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Condor Bill Gets the Lead Out of the Wilderness

{mosimage} A ban on lead ammunition is aimed at eliminating one of the perils faced by California's critically endangered condors.



The 2008 hunting season will be the first without lead shot and bullets, and that’s good news for the critically endangered California condor.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation banning the use of lead ammunition in California’s rugged backcountry. The bill, AB 821, was Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s third attempt at passing the measure aimed at saving North America’s largest flying landbird. The Santa Barbara Democrat’s previous two attempts were snuffed out before reaching the Assembly floor.

This time, however, the Assembly and the state Senate were on the same page, although it was hard to tell which way Schwarzenegger was leaning. He had demanded the resignation of Judd Hanna from the California Fish and Game Commission  after Hanna incited the ire of the National Rifle Association  by supporting a lead bullet ban not specifically linked to Nava’s bill. Hanna, a moderate Republican, hunter and a condor advocate, said his ouster was a strong sign Schwarzenegger would not favor Nava’a bill but the governor said in a recent e-mail that he was committed to protecting California’s diverse wildlife for future generations.

“We are pleased the legislation was passed,” said Mark Weitzel, project leader for the California Condor Recovery Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is a significant step forward for the recovery of this bird.”

A remnant of the Pleistocene Age, condors forage for carrion from high above in thermal updrafts, relying on their superior vision to locate food. Condor ranges are broad and they soar an average of 100 to 150 miles a day. During hunting season condors are more susceptible to ingesting lead fragments found in the gut piles left by hunters. After ingesting meat, condors store their food in their crops for digestive purposes. Lead doesn’t allow the breakdown of food and the raptors eventually starve if they’re not treated in time.

Nava’s bill, called the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, would require hunters to use nonlead ammunition for hunting big game and coyotes within the condor’s range. Hunters will likely use copper bullets for larger game and steel pellets for fowl.

Hunters claim the alternative ammunition isn’t as efficient as lead. They also fear that conservationists and certain government entities want to do away with hunting entirely, but because so few wilderness areas remain, hunting is a useful tool to maintain an ecological balance.

“I want to commend the governor for signing this legislation to save the condor,” Nava said. “(He) chose to do the right thing on behalf of this majestic bird that has flown over North America for over 10,000 years.”

The condor has become a “poster child” for getting lead out of the environment, but lead bullets also affect other raptors, including bald and golden eagles and mammals feeding on carrion. And humans need to be cautious, too, said Jessie Grantham, California condor coordinator and team leader for field programs in Southern California for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s the combination of human health and this critically endangered species,” he said. “People see how lead is killing this animal and the potential effect it can have on humans.”

The goal of the recovery plan is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California, the other in Arizona. Currently there are 127 birds in the wild. Condors in Los Padres National Forest behind Ventura County, make up the majority of the population in California. Each region will have 150 condors with 15 breeding pairs and another 150 birds in captive breeding facilities.

Although lead is the leading cause of death for reintroduced condors, it isn’t the only problem plaguing them. These members of the vulture family are extremely curious, and are attracted to shards of “micro trash” reflecting in the sun. They’re mistaken for food items, which have been brought back by parents for hungry chicks. Like lead, the accumulation of trash blocks the digestive tract. West Nile Virus is also a factor in their survival. Although the birds are inoculated, one condor chick succumbed to the virus in 2005.

“Lead is a toxin and a major factor, but there are a lot of other issues out there for the condor,” continued Weitzel. “But ridding lead from the environment is good for all of us.”

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