Condor deaths show lead still a problem

PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — No. 286 had been a hopeful sign in this park's California condor restoration effort. Hatched in a zoo seven years ago, he was the old man of the program, living wild and nearly ready to breed.

This month he succumbed to the biggest killer of the once nearly extinct species: lead poisoning.

There are signs that a year-old state ban on lead bullets has begun to help the endangered vultures, but defiance by at least a few hunters and setbacks like the death of No. 286 have researchers worried that the majestic birds remain far from having a solid footing in their natural habitat.

"It's sad, and it indicates the uphill battle we have," said Jim Petterson, a wildlife biologist at Pinnacles.

Since 1982, when the 22 California condors left in the world were rounded up for a captive breeding program, the species' population has grown to more than 300. More than half the gangly birds, marked by bald heads that turn bright red in adulthood, are living in the wild in California, Arizona and Mexico's Baja California; the rest are in zoo breeding programs.

Lead poisoning has been a major threat to the scavengers. It has killed at least 14 condors in California since 1992, and about a dozen in Arizona since 1996.

On July 1, California started banning lead bullets in the 15 counties covering condor country. Arizona has a voluntary effort in which wildlife officials give hunters non-lead bullets, but lead bullets and fishing tackle have been barred on National Park Service land since March, and a lawsuit filed by an environmental group aims to ban lead on condor habitat controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

California's ban appears to have helped immediately. Federal information the state fish and game commission will consider next month shows that 59 percent of condors and two of five nestlings sampled in California tested high for lead from January to June 2008, compared with 45 percent from July to December.

The deaths continue, however. No. 286's death was the second fatal lead poisoning of a Pinnacles condor in just over six months, and lead poisoning is suspected in a third.

Chris Stoots, a California game warden, said about 90 percent of hunters he checked in San Benito County parking areas during summer deer season used steel and copper shot, encouraging scientists that lead-free areas could eventually become a reality.

"It's important to credit the hunting community for moving the needle in the right direction," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society, which monitors 20 or so birds released at Big Sur on California's central coast.

But beyond the parking lots are oak-studded ranches, where thousands of ground squirrels and wild pigs are considered vermin and are shot by ranchers, who often are reluctant to switch to more expensive non-lead ammunition.

Many landowners, some fourth and fifth generation, also believe the ban forcing them to use non-lead bullets violates their property rights. Gun lobbyists say the measure is too strict and that legislators should have used voluntary measures and considered other potential sources of lead, including garbage.

"They see it as a backdoor attempt to ban guns and hunting," said Jake Theyerl, hired by the nonprofit Institute of Wildlife Studies to persuade rural San Benito County gun owners to switch to copper and steel shot.

"Hunters feel this was forced on them," adds Jason Bumann, manager of the RS Bar Ranch, a private hunting ranch southeast of Pinnacles that required hunters to use lead-free ammo even before the law.

"The automatic first response when someone wants to take something from you, regardless of the reason, the first response is 'no,'" Bumann said. "It's such a slippery slope. Once they take one thing it's just the next and the next."

Biologists say condors and hunters can coexist, and condors eventually will rely on the hunters for food. Biologists currently leave "clean" carcasses of stillborn calves at release sites so the birds have a better chance of survival.

Condors are attracted to cliffs, dense forests and rocky areas, making the spires at Pinnacles, about 125 miles south of San Francisco, an ideal place for the birds, North America's largest fliers.

Condor No. 286 was half his 22-pound weight in March, when scientists lured him into a holding pen. The needle peaked on lead tests; X-rays were taken but by that time could not detect a lead bullet in his gut.

Veterinarians at the Los Angeles zoo performed blood transfusions and fed him through tubes, but he died May 11. Scientists did find at least 15 birdshot pellets embedded in his 10-foot wingspan and torso, which would have hurt but not poisoned him.

Around the same time biologists cared for a female condor who also had lead poisoning and birdshot wounds. She recovered and was released, but discovering that two birds had been shot was a concern.

"In our 12 years releasing condors on the Central Coast, one had never been shot," said Sorenson, of the Ventana Wildlife Society. "To find two in such a short period was alarming."

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