The California condor is one of the largest flying birds in North America, with a wingspan that stretches nearly 10 feet, helping it reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. This majestic bird once ruled the skies of the Pacific coast, long before European settlers arrived.
Since then, indiscriminate poaching, habitat destruction, lead poisoning and the pervasive California condor louse all contributed to the California Condor’s disappearance, CBS News reports. The bird became extinct from the wild in 1987, when there were only 22 California condors left on the planet.
That’s when the US government ordered the capture of all 27 remaining wild birds, which were bred in captivity at the San Diego Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Conservationists treated all the condors with a pesticide to kill the California condor louse which has since been eradicated in an instance of conservation-induced extinction.
In the early 1990s, some condors were reintroduced into the wild. Today, the bird inhabits range in parts of California and Utah in the US and Baja California in Mexico, the National Parks Service reports.
As of May 2022, there are 113 condors in the wild in the canyon country of northern Arizona and southern Utah, St George News reports, while the total world population of endangered California Condors numbers more than 550 individuals, with more than half flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Mexico.
Though this bird is coming back from the brink, the California condor is not yet safe. A significant percentage of all released condors have died or been returned to captivity. The IUCN still classifies the bird as critically endangered.
Poisoning by ingestion of lead shot — scavenged along with carcasses left behind by hunters — is still one of the most widespread and preventable causes of condor deaths, the Center for Biological Diversity maintains.
“Since first being reintroduced to the southern Utah area in 1996, 54% of condor deaths have been confirmed as caused by lead poisoning from lead ammunition,” Jake Richards, a master’s student in Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society told Utah State Magazine. “This number is probably higher, but the remote locations of the condor’s nesting and foraging range makes it impossible to recover and diagnose every death.”
California condors will fly up to 200 miles per day searching for carrion to eat. When those sources of food contain fragments of soft lead-core bullets, it creates a serious health risk for the condor. This threat is created any time a wounded animal escapes a hunt, gut-piles are left behind after a kill, or pest animals are shot and left for dead. Toxic lead accumulates in the bodies of the condors, and has caused the deaths of dozens of birds since they were first reintroduced to the wild.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, lead ammunition also poses health risks to people. Fragmented lead bullets can leave tiny particles in meat that humans eat. Studies show that even dust-sized particles of lead can infect a radius of 18 inches from the bullet wound. Venison that has been donated to feed the hungry has been recalled by state authorities because of lead contamination from lead bullet fragments. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Nearly 10 million hunters, their families and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations may be at risk.
For over a decade, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Get the Lead Out Campaign has advocated for California and Arizona to require the use of nonlead ammunition within the condor’s range. This effort prompted California’s Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, which requires the use of nonlead centerfire rifle and pistol ammunition for big game and coyote hunting within specified areas. The Center also achieved a settlement with California’s wildlife agencies eliminating lead ammunition for hunting of “nuisance” animals.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Services, working with The Peregrine Fund, uses incentive programs to encourage hunters to voluntarily adopt non-lead ammunition when hunting big game in the condor range, Utah Public Radio reports. Big game hunters in California condor habitat can receive coupons for free non-lead ammunition. If they use it — or opt to pack out gut piles — they are eligible to enter a drawing for one of five hunting rifles.
If there is anything that can be done to cave the California condor, leaving behind lead-based ammunition will make the biggest impact.
We must convince hunters in Arizona, California and Utah to voluntarily abandon lead-based ammunition when hunting in condor territory. That means helping hunters feel empowered to act and convince them to actually make a change, and that starts with making the change ourselves.
This article by Matthew Russell was first published by The Animal Rescue Site. Lead Image: PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / JAMES MICHAEL IMAGES AT ONE POINT THERE WERE ONLY 27 CALIFORNIA CONDORS ALIVE ON EARTH..
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