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California condor
Monterrey County Weekly, April 23, 2009

Investigators hunt the perpetrators of two condor shootings
By Kera Abraham

It was bad enough when they found 286, an adult male bearing 15 shotgun pellets in the thin muscles of his weak body. But when three weeks later, in late March, biologists discovered 375, a juvenile female California condor with three pellets lodged in her appendages, they began to suspect they were dealing with a serial sniper.

Ventana Wildlife Society and the National Parks Service captured both birds because they were acting strangely – a trademark symptom of lead poisoning, for which they tested positive. That they’d also been shot, however, came as a surprise.

Conservationists are now offering more than $40,000 for information leading to the shooter, who faces stiff state and federal penalties for violating the Endangered Species Act. Two investigators – a federal agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a private eye from Los Angeles – are on the trail.

Tristar Investigation detective Bruce Robertson and his team are scoping for clues in condor country, from Pinnacles National Monument to Big Sur. “Crimes like this are usually solved at ground level,” he says. “You go out in the field and talk to people who might have information about what happened.”

USFWS investigator Dan Crum didn’t return phone calls, but agency spokeswoman Alex Pitts says he’s sticking to a strict protocol for successful prosecution. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to talk to people,” she says, “but he wants to do it in certain ways.”

An Associated Press article characterizing the dual probes as a “turf war” was exaggerated, Robertson says, but he allows that the two investigations are taking different approaches: “We’re at ground level, dealing with people resources more.”

The Center for Biological Diversity retained Robertson in early April, but he is volunteering most of his time beyond expenses.

“The government is well-meaning,” CBD Senior Counsel Adam Keats says. “Whether they have the resources and focus on this issue that we think it deserves is another question.”

The Wendy P. McCaw Foundation posted $25,000 of the reward; environmental groups including VWS, CBD, Defenders of Wildlife and The Humane Society provided the rest.

“It’s very discouraging to find birds lead poisoned, but it’s even more discouraging to find them shot as well,” says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of Ventana Wildlife Society. “Shotgun range is pretty point-blank, so you’d know what you’re shooting at.”

A quarter-century of reintroduction efforts have increased the number of California condors from 22 to more than 300, about a quarter of them free-flying in California. The Central Coast flock, one of two wild condor populations in the state, includes the birds known as 375 and 286.

They contracted lead poisoning by eating carcasses killed with lead bullets – not by being shot. A new state hunting law went into effect last July, banning hunters in condor country from using lead ammunition, widely viewed as the biggest threat to the highly endangered scavengers.

Since their capture, 286 and 375 have been convalescing at the Los Angeles Zoo, says bird curator Susie Kasielke.

Both birds are eating, she adds: 286 is still critically ill, but 375 has completed her treatment and will soon be re-released into the wild.
Direct tips on the condor shootings to USFWS at 916-414-6660 or CBD at (415) 632-5300.

© 2009 Milestone Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton