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The Yurok Condor Restoration Program

On March 24, Tiana Williams-Claussen, the 35-year-old director of the Yurok Tribe’s wildlife department, was sitting through a rather dull meeting – “Some sort of fiscal management program training,” she says – when she got the email from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Yurok Tribe, she read, had cleared the final regulatory hurdle and could now reintroduce California Condors to their ancestral territory in the redwoods of the Pacific northwest. It was the culmination of a process that officially began in 2008 but whose origin dates even further back.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

What was her initial reaction to this long-awaited milestone? “Oh, crap,” she says with a laugh. “Like, oh my goodness, we’re a go.”

Her mind flashed to all the work ahead: the construction of a captive release facility in a remote part of Redwood National Park, the several months in which a small group of captive-bred condors would acclimate to their new surroundings there, the hoped-for autumn release date. But once her meeting ended, and she could read the email closely, the ups and downs of the previous 13 years flooded over her. 

“I had to take some time to myself,” she says. “I started crying. You know, this has been my entire life’s work. I joined the program immediately out of college and it’s been my career. And so I cried a little.”

Then she got back to work.

It’s been more than a century since condors last soared above the old-growth redwoods of the Pacific northwest, but habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning across their range, from British Columbia to Mexico, drove them to the brink of extinction. In the 1980s biologists captured the last remaining 22 individuals from the wild and brought them into captivity to begin a breeding program.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I was hesitant to move here, frankly. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, too, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” he says.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Part of that reputation comes from their efforts to make Alabama Audubon more representative of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and then across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of this fertile land. Later, Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro. Today, it remains extremely poor.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

Williams-Claussen releases a California Condor after a health check with Ventana Wildlife Society biologists in Big Sur, California.

Since then, they’ve been reintroduced to south and central California, and as well as in Utah, Arizona, and Baja California in Mexico, with more than 300 in the wild again. Still a critically endangered species, their movement is monitored constantly thanks to satellite tracking and radio-frequency tags, and those individuals are captured once or twice a year so their health can be assessed.

For the Yurok Tribe, Williams-Claussen said their goal is to release four captive-bred condors within a year, rising to six in later years. The Yurok Tribe will be the first tribal nation to reintroduce the California Condor; since 2008, they’ve led the effort that now includes 16 federal, state, nonprofit and private partners.

Condors sit at the head of nature’s clean-up crew. They range widely for carrion, flying up to 200 miles in a day. Their massive, powerful beaks can open up large, fresh carcasses that Turkey Vultures and smaller birds then feed on. Condors are social animals, too; they eat and fly together and form bonds and mate for life.

On top of their ecological importance, which has been all but lost, their coming return to Yurok ancestral territory will also begin to repair a century-old hole in Yurok traditions and culture, in which prey-go-neesh, which is Yurok for condor, occupies a central place.


“For us, Condor epitomizes and supports the Yurok foundational reason for being, which is to be world renewal people,” says Williams-Claussen. “Traditionally, that would have been a matter of maintaining a delicate balance between the physical, the spiritual and the ecological world. Now, it’s really a matter of restoring that balance so that we can all live well in a way that benefits everybody.”

Condor feathers are used in regalia for dances that are part of Yurok biennial world renewal ceremonies, as well as those of surrounding tribes who share this world renewal ethic. Williams-Claussen was taught that condors were never to be harmed in acquiring the feathers, but rather they were typically found or passed down through the generations. Their absence was a painful reminder of what had been lost.

Yurok Tribe Condor Program Manager, Chris West, restrains a condor while an Oregon Zoo veterinarian and keeper attach a wing-tag in preparation for release.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

“I didn’t grow up learning how important Condor was,” Williams-Claussen says. “It wasn’t taught to me because he wasn’t part of our world any more.” Though this relationship was carefully curated by elders and culture-bearers, she adds, “we were on the brink of losing it. And so bringing Condor back to Yurok country reestablishes that relationship, and his role in world renewal, which supports our own capacity to be world renewal people through that.”

