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Dodging A(nother) Bullet

How hunters can save the California condor

Found in: | Inside | Politics | Outside | Hunting | Rifle | Wildlife |

"By far . . . the biggest human threat to the sustainability of condors in the wild is ammunition - and not from the sudden impact thereof."

"Pass all the laws you want, but unless people know why they are passed, they won't support them."

- Kathy Sullivan, Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Where To Find Lead-Free Ammunition

Several brands of lead-free ammunition have been available on the market since the late 90s, and most reviews have been positive, with many professional hunters claiming better accuracy and swifter kills with lead-free bullets. Many retailers carry lead-free bullets made by several manufacturers in a variety of calibers.

Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse, The Extreme Hunter, Cheaper than Dirt, Midway USA, Natchez Shooters Supplies, Specialty Ammo, Midsouth Shooters Supply Company, Outdoor Superstore, Wholesale Hunter, American Reloader, Huntington Reloader, Ballistic Products Inc., Precision Reloading, Buck's Run Sports

Barnes Bullets, Conley Precision Cartridge, Black Hills Ammunition, PMC Ammunition, Federal Premium, Weatherby Superior Ammunition, Safari Ammunition, PMP Ammunition, Hevi-Shot, Bismuth Cartridge Company, Kent Cartridge, Remington, Sellier and Bellot, Stars and Stripes Ammunition, Knight Muzzleloaders


In the competition for poster-child of the conservation movement, the condor has a hard time competing with the whale, panda bear or Bengal tiger. With its balding, wrinkly head and tendency to defecate on its own legs, the bird does not have quite the sex appeal of other endangered species. But without a doubt, a condor in flight embodies the successes and struggles that come with returning any species to its rightful place in the ecosystem.

