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 [email protected].

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