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Lead ammunition still hampers condor recovery

Posted: August 29, 2012 1:00 a.m.
Updated: August 29, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Lead poisoning from spent ammunition in the condor food supplly is the No. 1 hurdle to recovery for endangered birds.

 

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A program aimed at restoring the endangered California condor to much of its historic range across the Southwest remains hampered by lead poisonings, shootings and predation but is making marked improvements in other areas, wildlife officials say.

A five-year review of the program released this week shows an increase in free-ranging condors and breeding pairs. But remnants of lead ammunition threaten the success of the program, which began in 1996, when the condors were nearly extinct.

The condors — North America's largest land bird — feast on the carcasses of deer and coyotes that are left behind by hunters.

Agencies partnering in the reintroduction effort say they might have to reevaluate it if extreme lead exposure isn't reduced by the end of 2016, and if condors keep dying from ingesting lead.

Chris Parish, head of the Peregrine Fund's condor recovery program in Arizona, said wildlife officials don't know yet whether it was enough to ban lead ammunition in the condor's range in California and depend on the willingness of hunters in Arizona to give up lead ammunition, and a program that provides hunters in Utah with non-lead ammunition.

There are about 75 condors in a flock that roams the Arizona-Utah border.

Parish said officials are evaluating how much lead still is available in the carcasses of animals shot with lead ammunition and will determine whether other locations are suitable for condor releases.

"We didn't know lead poisoning was going to be our leading cause of death," he said Tuesday. "We really strongly believe that if we can reduce the threat of lead poisoning, the chances of recovery are very high."

The reintroduction program began with the release of six condors at Vermillion Cliffs in far northern Arizona. Over the past five years, the total number of condors in Arizona and Utah increased by 16 while another 41 captive birds were released into the Southwest population.

Ten chicks were hatched in the wild, but seven died or went missing as did 24 adults. Five of the birds were returned to captivity.

Among the deaths, lead poisoning was the top killer.

While they once spent most of their time along the Colorado River and Vermillion Cliffs, the birds have been flying more frequently to Utah's Zion National Park and southern Utah's high country.

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