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Twenty years ago, Yurok Tribe elders made a decision. Of all the land animals in their ancestral territory, the California condor—or prey-go-neesh in Yurok—was the most important to bring home. Prey-go-neesh had been absent from Yurok lands for over a century, extirpated primarily through poisoning from lead ammunition. Their absence hung heavy for a Tribe that holds prey-go-neesh central to their creation story. Nineteen years after the decision, and after monumental effort, the Yurok Tribe reintroduced a small population of condors to Yurok Country in northern California. Finally, prey-go-neesh is home. 

A hulking black bird with a wingspan of nine feet, condors are the largest land bird in north America. They are an obligate scavenger; their head is bald and their beak is hooked, ready to rip flesh from bone. They paint a frightening picture, but not for the Yurok people, for them, prey-go-neesh are beautiful, precious and vital. Condors return the dead to the earth, a crucial part of a healthy ecosystem. Reared in captivity, the reintroduced population of condors is learning how to be wild and sustain themselves. With this, comes a big risk. The same threat that extirpated condors over a century ago remains—lead. 

Despite being made illegal in California in 2019, use of lead ammo for hunting persists and lead-related condor mortality rates remain consistent to those prior to the ban. Hunters can still purchase lead ammo and continue to use leftover pre-ban stocks. Unlike non-lead, lead ammo explodes on impact, scattering a constellation of tiny fragments around the bullet's path. Oftentimes, hunters will butcher their kills in the field, leaving behind gut piles riddled with lead. A fragment the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a condor. By choosing lead ammo, hunters leave a legacy of lead on the landscape. One analysis indicates that if lead contamination were to be removed as a mortality factor, the free flying condor population could reach sustainability with minimal human intervention.


In late 2023, the Yurok condors ate what was thought to be one of their first wild-foraged meals. There should have been celebration. Instead, dread. The meal they had fed on was a poached elk carcass shot with lead ammo. All eight condors were captured and their lead levels tested, one was poisoned. His name is Me-new-kwek’.


Me-new-kwek’ is a two year old condor. His name means ‘I am bashful or shy’ in Yurok. He’s an introvert. He picks bark off trees to play with and largely roosts alone. If a condor could be gentle, Me-new-kwek’ is. Immediately after testing, Me-new-kwek’ began chelation therapy to counteract the lead leaching into his body. He was taken to a treatment center for further care. X-rays came back clear; he had likely ingested a dust-sized fragment of lead and the chelation treatment could counteract the poisoning. After five days of intensive care, Me-new-kwek’ was returned home. Shaken, but well. What lays ahead of him and the condor population is a life of survival in an environment destined to kill them without human intervention. 

Me-new-kwek' was the first to be poisoned. He will not be the last. Lead management continues around the clock. Crew rush to pull poached carcasses off the landscape before condors can feed on them, but it's hard to outpace a condor to a meal. Radiography confirms whether the animal was shot with lead ammo, more often than not, it has. Without a transition to non-lead ammo, the cycle of feeding and poisoning will persist. Through knowledge sharing and trust building with hunters, can we break it? Gosh, I hope so.