that the lead ammo issue need not be feared. There has been a remarkably hopeful collaboration on the issue between the Oregon Zoo’s “Wildlife and Lead Outreach” program, the Oregon Hunters Association, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

As is their right, the Nez Perce are leading the way in the Greater Hells Canyon region.

Pete Sandrock
Board VP
Hells Canyon Preservation Council