The condor recovery program, she says, has served as the starting point for other initiatives in the Yurok Wildlife Department. They’re focused on habitat restoration and the conservation of other endangered or threatened species, like the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet. It’s all part of a larger Yurok revival, she says, that includes the reclamation of water rights, the largest dam removal in the U.S., language revitalization, and reacquiring ancestral territory – all a response to the atrocities of colonization on their lifeways.

“It was illegal to practice our religion,” Williams-Claussen says. “It was illegal to speak our language. Our children were being stolen out of our houses and sent off to boarding schools. In my grandfather’s generation, there was almost an unspoken rule that it was dangerous to be Yurok, to be Native. And so they didn’t pass on the language. They didn’t pass on all components of the culture.”

She goes on: “But we’re at a place now where the Yurok Tribe as a people, as a government, can really be openly Yurok again. This Yurok spirit, which was never quenched, is fully alight again.”

That spirit was given voice in 2003 through the Yurok Tribal Park Task Force, a panel of elders who identified prey-go-neesh as the most important land-based species to restore to Yurok ancestral territory. Salmon, which used to swim up the Klamath River by the hundreds of thousands every year, were the highest priority, says Williams-Claussen. (“We’re salmon people,” she says.) Healthier fish populations in turn would help the likes of condors and Ospreys.

As the Wildlife Department set out to take up these priorities in 2008, Williams-Claussen was returning home to the coastal Yurok Reservation after finishing her undergraduate degree at Harvard in biochemical sciences. She’d planned on becoming a doctor, but instead she enrolled in a post-graduate internship program with the Yurok Tribe. She soon became the first hire of the Wildlife Department.

Williams-Claussen prepares a Turkey Vulture for contaminants sampling and subsequent release in Kneeland, California.

She expected that it might take five years to reach this current stage. Instead, with colleagues like senior wildlife biologist Chris West, who joined the program within two months of its inception and who serves as the Condor Program Manager within the Wildlife Department, they spent the next dozen building relationships, studying habitat viability for condors, and applying for funding. Their work is entirely grant-funded. Williams-Claussen and West spent years investigating the prevalence of lead and DDT in northern California, toxins which have limited the recovery of condors at other reintroduction locations. A lot of delays were political too, Williams-Claussen says.

Throughout, the sense of urgency has grown. Williams-Claussen says only about half of the elders from that original task force are still alive, and some of them are ailing. “We keep hammering people. We have to get this done,” she says. “We have to get these birds in the sky so they can see them before they walk on.”

Several politicians, like California governor Gavin Newsom and Congressman Jared Huffman, have said they’d like to attend the release. Williams-Claussen says it’s a priority that a Yurok elder be there to say a prayer over this monumental occasion.

Williams-Claussen says she’s too busy to think much beyond the present, but during those rare moments when she has time to daydream, she imagines seeing condors in her everyday life. A world in which they’re just...there. Catching high winds near where she grew up in Crescent City and then dropping down to driftwood-lined beaches, riding thermals above the rock canyons that face the Smith River or turning up the Klamath River where Williams-Claussen spent much of her youth.

That youth was without condors, but she hopes the opposite will be true for her daughter, who is three, as well as other Yurok children who are now regularly taught their ecological and cultural significance. Her daughter often asks her about prey-go-neesh (she usually drops off the first syllable). Her mom hasn’t yet taught her the English word, she says, “because I want her to know how important it is for being Yurok that Condor is coming home.”

“Growing up I knew I was missing things,” Williams-Claussen says. “I knew there were parts of myself that hadn’t been passed on, or I was too ignorant to pursue. Things I didn’t have access to because of the hard times of my elders. Bringing Condor home is one more way that my daughter doesn’t have to carry that feeling. That she can feel complete and whole because her world is more complete and whole.”

Those prairies formed an important ecosystem in the Southeast, but by the beginning of the 20th century, they were all but gone – gobbled up by agriculture or development. The birds of the Black Belt, however, remained an attraction. But when Alabama Audubon’s members visited, they rarely spent much money in the area before driving back to Birmingham, which never sat well with Payne and others within the organization. In several Black Belt counties, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and many lack access to health care and running water.

There is also very little public land. Alabama Audubon’s members would visit an old-growth cypress swamp called Perry Lakes Park, in Hale County, where they’d find Prothonotary Warblers and Bald Eagles, and a state-owned, appointment-only quail plantation, but otherwise they did their birding from the highway shoulder, bracing themselves against gusts from speeding trucks. It was not ideal.

Williams-Claussen restrains a condor while an Oregon Zoo veterinarian and keeper attach a wing-tag in preparation for release.

On March 24, Tiana Williams-Claussen, the 35-year-old director of the Yurok Tribe’s wildlife department, was sitting through a rather dull meeting – “Some sort of fiscal management program training,” she says – when she got the email from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Yurok Tribe, she read, had cleared the final regulatory hurdle and could now reintroduce California Condors to their ancestral territory in the redwoods of the Pacific northwest. It was the culmination of a process that officially began in 2008 but whose origin dates even further back.

What was her initial reaction to this long-awaited milestone? “Oh, crap,” she says with a laugh. “Like, oh my goodness, we’re a go.”

Her mind flashed to all the work ahead: the construction of a captive release facility in a remote part of Redwood National Park, the several months in which a small group of captive-bred condors would acclimate to their new surroundings there, the hoped-for autumn release date. But once her meeting ended, and she could read the email closely, the ups and downs of the previous 13 years flooded over her. 

“I had to take some time to myself,” she says. “I started crying. You know, this has been my entire life’s work. I joined the program immediately out of college and it’s been my career. And so I cried a little.”

Then she got back to work.

It’s been more than a century since condors last soared above the old-growth redwoods of the Pacific northwest, but habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning across their range, from British Columbia to Mexico, drove them to the brink of extinction. In the 1980s biologists captured the last remaining 22 individuals from the wild and brought them into captivity to begin a breeding program.

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

Williams-Claussen releases a California Condor after a health check with Ventana Wildlife Society biologists in Big Sur, California.

Since then, they’ve been reintroduced to south and central California, and as well as in Utah, Arizona, and Baja California in Mexico, with more than 300 in the wild again. Still a critically endangered species, their movement is monitored constantly thanks to satellite tracking and radio-frequency tags, and those individuals are captured once or twice a year so their health can be assessed.

For the Yurok Tribe, Williams-Claussen said their goal is to release four captive-bred condors within a year, rising to six in later years. The Yurok Tribe will be the first tribal nation to reintroduce the California Condor; since 2008, they’ve led the effort that now includes 16 federal, state, nonprofit and private partners.

Condors sit at the head of nature’s clean-up crew. They range widely for carrion, flying up to 200 miles in a day. Their massive, powerful beaks can open up large, fresh carcasses that Turkey Vultures and smaller birds then feed on. Condors are social animals, too; they eat and fly together and form bonds and mate for life.

On top of their ecological importance, which has been all but lost, their coming return to Yurok ancestral territory will also begin to repair a century-old hole in Yurok traditions and culture, in which prey-go-neesh, which is Yurok for condor, occupies a central place.

Yurok Tribe Condor Program Manager, Chris West, restrains a condor while an Oregon Zoo veterinarian and keeper attach a wing-tag in preparation for release.

“For us, Condor epitomizes and supports the Yurok foundational reason for being, which is to be world renewal people,” says Williams-Claussen. “Traditionally, that would have been a matter of maintaining a delicate balance between the physical, the spiritual and the ecological world. Now, it’s really a matter of restoring that balance so that we can all live well in a way that benefits everybody.”

Condor feathers are used in regalia for dances that are part of Yurok biennial world renewal ceremonies, as well as those of surrounding tribes who share this world renewal ethic. Williams-Claussen was taught that condors were never to be harmed in acquiring the feathers, but rather they were typically found or passed down through the generations. Their absence was a painful reminder of what had been lost.

“I didn’t grow up learning how important Condor was,” Williams-Claussen says. “It wasn’t taught to me because he wasn’t part of our world any more.” Though this relationship was carefully curated by elders and culture-bearers, she adds, “we were on the brink of losing it. And so bringing Condor back to Yurok country reestablishes that relationship, and his role in world renewal, which supports our own capacity to be world renewal people through that.”

