Getting the lead out

Getting the lead out

Because no lead is good lead for California condors

By Chuck Graham 04/05/2007

In what could be a potential boon for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, the owner of Tejon Ranch (a private game preserve where many condors roam) has announced the banning of lead bullets beginning in time for 2008 hunting season.

The Tejon Ranch stretches across the southern San Joaquin Valley into the Tehachapi Mountains and Antelope Valley, and is frequented by critically endangered condors foraging for carcasses. Condors also enjoy prime roosting habitat on the 270,000-acre ranch.

In March 2007, Robert A. Stine, the president of Tejon Ranch, announced the ban, convinced the ammunition is poisoning North America’s largest flying land bird.

The ranch’s diverse topography is home to an array of wildlife, including Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, wild boar, antelope, wild turkeys, black bear, bobcats, mountain lions, doves and quail. It’s expected that most hunters will use copper bullets for larger game and steel pellets for smaller game and fowl. Tejon Ranch brings in more than 1,800 hunters annually.

Leading environmentalists hailed the ban, hoping it will build momentum for the California Department of Fish and Game to eventually institute a statewide ban. The banning of lead bullets has already been a hot topic of conversation during the last two game commission meetings.

\\\"We’re most surprised Tejon Ranch had taken such an optimistic outlook,\\\" said Jesse Grantham, California condor coordinator and team leader for field programs in southern California for the USFWS. \\\"It’s a great step forward, and I think it’s going to be leading the effort to encourage the use of nontoxic ammunition, not just within the range of the condor, but everywhere.\\\"

The condor recovery program has lost many birds to lead poisoning since Fish and Wildlife began releasing condors in 1992, but hasn’t lost any to lead poisoning over the last three years. Many of the current condors in the wild have been found to have high levels of lead in their blood after being captured and tested at various feeding stations at different refuges. The most recent example involved four birds feeding on a cattle carcass that had been shot into.

Three of those — all breeders — were captured and sent to the Los Angeles Zoo for chelating, whereby lead is reabsorbed by a chemical then taken out of the blood, eventually flushing their systems clean of lead.

The condor has sort of become the \\\"poster child\\\" for ridding the environment of lead, but it also affects other raptors, like bald and golden eagles, and mammals that feed on carrion. Human health issues also come into play, and Grantham sees the two moving forward together.

\\\"It’s the combination of human health and this critically endangered species,\\\" continued Grantham. \\\"People see how lead is killing this animal and the potential effects it can have on humans.\\\"

Despite the presence of lead, Grantham said the condor recovery program \\\"is three-fourths of the way to being successful and getting the bird back into California.\\\" From the program’s inception, there were those who felt the lead issue should have been dealt with before the release of captive-bred condors into the wild. However, without condors in the wild today, the outcry might not have the steam that it currently possesses.

The goal of the recovery plan is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California, the other in Arizona, each with 150 condors and at least 15 breeding pairs. Working toward this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are four active sites in California, one in Arizona and another in Baja, Mexico. There are currently 150 condors in captivity, with 130 birds in the wild and 70 of those in California.

\\\"First of all, without condors being threatened by lead poisoning, would the impetus be there to get the lead out?\\\" asked Grantham. \\\"Do you look at the condor as the scapegoat because it’s put at risk under a situation where a toxin in the environment could potentially kill them and does? However, those subsequent deaths are what drives this momentum. Our point is, we’re almost there. We’ve got birds breeding in the wild, birds 10 and 11 years old with good habits. Their behavior is getting close to what we want. We wouldn’t want to wipe that out, sit back and wait for somebody to make a decision on lead and then start all over again. Let’s keep going. We’re still in the game.\\\"

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