Where Else Should We Introduce Condors?

Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur
April 2016

In recent years, almost every time I've spoken to a group about California condors, someone has come up to me after the meeting to tell me they had just seen condors in Arizona. The Vermillion Cliffs release is obviously popular with folks who want to see my favorite birds. Funny, I was opposed to that release site when it was proposed, and I still have my doubts about it. Partly, it's my "purist" streak coming to the surface: Why put California condors in an area that hasn't had condors since the end of the Pleistocene, an area that has become much more arid than when condors lived there, and which no longer hosts the abundant Pleistocene mammal population that provided the resident condors with food? Partly my objections were practical: How can a condor population be sustained in that arid country without long-term, high intensity management, including regular supplemental feeding? I realize the effort is considered "experimental," and was initially proposed because some people thought the California environment was no longer "safe" for condors. Still, why experiment so far from recent condor habitat?

I didn't like the idea of Baja California releases, either, even though that area had condors until at least the 1930s. Besides the aridity and lack of an obvious food source on the Peninsula, it had seemed impossible to me that the birds could be adequately protected there. The Mexican Government has almost no biological or wildlife law enforcement people in northern Baja California, and it hasn't seemed a place where logistically you could have a regular supply of supplemental food available, or a regular cadre of field people (like peregrine "nest guards") who could keep a consistent eye on the condors.

Despite my "purist" doubts about the Arizona-Utah releases, both there and in Baja California the programs are working, with different problems than the California releases but perhaps no more serious in the long run. Still, I prefer to picture future condors going to former condor habitat in northern California and western Oregon. There are a number of areas having good condor habitat, where the birds have a good chance of becoming naturalized and eventually fending for themselves with minimal management. Also, these release sites are in areas where it is no problem to get the help one needs to manipulate and monitor the local populations. It looks like the condor breeding facilities will have no trouble producing a steady supply of condors for release, for as long as anyone wants them.

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Below are ten suggestions for areas I would like to see studied for possible condor releases. The Humboldt County and Mt. St. Helena areas are my favorites; the others are more or less in priority order, but I don't know enough about some of them to seriously judge.

1. Bald Hills-Orick-Klamath and Trinity rivers area, Humboldt County, California - This is the area that the Yurok Tribe has proposed as a condor release area, and at which they have done considerable preparatory work. In April 2014, the Tribe signed an agreement with Federal and State agencies to begin a test release of condors in the area. I haven't heard anything about the proposal, lately. I hope it is going forward, because I think it is the best mix we could have of good condor habitat and a strong Native American cultural and religious ties to the species. There is an excellent mix of open range and redwood forest, well-stocked with elk, deer and livestock, and near the Pacific Ocean beaches where marine mammal carcasses are available for food. Jedediah Smith saw condors in this area in 1828, and there were condors nearby until the early 1900s. Some of the area is within Redwood National Park.

2. Mt. St. Helena area, Napa and Sonoma counties, California - This is probably the most interesting and extensive rocky area north of Monterey County. There are a number of condor records from the area. No certain nests were found here, but there is one egg record that may be valid, and some of the rocky areas really look like "condor country." Few collectors or naturalists worked this area until after 1900, when condors were almost gone from the North Bay area. Although the human population is expanding in this area, there is still considerable rangeland, with deer, livestock, and some tule elk. Some of the rock areas are very difficult to access, though not far from human habitation. Much of the best looking habitat, including The Palisades and Table Rock, are within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.


3. Central San Luis Obispo County, California - This area was used by nesting condors as recently as the 1970s, and there are a number of known and potential nest sites. The area is relatively isolated, has excellent nearby foraging area, and would be easily managed. Condors from other release sites are foraging in the area now, but I wouldn't expect them to readily pioneer into this region for nesting. If they don't show up on their own in the next 10-20 years, it would be a very good location to consider.

4. San Diego-Riverside-San Bernardino counties, California - Prior to 1910, these counties supported a major population of condors, and there are a number of documented nest sites. Disappearance from the area was almost certainly the result of wanton shooting and museum collecting. There is much habitat that still looks excellent. Because of a significant habitat break through the Los Angeles Basin area, the region is not likely to be pioneered by birds expanding from northern introduction sites.

5. Southern Humboldt County, California - Condors were seen and collected in the Bridgeville-Kneeland Mountain area in the 1890s, and I suspect they were resident somewhere in the vicinity. To the west is the King Range, with considerable open land. There is some rock and many redwood trees in the region. Extensive grassland and savannah have abundant sheep, deer and elk populations. It is not far from the coast where marine mammals would be available for food. I doubt spawned-out salmon were ever an important source of condor food, but there are large numbers of them seasonally along the nearby Eel and Van Duzen rivers, should condors want them.

6. Mt. Diablo-Mt. Hamilton-Rocky Ridge area, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, California - This may be becoming too much a part of the Bay Area megalopolis, but there are a number of isolated rocky areas, and there are still extensive grasslands (but not as many livestock as there used to be). Large areas of the remaining wildlands are controlled by the East Bay Regional Park District and other government entities. Condors fed and roosted here historically. I suspect condors were nesting; the closest positive nesting was just south in San Benito County.

7. Umpqua River area around Drain and Sutherland, Douglas County, Oregon - The last condor records in Oregon came from this area in the early 1900s and, on the basis of miscellaneous other records, I think this is one of the most likely places for condors to have nested in Oregon. The Umpqua area has extensive oak savannah with deer, elk and livestock, and is relatively unpopulated. There is some rock in the area, along the Umpqua River, and also (toward the coast) some old-growth conifers that might provide nest sites. The seacoast is close enough to provide additional food.

8. Laytonville-Covelo area, Mendocino County, California - There is good isolated rangeland in this area, with some livestock and many deer. There is some rock and there are redwood trees for possible nesting, but I am not familiar enough with the area to know how much rock there is. There are no certain historical records of condors in this area, but they were found for certain just to the north and the south. The region was seldom visited pre-1900 by anyone likely to note the presence of condors.

9. Kalmiopsis Wilderness-Chetco and Rogue rivers area, Curry and Josephine counties, Oregon - I'm not very familiar with this area, having just seen it from the edges, but others have suggested it to me as a possible condor release area. It is a vast mountainous area, much of it managed as national forest. Some photos I have seen of the Kalmiopsis remind me of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, although I didn't see any extensive areas of rock such as occur in the recently-occupied condor nesting areas.

10. Columbia Gorge, Multnomah and Wasco counties, Oregon - There are more verified records of California condors along the lower Columbia River than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. This is in part due to the great number of scientists and naturalists who visited this area in the early 1800s, more than were found in other parts of western Oregon during that time period. There are a number of winter and spring records of condors, the time of year that one would expect condors to be near their nesting habitat. There is abundant rock in the Columbia Gorge, with caves that could have been used as nest sites. There is much open rangeland just east of the Gorge, beyond Hood River and The Dalles.


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Sanford Wilbur 2021