Utah-Arizona Condors Overcome Lead Poisoning

Researchers are cautiously optimistic that the toxic blood-lead levels in endangered California condors living near the Grand Canyon seem to be down.
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Condor flying in Grand Canyon. Notice the tag on its wing.

Condor flying in Grand Canyon. Notice the numbered tag on its wing.

Researchers are cautiously optimistic that the toxic blood-lead levels in endangered California condors living in the Utah-Arizona area and around Grand Canyon National Park seem to be down. In 2014, the percentage of birds with life-threatening levels was at the lowest it's been in 10 years.

"The ups and downs of lead poisoning over the years demonstrate that any single season does not make a trend, but our test results are encouraging," Eddie Feltes, field manager for The Peregrine Fund's condor project, told Yuma Arizona News. "If this ends up being the beginning of a trend, we hope it will continue."

How Were the Condors Getting Exposed to Lead?

As scavengers, condors feed on carrion left over by other predators and often by human hunters. When hunters use lead bullets, and the birds then eat the contaminated carcass, they're exposed to high levels of lead.

"Condors and other scavengers benefit from the remains of carcasses left in the field by hunters, but our research has revealed that lead bullets can fragment into tiny pieces, sometimes spreading widely upon impact in an animal's body, thereby increasing the potential for lead exposure if lead-based ammunition was used," Chris Parish, condor program coordinator for The Peregrine Fund, said.

Hunters Heed the Plea to Help the Condors

The organization believes that efforts to educate hunters about the dangers of lead bullets have contributed significantly to the reduced toxic levels found in condors. In 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish Department began work to educate hunters about the impact they can make by using non-lead bullets. The pleas haven't fallen on deaf ears.

Last fall, 88 percent of hunters shooting in areas where condors typically feed either used non-lead bullets voluntarily or made efforts to remove affected gut piles from the field.

"Hunters and shooters are the only ones who can solve this problem, and I believe we are well on our way. We identified a problem, proposed a reasonable solution and, most important, we asked for help," Parish said. "Change is happening, resulting in less lead available to condors and other scavengers each year, making the goal of recovery ever more possible."

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