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California condor
Get the Lead Out
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 28, 2008

Utah now focus of push for lead ammo rules
By Felicity Fonseca, Associated Press Writer

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Conservationists who have battled for years to eliminate lead ammunition they say is the biggest threat to the survival of endangered California condors are now setting their sights on Utah.

Successful programs to limit the use of lead ammunition in Arizona and California have cut the number of the giant vultures poisoned from eating bullets in carcasses of animals shot by hunters. But as the resurgent condors expand their range, wildlife officials know they must broaden their focus as the birds journey into nearby Utah.

Jim Parrish, nongame avian coordinator for Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources, said video footage has shown that the condors are feeding on gut piles in Utah and have been exposed to lead. He said Utah plans to implement a program similar to one in Arizona that would provide vouchers to hunters for non-lead ammunition, starting in 2010.

"We're trying to get the information out there now," he said. "We're in an outreach mode and rallying support mode."

Of the 67 free-flying condors in Arizona, 53 of them have traveled north to Utah this year, creating a "significant threat," to the population that has grown since hitting a low point in the 1980s, said Kathy Sullivan, condor program coordinator for Arizona's Department of Game and Fish.

Condors are America's largest land bird, weighing up to 23 pounds with wingspans that can approach 10 feet. About a dozen have died of lead poisoning since 1999 and there have been 300 cases of lead exposure in the past decade, Sullivan said. "We believe if we can get the lead exposure under control, that we could have a self-sustaining condor population" she said.

Once numbering in the thousands across North America, the condor was nearly extinct by the early 1980s from the effects of hunting, lead poisoning and habitat encroachment. The final 22 birds were captured in California and a breeding program started. There are now 327 California condors, and many have been released back to the wild in California, Arizona and Mexico.

Of the population, 158 are in captivity, 67 are in Arizona, 83 in California and 19 in Mexico, according to the Peregrine Fund, which breeds and releases the birds in Arizona. The goal is to have three populations of 150 condors each, including 15 breeding pairs, before conservationists would consider downgrading their federal status from endangered to merely threatened.

Environmentalists, who successfully fought for a ban on lead ammunition in California, have been pushing Arizona to follow suit. California's regulations went into effect in July in the condor's historic range, which covers 20 percent of the state.

Earlier this year, environmental groups sent more than 1,000 postcards to the Arizona Department of Game and Fish demanding that hunting regulations be changed to require the use of non-lead ammunition.

"We've always been supportive of what they're doing, but we don't think it's enough," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.

The Center for Biological Diversity also has chimed in on the issue. It notified the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service earlier this month that it intends to sue over the agencies' land management plans that don't require the use of non-lead ammunition.

"It's a simple fix to just ban lead-based ammunition," said Jay Lininger, an ecologist for the group in Flagstaff. "It would be far less expensive and less of a headache for everyone if widely available alternatives were simply required."

Lead ammunition has been popular with hunters because it performs well and is cheap. Copper bullets, touted as the alternative to lead bullets, perform just as well but are more expensive and not available in all calibers.

Chris Parish, who oversees the release of the condors in Arizona for the Peregrine Fund, said a widespread ban on lead ammunition could be helpful but fears it might just anger hunters.

"Even if it were banned nationwide right now, there would still be people out there who do not believe in it and they're not convinced their bullets are doing the damage," he said.

Each year about 60,000 hunters set out between August and October to hunt mostly deer in California's historic condor range. The state boasted a 90 percent compliance under the lead ammunition ban. Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state's Department of Fish and Game, said 50 citations were issued for violating the law.

"We can't say we had blanket compliance," he said.

The 2,200 hunters who draw to shoot mostly deer on the Kaibab plateau in northern Arizona are provided a voucher for non-lead ammunition, a provision that was included in California's regulations but went unfunded. Sullivan said about 90 percent of the hunters use the non-lead ammunition, and the sportsmen can drop off gut piles for disposal at a checkpoint in the hunting area.

In Arizona, the condors are designated a nonessential experimental population, meaning Game and Fish officials can't change land management practices because of the condor. If the state banned lead ammunition, Sullivan said, "we would be going back on our word to the public."

Parrish, the avian coordinator in Utah, said the state is not considering imposing a lead ammunition ban on hunters.

"They're some of the best conservationists we have out there, and whenever they know there's an issue, they've rallied and supported (it)," he said.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton