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Death toll climbs as giant birds are felled by tiny lead fragments

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 10:33 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 file photo.

JEFF ROBBINS, Associated Press

LEE'S FERRY, Ariz. — One of America's most visible endangered species is falling victim to hunters, but not in the way you might expect.

Since early December, seven California condors have died near the Utah-Arizona border, possibly from eating fragments of lead bullets in the tissue of deer and elk left in the wild by hunters gutting their trophies.

"It's been really bad lately," said Chris Parish, who directs the condor recovery program for The Peregrine Fund. "This is probably one of the worst periods that we've experienced."

Last weekend, Parish received a lab report confirming what he suspected: One of the dead birds found recently in Zion National Park died from the effects of lead poisoning.

Two other recent condor deaths were conclusively linked to lead ingestion. The cause of death has not been determined for the other four.

The carrion-eating birds resemble vultures — but on a larger scale. A typical adult has a wingspan of 9 ½ feet. Tourists often see the giant birds soaring around clifftops or swooping close to highways and bridges in the rugged topography of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

The fact that any California condors are still alive today is a big success story. Three decades ago, the wild population of the giant scavengers dwindled to just 22 birds.

"This bird's been around since the last of the ice age and it's still here," Parish said. "And it almost went by the wayside."

In a controversial rescue in the 1980s, all 22 surviving wild condors were rounded up and placed in a captive-breeding program. Releases back into the wild began in the 1990s in California and along the Utah-Arizona border.

In spite of that high-profile rescue operation, North America's largest land-based bird species is still battling for survival.

The severe death toll in the last few months has taken out almost 10 percent of the Utah-Arizona condor population. The population dropped from 80 condors to 73. A separate population of the birds lives in California.

Since releases began in 1996, 84 of the Utah-Arizona birds have died or disappeared — about half of those that were released or hatched in the wild. Scientists were able to determine the cause of death in 52 of the 84 birds. Exactly half, 26, died from lead poisoning.

Experts suspect the toll from lead may be significantly higher. Blood tests and X-rays of the birds regularly confirm the presence of lead, especially in weeks and months following the hunting seasons for deer and elk.

Parish said the birds consume lead fragments when they eat tissues of deer and elk that have been shot by hunters. The hunter typically takes the deer or elk meat home and leaves behind the entrails. Condors love to eat the so-called gut-piles, and, according to Parish, testing has shown they're often laced with lead fragments.

Utah wildlife officials are formulating incentives so hunters will turn in deer entrails instead of leaving them to be dined on by condors. Both states are also educating hunters and giving out coupons for free non-lead bullets.

"We're not saying get rid of all the lead," Parish said. "We're saying, for the lead that you're going to leave in the field in the remains of a carcass or a varmint species, just use non-lead."  

The lead-poisoning theory was not contested by a spokesman for the Utah Shooting Sports Council. It also was not challenged by pro-hunting activist Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. Peay suggested, though, that hunters might actually be helping the condors survive. He said even if 10 percent die from lead poisoning, the species as a whole may benefit from eating deer and elk entrails that hunters leave behind.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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