California condors may not be recent inhabitants of the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon, but there is evidence that the giant vultures lived in the area as recently as the 19th century. I note this because some critics say that the Nez Perce Tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not collaborate to assess Hells Canyon as a possible condor reintroduction site.
While the written record is sparse, there are credible accounts of condors living in the region. In 1879, U.S. Army Gen. T.E. Wilcox observed two condors feeding on a sheep carcass near present-day Boise, Idaho. Wilcox further reported that, according to local cattlemen, condors were “not uncommon” in the area before they started dying out, largely from eating poisoned carcasses intended to kill wolves.
In 1818, fur trapper Donald McKenzie also reported seeing condors flying in the river canyons of northeast Oregon. These reports effectively bookend the northern and southern extent of the Hells Canyon segment of the Snake River.
The dearth of early written accounts should not surprise anyone familiar with the extremely remote, rugged terrain of the Snake River. This entire region was actively avoided by early European settlers, who considered it impassible and inhospitable. Few outsiders had an opportunity to observe the wildlife that flourished there. Fewer still recorded what they saw.
Yet the people who actually lived in Hells Canyon have a known relationship and history with condors. The Nez Perce (NiMiiPuu) have inhabited the Snake River canyon since time immemorial, and condor references can be found in the NiMiiPuu language (condor = qúˀnes), oral traditions, place names and creation stories.
Viewed collectively, the cultural evidence for condors is compelling. Perhaps most significant is a reference to Joseph Canyon, a Snake River tributary, as ananasocum, which translates to “the place (canyon) where condors used to be.” In his account, tribal elder Otis Halfmoon also describes condors nesting in local caves, which clearly indicates a resident breeding population.
But you still might ask: Why do tribal members want to bring the birds back now? Our answer is that Hells Canyon appears well suited for condors. It contains a large proportion of public lands, has abundant food resources, supports apex predators like wolves, provides excellent geography for soaring raptors, contains relatively few people, and has little human development. The entire Hells Canyon ecosystem would also benefit from the essential ecological services provided by these scavengers.
Furthermore, existing condor populations are still small and vulnerable to catastrophic events, so creating additional and separate populations could help reduce the risk of possible genetic losses. Adding new populations would also help restore the diverse geographic structure of condor populations throughout their historical range, including the Pacific Northwest.
Retired condor biologist Sanford Wilbur states that some local people might see these recovery efforts as yet more overreach by the federal government. What he fails to consider is the people’s tremendous capacity to marshal their shared conservation ethic on behalf of these birds. Most local landowners, ranchers, farmers and hunters embody and carry out a land ethic of stewardship and responsibility. They know that they must care for the land and its associated fish, wildlife and plant species if they want that land to continue to support their livelihoods and well-being. This is a truth the NiMiiPuu have known for generations.
The biggest challenge to condor recovery is lead poisoning from spent bullet fragments. Some may view this as a good reason not to pursue condor reintroduction, but lead poisoning affects many other wildlife species, too. This is an issue that needs to be addressed whether condors are ultimately reintroduced or not.
Fortunately, it is not an insurmountable problem since copper-based bullets are highly effective and increasingly available to shooters. Lead-free ammunition also helps ensure safer food for human consumption, which is itself a compelling reason to switch. Making the switch is the next step in continuing a proud legacy of sportsmen contributing to wildlife conservation.
Skeptics sometimes ask, “Why fiddle with Mother Nature?” The truth is that humans have always fiddled with Mother Nature, and we will continue to do so, simply because of our increasing population. Human-induced factors have long played an adversarial role in the decline of many species, including condors. But common sense, science-based conservation efforts can help to rectify our past mistakes.
The success of any project, however, must rely on public support. Condors need our help to maintain healthy populations, and it’s inspiring to think that Hells Canyon could once again provide these magnificent birds with a wild and healthy home.
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 email@example.com.