PHOENIX - Poisoned by lead, California condor No. 134 was severely dehydrated and unable to stand or swallow food by the time it reached Kathy Orr, staff veterinarian at the Phoenix Zoo.
Orr’s team performed several surgeries to put a feeding tube in the male condor’s stomach, and it received a transfusion of blood shipped from a breeding complex in San Diego. It “winced like a child” when removed from its cage for procedures, including twice-daily injections to clean its blood, she said.
“They’re really strong birds, and to see one so sick is painful,” Orr said.
It’s likely that the condor ate lead bullet fragments in the entrails of a deer or elk gutted by a hunter near the Grand Canyon. These “gut piles” are magnets for California condors, which scavenge animal carcasses.
Condor No. 134 survived, but state officials say at least 12 other California condors in Arizona have died of lead poisoning since the species was reintroduced to northern Arizona in 1996.
In July, the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and Arizona Zoological Society sent a letter urging the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to protect condors by requiring hunters to use non-lead ammunition statewide.
California might make such a change. The Legislature recently forwarded to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill to ban the use of lead ammunition in hunting big game and coyotes in condor territory.
In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposed a nationwide ban on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting because the pellets were poisoning birds that ate them off the bottoms of streams and lakes.
Arizona officials say they’re doing plenty already. With cooperation from hunting groups, the state Game and Fish Department educates hunters about the danger lead poses to condors and offers free non-lead ammunition to those who hunt big game in condor territory.
In 1982, only 22 California condors remained in existence. Captive breeding programs have brought their numbers to more than 300 in California, Arizona and Baja California. There are now 59 in Arizona, said Kathy Sullivan, condor program coordinator for Game and Fish.
Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said lead poses the greatest threat to what’s otherwise been a successful effort to save the California condor.
“Here they are again in danger over something completely preventable,” Bahr said.
Since 2005, Game and Fish has provided coupons for free non-lead ammunition to those with tags for big game on the Kaibab and Paria plateaus. About 1,800 drew tags for this year’s hunt, which begins in October.
The department has distributed a DVD explaining the dangers of lead to those hunters and to another 4,000 who will hunt near condor territory.
Sullivan said a 2005 survey found a 50 percent reduction in the number of hunters using lead ammunition.
“A lot of groups in California are spending too much time fighting. We’re trying to avoid that,” Sullivan said.
Steve Clark, president of the Arizona Elk Society, said scientific data provided by the Game and Fish solidified hunting groups’ support for the effort. He said hunters are even more committed to conservation than the general public.
“An average person may like to look at condors,” Clark said. “A sportsman actually donates money and time to their preservation cause.”
Clark and other hunters noted that non-lead ammunition is more expensive and isn’t available in all calibers.
Rick Cofone, gunroom manager at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Phoenix, said the store has occasionally run out of non-lead ammunition since it began participating in the program.
“This is a good way to initiate hunters,” Cofone said. “Otherwise they’d be forced to spend almost twice as much on non-lead ammunition.”
State officials team in the condor recovery effort with the Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based nonprofit group.
Chris Parish, the Peregrine Fund’s program director, said that despite the drop in lead ammunition use field tests last fall showed that 95 percent of Arizona’s condors had been exposed to lead and 70 percent required treatment. At least four condors died of lead poisoning in 2006, he said.
“I’d like to see 100 percent compliance, but it’s difficult to make people change,” Parish said.
Birds requiring treatment for lead are taken to a facility in Marble Canyon or, in the most serious cases, the Phoenix Zoo.
Donald Smith, professor of environmental toxicology at University of California, Santa Cruz, co-authored a paper on a study confirming lead poisoning as a threat to condors. He called Arizona’s voluntary approach inadequate.
“If lead continues to be present in carcasses, condors will continue to die,” Smith said.