A California condor in flight.
Wildlife officials say a voluntary program to reduce the use of lead hunting ammunition is paying off
FRISCO — There may be some good news in the long-running effort to recover California condor populations from the edge of extinction. Federal biologists say the number of condors treated for lead poisoning dropped dramatically in the past year, as more and more hunters replace their traditional ammunition with a non-lead version
Since condors eat only carrion, they’ve often been exposed to fragments of lead ammo left in the carcasses of killed animals. But an extensive outreach effort by the interagency recovery team may have shifted the tide. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 13 condors were treated for lead exposure between Sept. 1, 2013 and Aug. 31, 2014, down from 28 birds the previous year and from the five-year average of 26.
Condors are the largest land-based birds in North America, with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet. They once ranged from coast to coast and north to south from Canada to Mexico. By 1982, only 23 condors remained. In 1987, all remaining wild condors were placed into a captive breeding program.
Since 1992, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began reintroducing captive-bred condors to the wild, the USFWS and its public and private partners have grown the population to 410 birds. In 2008, the Recovery Program reached an important milestone, with more California condors flying free in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the program began.
Biologists have identified lead exposure as one of the biggest challenges for continued recovery, so for the past few years, they’ve focused on winning voluntary cooperation from hunters.
The drop in lead exposure cases was greeted with cautious optimism.
“This is potentially exciting news,” says Chris Parish, project director with The Peregrine Fund
. “We’re hopeful that the decreased measurements of lead exposure are a direct result of the hunters’ actions. With continued effort, we may well see a continuing trend of lower lead levels in coming years.”
“When they eat an animal that died after being wounded by a gunshot, or they eat the entrails left in the field after a hunter has cleaned an animal he or she has harvested, they ingest lead fragments. If hunters use non-lead ammunition, the threat of lead exposure is non-existent,” said Keith Day, a regional wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
To help the birds, the UDWR and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) have asked hunters in southern Utah and northern Arizona to use non-lead ammunition. To offset the cost and encourage participation, both agencies have voluntary programs that provide hunters in those areas with a free box of non-lead bullets.
The voluntary response from hunters has been impressive, according to state wildlife officials,
“We’ve operated a lead reduction program in Arizona since 2005,” said Allen Zufelt, condor recovery biologist for the AGFD. “Over the past seven years, more than 80 percent of our hunters have chosen to use non-lead ammunition annually in support of the condor program. Many others have removed entrails, which might have lead fragments in them, from the field after a successful hunt.”
Utah’s non-lead program started in 2010. Having a comparable program in Utah may have tipped the scale in favor of the condors.
Day said 55 percent of those who hunted in the Zion hunting unit (where Utah’s non-lead program is focused) in 2013 used non-lead ammunition or removed entrails from the field if they used lead bullets.
“We anticipate that the number of hunters who participate in the program on the Zion unit will continue to grow,” he says.
Utah hunters can learn more about the state’s lead reduction program—including prizes they can win for participating—at http://wildlife.utah.gov/condors/drawing_2014.pdf.
“Hats off to hunters in both states,” says Greg Sheehan, director of the UDWR. “We’re asking hunters to change a tradition and try something different for the sake of conservation. And they’re stepping to the plate. This type of cooperation is what makes successful wildlife management happen.”
Day and Zufelt say voluntary non-lead programs will continue in Utah and Arizona this fall.
The California condor recovery effort in Utah and Arizona is a cooperative program among federal, state and private partners. Those partners include The Peregrine Fund, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Strip Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Grand Canyon and Zion national parks, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and the Kaibab and Dixie national forests.