Book makes the case for restoring California condors to the Northwest

Katy Muldoon / The Oregonian /

Jesse D’Elia needed a topic worthy of his time and effort as he pursued his doctor of philosophy degree at Oregon State University. His professor, Susan Haig, served on a blue-ribbon panel evaluating the status of critically endangered California condors and efforts to achieve their recovery.

Combine them and you’ve got the short version of how they spent five years writing “California Condors in the Pacific Northwest,” a fascinating blend of science, culture and natural history out this week from Oregon State University Press ($19.95 paperback, 208 pages).

Readers intrigued by science will find charts and maps outlining the species’ fossil record and documented sightings in the Northwest. Those drawn to Native American culture will learn about how tribes regarded condors in mythology and used them in ceremony. History buffs will find gems such as the story of how William Finley, the noted conservationist and wildlife photographer, captured a condor chick in 1906, brought it to Oregon and kept it as a pet named General.

D’Elia and Haig have hopes for their book that reach about as high as hopes can in conservation circles: They want it to lay the groundwork for reintroducing condors to the landscape where Northwest native tribes revered them and early explorers and settlers frequently observed the enormous, bald-headed birds.

“This region is the next logical place to look for a future condor reintroduction,” says D’Elia, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland. “Personally ... it’s hard for me to imagine declaring the condor recovered without a population in the Pacific Northwest challenges the northern half of their historical range.”

Haig, an OSU professor, is also a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Talk of bringing North America’s largest land bird back to soar over the Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon Coast or elsewhere in the region has bubbled up since 2003, when the Oregon Zoo joined the effort to breed the big scavengers.

Locally, the discussion is bound to intensify next year, when the zoo plans for the first time to display a few California condors; dignitaries broke ground last week on the exhibit.

Captive breeding has succeeded in bolstering condor numbers, which had fallen to 22 birds in the 1980s. As of April 30, the most recent count available, the population stood at 417, with 240 flying free and 177 in captivity.

Yet, before state and federal agencies and other stakeholders in the California Condor Recovery Program select new release sites, they’ll delve deep into what’s known of the species’ history, former range and previous population structure, and the reasons for its decline.

Still, reintroducing the birds to Oregon remains a possibility and D’Elia says he hopes the book “gets people thinking about it.”