Condor recovery program beset by bullets

AP News
Posted: Dec 04, 2011 12:01 PM
Condor recovery program beset by bullets

A recovery program aimed at restoring the California condor to much of its historic range across the Southwest has been hampered by dozens of deaths linked to lead from the remnants of hunters' bullets, wildlife officials say.

About half of the roughly 130 condors released since 1996 along the Arizona/Utah border have died or vanished, said Steve Spangle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Lead is the No. 1 problem with the program," Spangle said. "We would have been wildly successful without the lead."

As scavengers, North America's largest land bird feasts on carcasses such as deer and coyotes left behind by hunters.

Spangle said hunters generally prefer lead bullets because they are heavier and shoot straighter than other types of ammunition. But they break into hundreds of fragments when they hit an animal, then get ingested by scavengers like the condor.

"Most biologists believe we'll never have a sustaining population unless we remove the lead from the environment," Spangle said.

The birds are known for flying 100 miles or more a day on wings that stretch up to nine feet from tip to tip, surveying the land for "any kind of commotion, even construction sites or wildfires," Spangle said. "They're very curious birds. They look for motion. And they're extremely good at it."

Condors can live for 50 years, but nesting pairs usually produce only one egg every other year, creating a challenge to build up the population that was once down to just 22 birds in the 1980s.

Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the birds have gained a foothold. About 70 condors range from Arizona's Grand Canyon to southern Utah's Zion National Park.

California has an additional 111 of the birds in the wild largely due to a separate recovery program there, said Susan Whaley of The Peregrine Fund, which raises condors at the World Center for Birds of Prey outside Boise, Idaho.

The California Department of Fish and Game in 2008 banned the use of lead ammunition in the 15 counties considered condor territory, but many ranch owners ignore the directive, and some have said it's because they believe the ammo ban subjugates their rights. Lead consumed is the No. 1 cause of death in condors in California and remains the biggest obstacle to their recovery there, as well, biologists say.

A condor died near Pinnacles National Monument in 2009 after it was tracked with GPS to an area where a landowner had shot dozens of ground squirrels with lead ammo and left them for scavengers. It was especially devastating because the condor was part of the first cohort released at the national park in Central California and was just reaching breeding age

The total population in the wild is nearly 400, including some in Mexico.

Arizona is trying to reduce the toll on condors by providing vouchers for lead-free bullets and other rewards for hunters who dispose of carcasses properly.

Federal officials plan the next condor release for September 2012 at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in southern Utah, said Rachel Tueller of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The entire restoration program is currently under a twice-a-decade review by the federal government to gauge public acceptance, which has remained positive, Spangler said.

"The condor is a magnificent bird," he said. "I'm not aware of anyone who doesn't want condors established throughout the range."


AP reporter Tracie Cone contributed to his report from Fresno, Calif.