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(Yurok) Tribe hopes to return condors to Klamath Possible release of large endangered birds could mean sightings in the Rogue Valley, new hunting regulations

by Mark Freeman, Mail Tribune March 6, 2009

Yurok tribal members are looking into reintroducing endangered California condors into the lower Klamath River basin, a move that likely would mean a bird not seen in Oregon in more than a century would be flying over the Rogue Valley.

The tribe, based in Klamath, Calif., is hosting a two-day summit beginning today with state and federal officials as well as condor experts about the chance of returning the world's largest land bird to this region.

So far, condor populations have been re-established only in Arizona, Southern California and Mexico, so the Klamath would be the most northerly site for the efforts to return these massive birds to North America.

"I think the feasibility is good," said Shawn St. Michael, who heads the condor-breeding program at the Oregon Zoo, which is one of four facilities in the country that breed condors for release. "But there's a certain amount of planning on the front end before anything can go forward."

The condors, which are federally listed as an endangered species, were native to most large basins here, and documented in at least the Klamath, Umpqua and Columbia drainages. The last confirmed Oregon sighting was in 1904 near Drain, within the Umpqua Basin southwest of Cottage Grove.

Since the birds with wingspans of up to 10 feet are known to fly up to 300 miles a day in search of carrion, the Rogue River basin would be a logical place for the birds either to frequent or to establish themselves, experts say.

"If we had birds in Northern California, we'd likely have birds in Oregon in short order," St. Michael said.

Re-establishing the region as condor country could bring changes to sport-hunting that are considered needed to help the birds survive.

Studies show the chief limiting factor to condor recovery is lead poisoning, and the most common source of that lead is the ingestion of bullet fragments in the carcasses and gut piles left by hunters.

"The use of lead slugs in condor range is always a point of the discussion," St. Michael said. "It has to be. It's not fair to the animals if it isn't."

California has banned the use of lead bullets in condor habitat. Arizona has a voluntary program that provides hunters in condor habitat with all-copper bullets, and three out of four hunters who use them recommend their use to all hunters, according to the Arizona Department of Fish and Game.

"I think that's a realistic model for other areas," said St. Michael, who added hunters and other interest groups would be brought into the fold should a reintroduction be planned in the Klamath Basin.

Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1991, and several alternatives to lead already are marketed within the ballistics industry.

"I don't think we anticipate any real problems," said Russ Stauff, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue Watershed manager.

Fred Craig, however, disagrees.

As president of the Oregon Hunters Association and a biological sciences technician studying birds for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Craig said he has read the lead-in-condors studies and has heard from some OHA members that they are "very opposed" to a lead ban.

"Science accepts it but sportsmen do not," Craig said. "There will be a lot of unhappy people if they ban lead in southwest Oregon."

Stauff will represent Oregon in today's meetings.

"We just want to get on the ground floor on this," Stauff said. "They're a neat bird and there's a lot of interest from that aspect. There aren't a lot of 20-pound birds out there."

The meeting, which is not open to the public, will be held at the Yurok Tribal Office. Yurok spokesman Matt Mais declined to comment on the meeting or the condor effort until Yurok officials first can discuss it with the tribe's 5,400 members.

The tribe actively has looked into condor reintroduction since at least 2007, when a similar "Condor Summit" was held in Klamath, records show.

The tribe last spring received a $200,000 federal grant toward studying the feasibility of a reintroduction there, including an attempt to study lead levels in turkey vultures that often feed on the same carrion.

According to the Oregon Zoo, condors extended across much of North America during the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago.

By 1940, that range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California, and in 1967 condors were added to the first federal list of endangered species.

In 1987, the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity and a captive-breeding program was developed, according to the zoo.

To date, 149 condors are living in captivity and another 172 in the wild, St. Michael said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

(Gymnogyps californianus)

WHAT: The California condor is the largest bird in North America and an endangered species. SIZE: Adults weigh up to 25 pounds and measure up to 55 inches long. Wingspans can approach 9 feet or more. DESCRIPTION: Adults have mostly bald heads that are shades of pink. Feathers are dark, except for white underwings. Beaks are long, sharp and powerful. Talons are weak. HABITAT: The condor once was almost extinct. According to the Oregon Zoo; 172 now live in the wilds of Southern California, Arizona and Mexico, thanks to captive breeding done largely in Oregon. DIET: Scavengers, they eat everything from dead salmon to dead marine mammals such as whales and seals, even dead cattle. FLIGHT: Condors prefer to glide on rising air currents. Charles Darwin wrote that he once watched a condor in flight for 30 minutes without seeing it beat its wings.

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