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Restoring the Grand Canyon Condor

This is a closeup photo of a bird of prey, with a naked head and a crown of black feathers that covers its entire body.
California condor. Photo: Chuck Szmurlo

Recently, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) included Grand Canyon National Park in their list of “The 10 National Parks with the Most Endangered Species,” highlighting the plight of the California condor. Condor recovery in the 2-state Grand Canyon ecoregion, including Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce national parks, as well as the Kaibab and Dixie national forests, remains a perennial concern for Wildlands Network.

In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began releasing condors in northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon ecoregion. During the next 20 years, the agency released a total of 189 condors, which produced 29 wild-hatched chicks. However, in 2016, only 79 condors still traversed southwestern skies. By the end of 2016, 125 of the birds released by the agency had died, including 20 of the wild-hatched chicks. Lead poisoning through eating carrion contaminated by lead bullets, including the remains of gutted game animals, constitutes the major threat to condor survival.

While particularly deadly to condors, lead poisoning also threatens other native creatures, including eagles and other birds of prey, coyotes, and mountain lions, throughout the year 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.

Condor Mortality

The USFWS’s Condor Working Group recorded 58 condor fatalities between 2012 and 2016, including 21 birds missing and presumed dead, with a total of 125 fatalities since reintroductions began in the Southwest. Eighteen of the diagnosed causes of death were due to lead poisoning; however, the number of birds in the “missing” and “undetermined” fatality categories continued to increase.

Of the 67 cases where diagnoses of death were possible since releases began in 1996, more than half the birds (55%) died of lead poisoning. The Condor Working Group estimates that an additional 21 condors may also have succumbed to lead poisoning.

Table with two columns, one showing numbers of deceased birds, the other showing cause of death.
Table showing causes of condor mortality. Table: Wildlands Network

Lead poisoning cases generally occur in the fall and winter months during the big-game hunting seasons on the Kaibab Plateau north of Grand Canyon in Arizona and on public lands surrounding Zion National Park in southern Utah. The period of highest exposure is October and November during the deer hunting seasons, and the period of highest lead-caused condor death is in December and January, as the debilitating and lethal effects take hold.

The USFWS’s recent Condor Recovery Program evaluation concluded “the most significant issue raised in the [this] review, exposure to lead contamination, continues to be the chief impediment to recovery.” In other words, the number 1 cause of diagnosed death for condors in the Grand Canyon and Zion ecoregions is lead poisoning due to eating carrion contaminated with lead from bullets linked to the fall deer hunting season.

Hunter Education is Not Enough

Remarkably, as of 2016, 80 to 90% of big-game hunters in much of the Arizona portion of condor range have participated in Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ voluntary lead-reduction program since 2007.

While educational efforts by Arizona and Utah wildlife agencies emphasizing use of non-lead ammunition and removal of contaminated carcasses have significantly reduced the amount of lead ammunition contamination, lead poisoning still remains the major obstacle to condor survival.

A black bird with outstretched wings flies high in the sky toward a rocky outcrop against a blue, nearly cloudless sky.
A California condor soars through the sky. Photo: Jenny Eberlein, NPS

In order to achieve the recovery program’s goal of a successful condor population—which requires reclassification from endangered to threatened status—at least 2 wild populations of at least 150 individuals, each consisting of at least 15 breeding pairs, must be reproductively self-sustaining and have a positive rate of population growth.

After 20 years, the condor population had grown to 79 individuals with 6 breeding pairs. While models have suggested that simultaneously successful voluntary lead reduction efforts in Arizona and Utah could result in a level of lead-induced condor fatalities that would still allow the population to increase, other 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%.

Although well-intentioned voluntary efforts to reduce the use of lead ammunition in California condor range has reduced the amount of available lead seasonally, further efforts to reduce the greater lead load available to scavenging birds on a year-round cycle are crucial for program success and a healthier ecosystem.

In other words, lead poisoning still remains the major obstacle to restoring the condor to its rightful place in the Grand Canyon ecoregion, despite efforts to reduce the use of lead ammunition. The obvious solution to this ecological crisis is removing the source of contamination, namely lead ammunition, and require non-lead substitutes that are readily available. As indicated above, most hunters in the recovery zone use such ammo. Nonetheless, efforts to ban toxic lead are vigorously and successfully opposed by some gun advocates, including the National Rifle Association.

Legal Protections Are Tricky

Because of the inherent management “flexibility” afforded condors within the so-called “10(j) nonessential experimental population” recovery zone, these birds are not fully protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. This zone generally lies within Utah and Arizona lands north of Interstate 40 and south of Interstate 70. When condors leave this area, however, they become fully protected as an endangered species.

Due to the limitations imposed by the 10(j) designation, legal recourse to protect the condor remains constrained and requires innovative approaches. In 2012, Grand Canyon Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club filed a Resource Conservation Recovery Act case in the District of Arizona against the Kaibab National Forest “to limit the disposal of a known toxin on public ands in northern Arizona and to protect wildlife species threatened by exposure to spent ammunition in the foraging range within [Forest Service] land in Arizona.” Numerous parties moved to intervene, including the State of Arizona, the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, and the National Sports Shooting Foundation.

The case, currently the condor’s best line of defense, lies in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Wildlands Network is invested in a positive outcome for the condor to further rewild our landscapes so that life in all its diversity can thrive.

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