OPINION — I’m a Utah native, grandfather of four, Vietnam War veteran, former Navy SEAL and retired National Park Service employee. For the past 19, years I have worked for several regional and national wildlife conservation groups.
In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began releasing condors in northern Arizona. During the next 22 years, the agency released approximately 216 condors, which produced approximately 44 wild-hatched chicks.
In early July 2019, the Southwest Condor Working Group announced a condor chick hatched in Zion National Park, the 1,000th born in the condor recovery program. Good news to be sure, but so far none of the condors in Zion have managed to raise a chick to adulthood. Park officials hope that No. 1,000 will be the first.
The unfortunate reality is that in 2018, only 88 condors still traversed the skies above Zion and Grand Canyon national parks. By the end of 2018, 145 of the birds had died, including 23 of the wild-hatched chicks. Lead poisoning through eating carrion contaminated by lead bullets constitutes the major threat to condor survival.
Lead poisoning makes up 40% of the 207 deaths where a carcass was recovered in the free-flying population. Since 1992 there have been 83 documented deaths from lead poisoning.
Blood tests reported in the recent 2019 blood lead testing results showed that 77% of the tested condors revealed troubling levels of lead, with serious levels reported in more than a quarter of the birds tested. Credible modeling based on the population in California predicted that even if only 0.5% of carcasses are contaminated with lead, the probability that a condor would feed on a contaminated carcass over a 10-year period is still 85-98%.
While particularly deadly to condors, an agonizing death from lead poisoning also threatens other native creatures, including eagles and other birds of prey, coyotes and mountain lions since these and other wildlife species can ingest any animal shot with lead-based ammunition and left in the field. Eating game meat contaminated by lead also poses a threat to human health.
Apparently, most hunters in the condor recovery zone act responsibly and use non-lead ammo. Nonetheless, efforts to ban toxic lead are vigorously and successfully opposed by some sportsmen groups such as the Safari Club and gun advocates, including the National Rifle Association.
While educational efforts by Arizona and Utah wildlife agencies emphasizing use of non-lead ammunition have significantly reduced the amount of lead ammunition contamination, lead poisoning still remains the major obstacle to condor survival despite these voluntary educational efforts. The obvious solution to this ecological crisis is removing the source of contamination and requiring non-lead substitutes that are readily available.
Submitted by KIM CRUMBO, Ogden.
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