The condor recovery program, she says, has served as the starting point for other initiatives in the Yurok Wildlife Department. They’re focused on habitat restoration and the conservation of other endangered or threatened species, like the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet. It’s all part of a larger Yurok revival, she says, that includes the reclamation of water rights, the largest dam removal in the U.S., language revitalization, and reacquiring ancestral territory – all a response to the atrocities of colonization on their lifeways.

“It was illegal to practice our religion,” Williams-Claussen says. “It was illegal to speak our language. Our children were being stolen out of our houses and sent off to boarding schools. In my grandfather’s generation, there was almost an unspoken rule that it was dangerous to be Yurok, to be Native. And so they didn’t pass on the language. They didn’t pass on all components of the culture.”

She goes on: “But we’re at a place now where the Yurok Tribe as a people, as a government, can really be openly Yurok again. This Yurok spirit, which was never quenched, is fully alight again.”

That spirit was given voice in 2003 through the Yurok Tribal Park Task Force, a panel of elders who identified prey-go-neesh as the most important land-based species to restore to Yurok ancestral territory. Salmon, which used to swim up the Klamath River by the hundreds of thousands every year, were the highest priority, says Williams-Claussen. (“We’re salmon people,” she says.) Healthier fish populations in turn would help the likes of condors and Ospreys.

As the Wildlife Department set out to take up these priorities in 2008, Williams-Claussen was returning home to the coastal Yurok Reservation after finishing her undergraduate degree at Harvard in biochemical sciences. She’d planned on becoming a doctor, but instead she enrolled in a post-graduate internship program with the Yurok Tribe. She soon became the first hire of the Wildlife Department.

She expected that it might take five years to reach this current stage. Instead, with colleagues like senior wildlife biologist Chris West, who joined the program within two months of its inception and who serves as the Condor Program Manager within the Wildlife Department, they spent the next dozen building relationships, studying habitat viability for condors, and applying for funding. Their work is entirely grant-funded. Williams-Claussen and West spent years investigating the prevalence of lead and DDT in northern California, toxins which have limited the recovery of condors at other reintroduction locations. A lot of delays were political too, Williams-Claussen says.

Throughout, the sense of urgency has grown. Williams-Claussen says only about half of the elders from that original task force are still alive, and some of them are ailing. “We keep hammering people. We have to get this done,” she says. “We have to get these birds in the sky so they can see them before they walk on.”

Williams-Claussen prepares a Turkey Vulture for contaminants sampling and subsequent release in Kneeland, California.

Several politicians, like California governor Gavin Newsom and Congressman Jared Huffman, have said they’d like to attend the release. Williams-Claussen says it’s a priority that a Yurok elder be there to say a prayer over this monumental occasion.

Williams-Claussen says she’s too busy to think much beyond the present, but during those rare moments when she has time to daydream, she imagines seeing condors in her everyday life. A world in which they’re just...there. Catching high winds near where she grew up in Crescent City and then dropping down to driftwood-lined beaches, riding thermals above the rock canyons that face the Smith River or turning up the Klamath River where Williams-Claussen spent much of her youth.

Williams-Claussen restrains a condor while an Oregon Zoo veterinarian and keeper attach a wing-tag in preparation for release.

That youth was without condors, but she hopes the opposite will be true for her daughter, who is three, as well as other Yurok children who are now regularly taught about their ecological and cultural significance. Her daughter often asks her about prey-go-neesh (she usually drops off the first syllable). Her mom hasn’t yet taught her the English word, she says, “because I want her to know how important it is for being Yurok that Condor is coming home.”

“Growing up I knew I was missing things,” Williams-Claussen says. “I knew there were parts of myself that hadn’t been passed on, or I was too ignorant to pursue. Things I didn’t have access to because of the hard times of my elders. Bringing Condor home is one more way that my daughter doesn’t have to carry that feeling. That she can feel complete and whole because her world is more complete and whole.”

To learn more about the Yurok Condor Restoration Program, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

The Yurok Tribe in northwest California has been leading a broad partnership for more than a decade to bring the California Condor back to their ancestral land around the Klamath River and Redwood National Park. Condors occupy an important place in Yurok culture, and 20% of the profits from our collection will support the Yurok Condor Restoration Program’s ongoing work.