ORICK, Calif. - The tribes of the lower Klamath River have since ancient times decorated themselves with condor feathers when they performed the dances designed to heal a world gone wrong.
"It can soar the highest, so we figured that was the one to get our prayers to heaven when we were asking for the world to be in balance," said Richard Myers, a member of the Yurok Tribal Council and a leader in the revival of the tribe's world renewal ceremonies.
Now the Yurok Tribe is using modern science in hopes of restoring condors, which have not soared above the northern coast of California since 1914.
If it establish that condors can survive here, and get federal permission to introduce birds from a captive breeding program, it would be the first restoration of condors in the northern half of its historic range, and a stepping stone to condors soaring over Oregon and Washington. Lewis and Clark collected some as they trekked down the Columbia River.
With a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tribe is trapping turkey vultures to test for lead poisoning from eating the rotting remains of deer and elk contaminated by lead bullets, and cutting plugs of blubber from dead sea lions to measure the legacy of DDT pesticides. Those tests will help determine potential toxic threats to condors.
Researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Zoo are computer mapping areas throughout the Northwest where condors can nest in big trees and rocky cliffs, and soar over steep hillsides with the kind of sustained winds that draw hang gliders.
"He was like the boss of all the birds," said the tribal council's Myers. "At one point in time in our world we know where the beginning of the world was. We call it Kenick. The birds and animals would all speak the same language. He was the first one. He was also the first one to go extinct for whatever reasons."
The details of why condors went extinct in the Northwest are not clear. Tribal wildlife biologist Chris West figures that a big factor was commercial whaling and sealing, which deprived the birds of a major source of food washing up on the beach. Tests of feathers indicate marine sources comprised up to half the diet of some birds.
"Condors being the first animal we bring back to Yurok ancestral territory is a really powerful thing to me, as the first step toward renewal of our land."