The hunting community has been helping overcome a serious threat to the endangered California condor's survival - lead poisoning. Condors are scavengers and rely upon finding carcasses and remains of range cattle, deer, pigs and other wildlife for food. If the carrion is lead-free, condors will have no problems. Unfortunately, many have been killed after feeding on dead animals that contain fragments of lead shot.

There has been widespread involvement from hunters in ending this threat. For example, Arizona has been providing copper ammunition to hunters for two years, and reports indicate that 90 percent of hunters are using this viable alternative to lead. A similar program is now underway in the Zion region of Utah. California now requires the use of non-toxic bullets within the condor's range, and a recent study found that this was being complied with by 99 percent of hunters.

“We greatly appreciate that most hunters are now using non-toxic ammunition. Hunters play a critical role in providing food for condors, and we want to encourage hunters to leave gut piles and varmints in the field, providing they have been shot with non-toxic ammo.” said Dr. Michael Fry, American Bird Conservancy's director of Conservation Advocacy. “We were also thrilled to learn that Winchester will soon be producing non-toxic .22 caliber ammo.”

The California Fish and Game Department has created a Web site (www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/hunting/condor/) to provide resources for hunters. The state has now certified 17 ammunition manufacturers of non-lead ammunition.

“The public perception is that condors have recovered, but the reality is that without constant intervention, many of the birds would die of lead poisoning from bullet fragments in their food,” said Dr. Fry. “Many of the birds have had to be caught and treated for lead exposure.”

The American Ornithologists' Union recently asked six experts, including Dr. Fry, to review the condor program and make recommendations for continuing the recovery. Their report confirms the absolute necessity of eliminating the sources of lead that are poisoning condors, primarily lead fragments from hunting bullets. This presents a critical problem, because condors are scavengers and they rely heavily on remains left behind by hunters.

“Two condors died of lead poisoning in California in 2008,” said Dr. Fry. “Unfortunately, there will continue to be lead ammunition deaths as long as there is any non-compliance.”

The panel recommended that each release program continue supplemental feeding of condors until there can be a guarantee of lead-free carrion throughout the condor range. The program also allows biologists to trap and monitor the birds frequently and treat for lead exposure when birds are poisoned. The feeding and monitoring aspects of the program are very expensive and time consuming, and are preventing the program from releasing additional birds into the wild. If farmers and hunters could provide sufficient lead-free carrion for these birds, the wild population would become self sufficient. The AOU report is available at: ca.audubon.org/pdf/AOU_CONDOR_REPORT_Aug08_final.pdf.

The California condor has reached a significant milestone: for the first time in more than 20 years, there are now more birds flying free in the wild than there are in captivity. California condors dwindled to a low of only 22 individuals in 1982, at which point birds were taken into captivity as part of a recovery program. The program has been a great success, with the condor population now flying high at 332. Nine chicks were fledged in the wild in 2008, and there are now 87 birds in the wild in California, 68 in Arizona, and 19 in Baja California, Mexico.