And slowly, the sight is becoming more common, with 141 condors now living in the wild and more potentially on the way in Arizona and California. Not bad for a bird that was placed on the endangered species list in 1967 and found only in captivity as recently as 12 years ago. But the condor's story is far from over, and their greatest ally in their struggle, the average deer and elk hunter, does not even know they pose a threat to the bird's survival.
With wingspans of up to 9 1/2 feet, California condors, or Gymnogyps californianus, are the largest flying land bird in North America. They belong to the same family as turkey vultures and Andean condors, and like their relatives are obligate scavengers: consuming the carcass of any dead animal they can find. However, unlike the others, condors do not find carrion by smell, but rather use their keen eyesight to spot the activity of ravens and other scavengers congregating around a feast.
Adult condors are easily identifiable by their wingspan alone. They are almost entirely black except for their reddish-orange bald heads and a white triangular pattern under their wings. The giveaway clue you are looking at a condor, however, is the large black-and-white numbers attached to their wings that house GPS transmitters that help researchers track their movements over vast distances. Condors can soar over a hundred miles in a single flight in search of food, they express emotion through skin-color changes, live up to 60 years, mate for life, and yes, defecate on their legs to take advantage of evaporative cooling - a process called urohydrosis.
When biologists removed the last condor from the wild in 1987 in a desperate and controversial effort to save them from extinction, many feared they would never return. However, through years of captive breeding, occasional releases, intense monitoring, regular feeding, and frequent recapture for medical or behavioral reasons, the condor population has steadily increased. The ultimate goal is to establish two distinct populations of 150 birds with at least 15 breeding pairs in each. Currently, the two main populations of condors in California and Arizona have 69 and 60 individuals, respectively.
This April, tentatively positive news rippled through the Arizona condor community that potentially six pairs of condors were exhibiting typical nesting behavior - the largest number since re-introduction. Like other long-lived animals, they tend to develop slowly, and reproduce at periodic intervals. Mating pairs of condors produce an average of one egg every two years, and even more rarely successfully fledge an offspring. This is a painfully slow rate for those who are working to restore a healthy population to canyon country.
"We have only seen one egg, and are hesitant to make any statements," said Chris Parish of the nonprofit Peregrine Fund, which handles the field-work for the program, "but they are acting as if they are seriously considering producing."
Male and females share responsibility for incubating the egg as it rests directly on the floor of a cave. As one parent forages for food, the other sits on the egg, guarding it from predators. The activity of the six pairs around probable nesting sites is consistent with this pattern. Encouragingly, two of the pairs have fledged offspring in the past, however, in 10 years, only five out of 13 eggs produced in the wild in Arizona have hatched successfully.
Reproduction is tricky business, but even if these eggs defy the odds, the young birds still face their greatest challenge: living in a world dominated by humans.
Human contact with condors is detrimental to their ability to survive in the wild. Centers of human activity are rife with fast-moving vehicles, power lines and people bearing treats.
Without proper conditioning, the naturally curious condors can quickly become a nuisance in public places. Handlers take great pains to avoid direct contact with the birds during releases and recapture, and currently all condors raised in captivity have the benefit of condor parents, instead of puppets. If a condor shows interest in human activity, researchers will routinely haze it to discourage the interaction. Birds with a persistent predilection for humans find themselves in condor "time-out" in holding pens on top of Vermillion Cliffs where they hopefully outgrow their habits. Ultimately, these efforts have been very successful in curing young condors of their curiosity before it puts them in harm's way.
To confront the problem of electrocution by power lines, handlers installed two mock telephone poles, donated by Arizona Public Service, in and near the holding pen and release sight. The solar-powered pole delivers a low-voltage shock to any bird who attempts to rest on it, theoretically training young birds to avoid similar structures once released. Since the installation, no condors have died from electrocution by power lines.
By far, however, the biggest human threat to the sustainability of condors in the wild is ammunition - and not from the sudden impact thereof.
Although poaching of condors is relatively infrequent, claiming only two individuals in the last 10 years, bullets made of lead take their toll on the birds in less obvious ways. Long after hunters have left to pack their freezers with elk and deer, condors descend to feed on the gut piles and un-retrieved carcasses left behind, often ingesting fragments of bullets in the process.
Lead bullets fracture on impact to produce maximum damage to internal organs (a ruthless sounding, but ultimately humane aspect that increases the likelihood of instant death). These sometimes microscopic fragments travel throughout the animal where any scavenger feasting on the leftovers are likely to consume them.
Lead poisoning is a pernicious disease that affects many animals to varying degrees. Typically, lead exposure results in neurological impairment but can also cause anemia, blindness, loss of motor control, paralysis and death. For an 18-pound condor, bodily lead concentrations of only four parts per million can be lethal. That is the equivalent of one-sixth of a #4 shotgun pellet, or less than three one-thousandths of a 30-caliber rifle bullet.
Between 1999 and 2006, 66 condors underwent chelation, a highly invasive chemical treatment that flushes lead out of their system. Several birds returned from the brink of death through this costly and time-consuming process, and many more have suffered from less severe effects of lead poisoning.
Lead also commonly affects osprey, bald eagles, hawks, peregrines and coyotes - other scavengers that feed on gut piles. Even some hunters have experienced lead poisoning after accidentally ingesting bullet fragments hiding in their own dinner.
"I am a hunter," Parish said, "and before I started in this project, I had no idea. I started hunting to get away from hormones and additives in my meat . . . but the potential that I am feeding my kids sub-lethal doses of lead that can affect their IQ . . . that's a real eye-opener."
The notion that lead is a factor in condor mortality has been around for a long time. "Twenty-five years ago we were fairly certain lead poisoning was contributing to the decline of condors, but there was a lack of hard-core data," Parish admits. "Now that we have nearly 1,000 blood samples, linked with specific GPS data as to where each bird has been, we have that data."
In a time when lead is outlawed in everything from petroleum to paint to pipes, it is baffling that its use is still allowed in rifle ammunition and upland bird shot. But rather than risk the backlash that might follow from an all-out ban on lead ammunition, condor managers are hoping that education will be the key to reducing lead exposure.
Kathy Sullivan works for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which offers lead-free ammunition to hunters who draw tags in condor country on the Kaibab Plateau. She believes that a ban on lead will not be any more effective than voluntary measures without hunters understanding the reasons for the ban.
"Pass all the laws you want, but unless people know why they are passed, they won't support them," Sullivan said.
A 2005 telephone survey commissioned by the department found that only 23 percent of Arizona and 12 percent of Utah hunters were aware that lead poisoning was an issue for condors. Encouragingly, though, almost all hunters questioned were willing to take action to help the condors once they learned they could have an effect.
In 2005 and 2006, more than half of hunters eligible cashed in the vouchers. The majority of hunters that used the lead-fee ammunition stated that they would definitely recommend it to others, and use it again themselves.
Parish is encouraged by the results. "The voluntary program resulted in 50 percent fewer animals out there laced with lead. That is a great success. It is just not enough success yet. For the near future, it is a question of how long we can hold out till the lead factor is lessened enough to allow condors to live long enough"
The results of this trial effort and the positive feedback from the hunting community have led many to believe that education and increased awareness will be enough to combat the problem. However, others believe the condors cannot wait for trends to slowly shift, and that the only hope is to immediately outlaw lead ammunition entirely. Last November, conservation groups in California filed suit to ban the use of leaded ammunition. A preliminary decision in the case is expected by July.
"Litigation polarizes the issue. When you threaten litigation, hunters stop listening," Parish believes. "Endangered species have a bad wrap - largely from the mismanagement of programs. It is time to bring to light the positive aspects of the program."
One thing is certain, the condors currently developing inside those eggs warming in the northern Arizona spring have a difficult but hopefully long life ahead of them. And their best chance for survival comes when this season's hunters ask themselves a simple question when purchasing their next round of bullets: regular or unleaded?

Loren Bell lives in the Grand Canyon and pays rent in Flagstaff.

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