California condors once soared from Baja to British Columbia.
By 1987, when the last wild condors were trapped for a captive-breeding program, their range was limited to Southern California, and these spectacular birds with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet faced imminent extinction.
In what may become one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, the population has grown from 22 to about 415, including 230 in the wild. Condors are reclaiming their historic range in northern Arizona, Mexico's Baja peninsula and in parts of California. The North Coast may be next.
In the traditions of the Yurok Indians, the California condor is sacred — the bird that flies closest to the sun and is best able to deliver prayers.
The modern Yuroks, the state's largest tribe, sponsor fish and wildlife programs dedicated to stewardship of environmental resources. They conducted an extensive evaluation of food supplies and habitat in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, culminating in a recent agreement with state and federal wildlife agencies and the Ventana Wildlife Society to pursue reintroduction of the condor to its ancestral grounds.
The first releases could come in the next one to three years, tribal biologist Chris West told the Associated Press.
For the tribe, the return of the condor after more than 100 years has both practical effects — its survival depends in part on the health of salmon fisheries that support the tribe — and spiritual significance.
For the wildlife agencies, releasing condors on the North Coast would expand the range of the recovery program.
For the region, it could be an economic boost — a new draw for enviro-tourists, who have flocked to Pinnacles National Park since condors returned to the Central Coast.
Despite its growing numbers, the California condor is still critically endangered, and recovery efforts have been hampered by lead poisoning. The birds eat carrion, ingesting lead from hunters' bullets.
To improve their odds of survival, state legislators enacted a law banning the use of lead ammunition. But it doesn't take full effect until 2019. In their evaluation, the Yuroks studied turkey vultures, another scavenger subject to lead poisoning, and found lower lead levels on the North Coast than anywhere in the condor's present range.
That's yet another reason to hope that California condors return soon to the North Coast.