FLAGSTAFF — An environmental group sued two federal agencies Wednesday over a land management plan it says fails to protect the endangered California condor from lead ammunition.
The Center for Biological Diversity is pushing for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to ban lead hunting ammunition that can poison or kill condors that feed on gut piles and carcasses.
"We really feel that without regulation, you're going to continue to have chronic poisoning, you're going to continue to have death," said Jeff Miller of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.
The BLM adopted a management plan for an area north of the Grand Canyon known as the Arizona Strip last year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, issued an opinion on the plan a year earlier that environmentalists say is flawed.
Scott Sticha, a spokesman for the BLM's Arizona Strip office, said the management plan does not address hunting ammunition and declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
Brenda Smith, assistant field supervisor for Fish and Wildlife in Flagstaff, said the agency is taking another look at its opinion but did not say what the review might entail or when it would be completed.
"There are some valid concerns, and we're just making sure our analysis was appropriate," she said.
The condor once numbered in the thousands across North America but was nearly extinct by the early 1980s from the effects of hunting, lead poisoning and habitat encroachment. The final 22 birds were captured in California and a breeding program started. There are now more than 300 of the giant vultures, and many have been released back to the wild in California, Arizona and Mexico, where their status varies.
State and federal agencies have stepped up efforts to reduce lead poisoning in condors and other animals. The National Park Service announced an effort earlier this month to eliminate the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in parks by the end of 2010.
California passed a law that went into effect in July prohibiting hunters from using lead ammunition in the condor's historic range, which covers 20 percent of the state.
The Arizona Department of Game and Fish has said a voluntary program that provides hunters with vouchers for non-lead ammunition and encourages them to drop off gut piles for disposal at a checkpoint on the Kaibab plateau in northern Arizona is working just fine.
State officials tout a 90 percent compliance rate under the program. Utah officials plan to implement a plan similar to Arizona's next year.
Miller said although he agrees with the educational aspects of Arizona's program, he argues it's unlikely the condors will make a successful recovery without a ban on lead ammunition.
"That program is never going to have a high-enough compliance rate or participation rate as long as it is voluntary," he said. "There are still going to be enough people hunting with lead that we're still going to have the poisoning."