Why we need condors in eastern Oregon

Scavenger relocation to Hells Canyon is a far cry from government overreach.

 

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 Nez Perce Tribe is researching how viable California condors would be if introduced in Hells Canyon.
Scott Flaherty/USFWS

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.

 

Angela C. Sondenaa is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is the Precious Lands Project Leader for the Nez Perce Tribe, Lapwai, Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking two full time community organizers to join our team. Positions can be based in Garfield County, Montrose...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Join our team as the Association's Executive Director. Working closely with the Board of Directors, take ANWS to the next level of professionalism by managing...
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...