No Condors for Hell's Canyon

By Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur of Gresham, OregonR. Sanford is a retired Federal biologist, who was in charge of the California condor research and recovery effort from 1969 to 1980. He developed the first proposals for the captive breeding and reestablishment of condors in their former habitat. He writes regularly about condors and Western land use issues at CondorTales.com.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded the Nez Perce $200,000 to study the feasibility of introducing California condors into the Hell's Canyon area in the boundary country between Idaho and Oregon. The investigation is expected to be done in 18 months. I can save everybody time and money by announcing right now: California condors can almost certainly survive in the Snake River Canyon if they are introduced there. I'm willing to make the same prediction about any number of locations from the Pacific Coast to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I base my conclusion on almost 50 years of studying the condor and its history. My question: why would anybody want to put condors in Hell's Canyon?

Hell's Canyon was almost certainly not within the historic breeding range of the California condor. Condors in the Nineteenth Century might have occasionally wandered that far east, but if nesting ever occurred in Oregon (I think they nested, but it has never been confirmed), it would have been in the western part of the state. Nesting would have been at least 300 miles from Hell's Canyon - probably more - and in far different environmental conditions. Call me a purist (which, indeed, I am, when it comes to environmental tinkering), but I think species belong where they belong.

Some might suggest that we should set aside "purism," and introduce condors where they haven't been before, if that is what it takes to save the birds. I like condors enough that I might go along with that, if there were no places in their recent habitat into which their numbers could be expanded. That is not the case. There are a number of locations in California (and eventually in western Oregon?) that look to me to be highly suitable for condor reintroductions, are within their recent (last 150 years or so) historic habitat, and are not likely to be pioneered by condors expanding their range from current release sites. Why fiddle with Mother Nature if we don't have to?

There are very strong socio-political reasons to keep condor introductions out of eastern Oregon and Idaho, also. There are few areas in the country where the "we hate the Government" feelings are stronger. Twenty years after the fact, wolf introduction in Idaho and the wolves' subsequent spread to Oregon is a hot-button issue. (Losses of livestock to wolf depredations, coupled with a general public fear of "the big bad wolf" are the reasons.) In a referendum vote earlier this year, 90 percent of those casting ballots in Malheur County, Oregon, expressed opposition to a proposal to designate the Owyhee Canyon area as a national monument. (Expanded "government control" and interference with the local lifestyle were behind the 5,666 to 633 vote.) The citizens of Harney County, Oregon, were traumatized by the recent armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by criminals from outside the area. Nevertheless, many in the county were - and still are - sympathetic to the movement to "take back" Western lands currently administered by the Federal government.

Anything that looks like increased Federal presence in this area is going to provoke suspicion and hostility. And condor introduction comes with its own built-in controversy: lead poisoning. The first press releases on the Nez Perce grant noted that lead ammunition for hunting has been banned in California, principally because of the threat of condors dying from lead fragments found in the animal carcasses they eat. Sportsmen's groups and anti-gun control groups are already expressing their concerns about the future of hunting in the regions if condors are introduced. Just one more reason to "hate the Feds."

The Federal Government does a lot of good work in the region, and most Federal land management has proven desirable locally for both economic and esthetic reasons. Many of the residents know this, and there are many examples of excellent cooperation between the Government, communities, and individuals. Why, then, even consider something that will likely further inflame anti-Government feelings that isn't logical from a biological standpoint? Why not just tell the Nez Perce that they should put their efforts elsewhere? If improvement in the chances for condor survival is the issue, why not put the full force of the Government behind expanding the condor recovery program in California? The Yurok of northwestern California have much stronger cultural ties to condors than do any of the northwestern tribes, and they have been working on a reintroduction strategy for years. Let's get that done. While the ban on lead ammunition in California may not have completely resolved condor mortality issues, it is a done deal, and doesn't have to be re-fought with every new release proposal. That should open the door for serious study of logical condor release areas in San Diego, Riverside, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and possibly other California counties.

Let's not let California condor recovery become another anti-Fed cause for the Mountain West.

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