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Lead Poisoning in California Condors at a 10-Year Low

Deadly levels of lead in endangered California condors are at a 10-year low. As Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, a collaboration between conservationists and hunters to reduce the use of lead ammunition is responsible for the drop.

In the last year, 13 condors were treated for lead exposure, compared to 30 the previous year. For more than a decade, lead poisoning has been the leading cause of death for the giant birds. They ingest lead by feeding on the remains of animals that’ve been shot by hunters. 

The decline in lead-related deaths is being attributed to more hunters using lead-free bullets. For several years, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has offered copper ammunition instead at no charge to those hunting in the condor’s range.

Chris Parish is the supervisor of the California Condor Restoration Project. He’s glad for the change, but says it took a long time for a philosophical shift to take hold with hunters.

“We’ve been using it for so long that the technology has made lead this fantastic flying bullet. The core of the problem is we’re asking people to change generationally held traditions,” Parish says.

But Parish says in the last year 80 percent of hunters on the Kaibab Plateau voluntarily took part in the lead-free ammunition program.

“If we deliver this information appropriately, people are responding. We could be onto something and this really could work and we might actually see the recovery of the condor.”

Parish says there are currently 75 California condors inhabiting the Vermillion Cliffs range, and they’ve expanded into southern Utah. That state recently saw the birth of its first chick in Zion National Park.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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