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California condor population still struggling in southern Utah, northern Arizona

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 5:45 p.m. MST

A juvenile California condor, one of six birds released to the wild, tries out his new freedom with a short flight over the Vermilion Cliffs in northern Arizona in this Dec. 12, 1996, photo.

Jeff Robbins, Associated Press

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ZION NATIONAL PARK — The California condor continues to suffer from lead poisonings, shootings and interactions with humans since they were introduced in southern Utah and northern Arizona in the mid-1990s, with little more than half of those released into the wild still surviving.

Efforts continue to bolster their numbers, with a goal of having two geographically separate populations of 150 birds each — one in California and the other along the Utah and Arizona border. Those numbers should include at least 15 breeding pairs, according to biologists and public lands managers.

The California condor reintroduction program comes under review once every five years, with part of that a public comment period designed to measure public acceptance of the program and garner recommendations.

Comments, due Dec. 16, can be submitted to SWcondorComments@fws.gov or mailed to Field Supervisor, Arizona Ecological Services Office, 2321 W. Royal Palm Road, Suite 103, Phoenix, AZ., 85021-4951. Comments can also be faxed to 1-602-242-2513.

The condor, the largest land bird in North America, can weigh up to 26 pounds and have a wing span that extends past 9 feet. Although adult condors have few natural predators, their numbers are in continual jeopardy from lead poisoning, the leading cause of death for the birds in Arizona. Land managers and condor biologists say 19 deaths have been confirmed due to that cause since 2000.

Utah wildlife officials were tracking a pair of nesting condors searching for sites in southern Utah, but both of the females died of lead poisoning before they could reproduce.

A scientific study funded by the Arizona Game and Fish Department identified lead from spent ammunition as the major source of lead found in condors, which are trapped twice a year to have their blood tested.

Condors, which are scavengers, ingest lead bullet fragments remaining in game carcasses and gut piles. Because lead fragments into hundreds of pieces before it exits game such as coyote or deer, one animal carcass has the potential to poison several condors.

A variety of public education efforts have been launched to encourage hunters to use alternatives, including voluntary programs in Arizona and Utah. Alternatives include high performance all-copper bullets that do not fragment and are far less toxic.

Rachel Tuller, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman based in St. George, said the ongoing reintroduction efforts are critical to the species survival in the wild.

"The birds have been on the cusp for so long," she said. "We are really trying to get them established and get them into some exciting numbers."

As part of that outreach, the BLM is the land hosting agency of an annual event at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument where hundreds of people gather to watch a release of the birds. The young animals are raised in captivity and then released several at a time.

Tuller said it is a breathtaking event to witness.

"It is a big deal for people who are birders, for those who follow this species," or even those who appreciate the wild, she said.

Condors, which were first named to the Endangered Species List in 1967, mate for life and can live for up to 50 years. While they are known to fly long distances, the reintroduced birds generally prefer the greater Grand Canyon ecosystem and the vicinity of Zion National Park. There are 73 free-flying condors in northern Arizona and southern Utah, according to condor biologists, including seven wild-fledged birds.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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