On a chilly bright blue sky day on top of the Vermillion Cliffs in northern Arizona, I finally got to see first-hand the results of a project I worked on while at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1990s. I stood on the edge of the cliffs with colleagues from Defenders and conservation partners from AZ Fish and Game and The Peregrine Fund watching critically endangered California condors soaring in the wind updrafts and sitting on boulders sunning themselves in the crisp morning’s sun. They are certainly spectacular birds. Until you actually see one of these massive creatures on the wing, it’s hard to truly visualize just how incredible these birds are and how precarious their future still is. They are almost magical to watch as they ride the thermals against the strikingly severe cliff sides near the Grand Canyon.
Though there have been some birds now born in the wild since the original releases from captivity over a decade ago, most still wear the obvious brand of human help in the form of tags and transmitters to track their movements in northern Arizona and southern Utah. It is only with significant human support that we are making headway in returning these incredible flying creatures back to their rightful place in the wild. All of the birds now in the wild still require supplemental feeding and are monitored regularly to manage the leading ongoing cause of their deaths today; the ingestion of lead from carcasses and gut piles of animals hunted throughout their range. As carrion eaters (consumers of dead animals), the lead often left behind by hunters in carcasses or gut piles is ingested during feeding and accumulates quickly to deadly levels in the birds. If we are seeing it at such high levels on an ongoing basis in condors, just imagine all the other wildlife that feed in a similar fashion. It is abundantly clear that lead and wildlife are not a good mix for long term survival and sustainability.
AZ Game and Fish and The Peregrine Fund have been working diligently through voluntary ammunition swap programs (free exchanging of lead bullets for copper or steel). In addition, they have an around the clock program of supplemental feeding and monitoring of the birds’ lead levels with intervention by trapping and treatment to remove lead from the systems of those birds most affected. Regardless, the condor population overall is still in real trouble.
Though there has been a positive response from hunters with the ammunition swap out program in Arizona, there is no such opportunity in Utah and that makes recovery of the condor all the more complicated and frustrating. The birds range from their “home base” at the Vermillion Cliffs but are now flying further and further away into Utah where there are no controls or incentives to use other than lead shot while hunting. Until the lead is out of ammunition used to hunt wildlife, it will continue to be a labor intensive uphill battle to save the condors.
It’s time for ammunition manufacturers to step up and do what was done for waterfowl decades ago. Conversion away from lead should not affect hunter success, but it will do a world of good for condors and other critters. The science is clear, now we need to encourage manufacturers and hunters to step up.