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CONDOR CONCERN DFG OFFICIALS DISPUTE REPORT THAT LEAD FROM BULLETS POISONING BIRDS.

Byline: Bill Becher Special to the Daily News

California's hunters are being asked to get the lead out to save endangered California condors.

A study commissioned by the California Department of Fish and Game concludes that lead from hunters' spent ammunition in carrion is the most likely cause of the poisoning that has sickened and killed the endangered birds.

According to the report, hunters leave more than 30,000 dead animal remains scattered across the condors' range annually. Condors are scavengers, feeding on carcasses that can contain spent bullet fragments or shot from hunters' rifles or shotguns.

But DFG officials seem reluctant to accept the findings in the 85-page report by Dr. D. Michael Fry, formerly of the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis.

Although the report said the DFG should consider banning lead bullets and shot within the condors' range, ``there is no smoking gun in the report that says, yes, it's lead from ammunition and we're going to have to consider some sort of ban,'' according to Lorna Bernard, a DFG spokesperson.

DFG officials tinkered with Fry's report for months before it was released to the public, demanding three drafts as they worried that its conclusions would draw protests from hunters.

Federal officials charged with saving the condors from extinction see the situation differently.

``Lead from ammunition is killing condors. That is an absolute fact,' said Bruce Palmer, California Condor Recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Palmer points out that lead identified as spent ammunition in the form of shotgun pellets and fragments of bullets have been recovered from the gastro-intestinal tracts of dead and sick condors. The lead poisoning tends to occur in the fall of the year, during hunting seasons.

``When condors come on a carcass they feed in a group and every bit of tissue is consumed,'' Palmer said. ``Only large bones are left.''

Condors also can eat bullet fragments thinking they are bits of bone, which they consume to get minerals.

One source involved in the effort to save condors likened the situation to DNA evidence in a murder trial, saying that while the experts might testify it's 99.9 percent certain that lead from ammunition is the culprit, state game officials are clinging to the remaining .1 percent uncertainty in their defense of hunters.

Lead from ammunition can cause other problems for the condors.

Lead exposure might diminish feeding and affect the condors' coordination and flying ability. Lead exposure from hunters bullets also might be a threat to other protected species, including golden eagles, ravens and turkey vultures, according to the report.

State and federal officials hope that voluntary programs that encourage hunters to bury animal remains and voluntary use of lead-free ammunition will reduce the lead exposure to condors.

``Hunters have a longtime legacy of taking the initiative in wildlife conservation issues,'' Palmer said. ``It's our belief that once hunters understand the environmental effects of lead bullets that are left in the wild they will take every measure possible to minimize those effects.''

Intensive and very expensive attempts to prevent death of condors from lead by other methods have not been successful.

Condor recovery experts have monitored lead exposure in condors since 1997. Five condors have died of lead poisoning since 1997 - one in California, one in Utah and three in Arizona. An additional 26 condors have received emergency veterinary treatment to reduce toxic lead levels. The source of lead has been identified in some cases as shotgun pellets or fragments of bullets.

One condor, AC-8, was treated for lead poisoning in the Los Angeles Zoo and then re-released into the wild. She was later shot and killed by a hunter at the Tejon Ranch in early February 2003. The hunter is facing federal charges.

All California condors were removed from the wild by 1987, when they numbered only 27. A captive breeding program saved the birds from extinction. Condors were reintroduced into the wilderness starting in 1992 at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refugee in northern Ventura County.

The population of condors now stands at 221. The California condor range includes the California mountains bordering the San Joaquin Valley; northern Arizona and southern Utah and northern Baja California. Adult condors might travel up to 150 miles in a day to forage for food, which too often contains lead.

Other potential sources of lead examined in the report included residue from leaded exhaust gas, natural deposits of lead in soil and industrial emissions. Atmospheric emission sources are outside the condor range and not in prevailing wind patterns and are unlikely to be a significant source of lead to condors, nor is lead from soil, the report said.

LEADING THE WAY

The California Condor Lead Exposure Reduction Steering Committee, which includes a diverse group of hunters, conservation groups, and wildlife conservation agencies, recommends that hunters:

--Retrieve all killed animals (including coyotes and small game) from the field, or ...

--Hide carcasses or gut piles by burying them, covering them with brush or rocks, or placing them in an inaccessible area, or ...

--Remove bullets and surrounding impacted flesh when leaving carcasses or gut piles in the field, or ...

--Use lead-free ammunition, in which case none of the above is needed.

Duck hunters are already using leadless shot. A nationwide ban on lead shot for all waterfowl hunting was implemented in 1991, after studies showed lead shot ingestion was a problem. A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the ban has prevented the lead poisoning deaths of an estimated 1.4 million ducks in a single year.

Daily News wire services contributed to this report.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

This condor at the Hooper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge was treated for lead poisoning at the Los Angeles Zoo and released, but was killed by a hunter at the Tejon Ranch in February.

Scott Frier/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Box:

LEADING THE WAY (see text)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 19, 2003
Words:989
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