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Yurok Tribe works to restore California condors

The California condor
Timothy Ludwick
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The California condor

Lead used in hunting ammunition is as deadly in the environment as any shot from a hunter’s rifle.

It’s one of the biggest challenges conservationists continue to confront as they work to restore the largest and one of the most endangered birds in North America back to their native range.

Along with habitat loss, the devastating effects of DDT and poaching, California condors have been threatened by lead for decades.

Despite a statewide ban on lead in ammunition, the heavy metal continues to be found in condors that accidentally ingest it while feeding on carcasses left behind by hunters.

Recently six condors from a small population of eight that ranges over Humboldt County were found to have high lead levels. One required emergency treatment but survived.

Yurok Tribe Senior Biologist, Chris West, said he thinks he knows how the birds were contaminated.

“I actually got a call from someone who I worked condors with decades ago who was out in the Bald Hills area of Redwood National Park and observed a number of our condors feeding on a carcass,” West said. “Very quickly it appeared that it was a poaching event of some elk. We’re pretty sure that this was the source of the lead ammunition.”

Condors are particularly vulnerable to lead fragments because they digest food slowly, West said. The toxin stays in their systems longer than mammals.

“Lead ammunition has been outlawed for use in waterfowl at the national level for a long time,” West said. “It’s only recently that in California all ammunition made of lead has been banned for use, using it in any way that can bring it into the food chain.”

California was the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunting in the U.S. West has hope the ban will help condors, although he said it will take years before the last lead bullets have been expended.

The Yurok Tribe has made several efforts to help restore condors to the coastal forest they once occupied. West said that includes working closely with organizations like the Northern California Condor Restoration Program and educating hunters about the ecological effects of using lead ammunition.

“Condor recovery is kind of a flagship program,” West said. “The tribe has really been championing the cause of restoration of condors to the entire range that was in existence at the time of Euro-American arrival and that the major declines on the West Coast started.”

Condors, like salmon, are at the center of Yurok culture.

This week the tribe plans to release three more birds to join the small flock that ranges freely over Humbolt County.

There are currently more than 300 California condors, which is a significant increase from past decades. In 1984, the condor population had been reduced to just 22 birds.

Ken came to NSPR through the back door as a volunteer, doing all the things that volunteers do. Almost nothing – nothing -- in his previous work experience suggests that he would ever be on public radio.