PHOENIX, Ariz. - A record number of big game hunters in the California condor's core range voluntarily used non-lead ammunition or removed lead-infected gut piles from the field to prevent the condors from feeding on them.
This action was considered a milestone for California condor conservationists.
In Arizona, a total of 91 percent of the big game hunters voluntarily used non-lead ammunition or removed gut piles from the field.
In Utah, 84 percent of big game hunters in the core range did the same.
Condor reintroduction partners are now expanding voluntary lead reduction efforts towards new groups that can also help keep condors from ingesting lead as the birds scavenge carcasses other than big game that might contain lead.
New groups being targeted in expanded education and outreach efforts include small game, bird and varmint hunters, and those that dispatch sick or injured animals in the field, such as ranchers or law enforcement agencies.
Last season, annual trapping and testing of condors from the Arizona-Utah population revealed a slight increase in the percent of birds with toxic blood-lead levels from the previous year.
Fifty-five of the 73 condors tested over the winter and early spring showed unsafe levels of lead in their blood and nearly one-third of those birds had extreme, life-threatening toxicity levels, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Over the years, lead poisoning has accounted for just over 50 percent of all condor deaths.
The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit group that monitors the condors stated that even minimal amounts of lead could poison a condor.
"Even a few lead-tainted carcasses can poison multiple condors because they feed in groups," said Chris Parish, condor recovery program director for the non-profit. "We need assistance from everyone who shoots animals whose remains might otherwise be left in the field where scavengers like condors can get to the carcasses."
Potential sources of lead can often be pinpointed by analyzing what is found in the dead condors' stomachs. Of the 30 documented cases of lead-caused death in condors over the years, 21 contained evidence of ammunition in their gut, suggesting the birds consumed animals that were shot with various types of ammunition.
Two condors contained intact bullets, 12 contained fragments like those found in big game animals shot with center-fire rifle ammunition and seven contained lead bird shot.
Ten years ago, the Arizona Game and Fish Department embarked on an unprecedented voluntary lead-reduction campaign aimed at big game hunters.
Over the years the department worked to educate and ask for voluntary participation from deer hunters on the Kaibab Plateau because of data showing that was where the majority of condors were feeding when lead exposure occurred.
"The Kaibab deer hunters should be commended for voluntarily reducing the lead available to condors," said Allen Zufelt, condor program coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish. "We're now working to share the same message with new groups of shooters who have the potential to greatly influence the success of the condor reintroduction program. Hunters are the original conservationists, and we are confident that varmint, small game and bird hunters will also step up to help when asked."
In addition to Arizona and Utah's lead-reduction efforts, The Peregrine Fund is working with Native American tribes to extend the message and increase lead-reduction efforts on tribal lands.
All of these efforts are undertaken with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which coordinates condor recovery actions.
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