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State: Lead poisonings of condors fall, though reason unclear

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PHOENIX – Fewer California condors were treated for lead poisoning over a one-year period ending in August, something a wildlife official said may have to do with more hunters in Arizona and particularly Utah taking steps to keep lead out of the environment.

Thirteen condors were treated for lead poisoning from Sept. 1, 2013, through Aug. 31, 2014, down from 28 the previous year.

While some conservation groups have called for a ban on lead-based ammunition to protect the condors, Arizona and Utah rely on voluntary programs that encourage hunters to use non-lead ammunition or, if they do use lead ammunition, to remove gut piles from the forest.

Arizona launched its program in 2005, and Utah adopted a similar program in 2010. Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said she’s cautiously optimistic that the decline in lead poisonings shows that Utah’s program is beginning to pay dividends.

“We can’t attribute it to any one factor,” she said. “One year does not make it a trend, but we’re hoping that Utah program is one of the factors.”

Lambert said participation in Arizona’s program has grown.

“We have between 80 and 90 percent of hunters participating in any given year,” she said.

California has banned lead ammunition in the condors’ range there, and a state law will eliminate hunting with lead ammunition statewide in by 2019. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot for hunting waterfowl in 1991 because the pellets poisoned birds that feed in streams and lakes.

California condors were all but extinct by the mid-1980s, and the remaining 22 wild condors were captured and put into a captive breeding program in 1987.

The condors were reintroduced in California as an endangered population in 1992 and in Arizona as a designated nonessential experiment in 1996. At last count, there were 75 in Arizona and Utah.

One of the most prominent threats to the condors has been the birds’ susceptibility to lead poisoning as they scavenge gut piles left by big-game hunters.

“Our main goal is a full recovery for the condors,” Lambert said. “And these bullets are a big obstacle.”

Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said a voluntary program doesn’t do enough to save the condors.

“We’re putting these birds in a situation that’s toxic to them,” he said.

In 2012, the center filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service because it hasn’t banned lead ammunition in the condors’ range.

Miller called the reduction in lead poisonings great news but cautioned against reading too much into a one year’s results.

“I’d be very surprised if it continues,” he said. “Lead poisoning is very episodic, and to some extent it’s just luck of the draw for the condors.”

Lambert said engaging hunters is a more effective strategy than banning lead ammunition.

“So many people don’t give the hunters credit for entering the program voluntarily,” she said. “Hunters are, in many ways, the original conservationists.”