SAN FRANCISCO -- An American Indian tribe is leading an effort to reintroduce endangered California condors to the northern part of the state, where they once played a major role in Indian traditions and are still honored in song and dance.
Biologists with the Yurok tribe, which has lived for centuries along the Klamath River, are studying ways to reintroduce the giant black vultures to the mountainous region, where they haven't been seen for a century.
The majestic birds were once plentiful in northern California and all along the Pacific Northwest, roosting in redwood trees and feeding on everything from elk to beached whales.
They were so revered by the Yurok that tribal members held a traditional dance in honor of the bird, fashioning ceremonial regalia out of condor feathers.
"The condor features very prominently in our stories and our dances, particularly the White Deerskin Dance," said Tiana Williams, a wildlife technician for the Yurok. "The lack of having condors here definitely inhibits us."
The tribe is using a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine which areas and conditions in or near the Yurok reservation are best for condor survival.
The study, which is being conducted in collaboration with fish and wildlife biologists and the Oregon Zoo, is focusing as well on other scavenging birds like the turkey vulture and common raven. Captured birds are tested for contaminants like DDT, mercury and lead, which is a notorious condor killer.
Data on wind conditions, the prevalence of power lines and the impact of human habitation in various locations also are being gathered.
With a wingspan of almost 10 feet, the California condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world and a symbol of a time when the West was an untamed wilderness.
The big buzzard also is one of the world's longest-living birds. Condors have been known to live 60 or more years in captivity and, under ideal circumstances, they could probably live that long in the wild, said Jesse Grantham, the condor program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The oldest wild California condor now is 30, he said.
They were once widespread across North America, especially along the northern California coast, where the Yurok called them "pre-go-neesh."
The Yurok used condor feathers on ceremonial garb that can be found in items handed down through the generations. The White Deerskin Dance -- a 10-day ritual of spiritual renewal and thankfulness that begins Aug. 27 -- includes a song that the condor itself supposedly sang at the urging of the creator.
The number of condors in California declined precipitously starting in the 19th century when European and American hunters and fur traders began to arrive in large numbers. Many of the birds were poisoned with the lead shot that was left in the entrails and carcasses they scavenged.
The last condor in the Pacific Northwest was killed sometime between 1890 and 1910 -- there are conflicting accounts -- in a place called Kneeland Prairie, inland from Eureka, Calif.
Despite being listed on the federal endangered species list in 1967, only 27 condors remained in the world in 1987, prompting conservationists to capture the remaining birds and start a breeding program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo.
The birds, which do not begin breeding until they are 7 years old, were reintroduced in central and southern California, Arizona and Baja California starting in 1992. There are now 384 condors in existence -- 188 of them living in the wild, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
The biggest threat to the gangly birds is still contamination from lead ammunition, but pesticides and poaching can also pose problems, biologists say. Just last year, two California condors were found in the Pinnacles National Monument suffering from gunshot wounds, prompting a statewide manhunt for the poachers, who were never caught.
The Yurok reintroduction program got its start in 2008 when the tribe began looking into the establishment of a wildlife preserve on its reservation. Tribal leaders wanted a flagship species for the effort. Programs already existed for salmon and sturgeon, so the condor was selected.
"We've got a mountainous landscape that we know condors would like and an abundance of food," said Williams, the Yurok wildlife technician. "We've got a huge bear population up here, a large elk population and a strong sea lion population."
E-mail Peter Fimrite at pfimrite(at)sfchronicle.com.