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Utah hunters can help the rare California Condor by getting the lead out

California condors, the rarest bird in North America, are occasionally spotted in Utah's Zion National Park.
Rebecca Alfafara
National Park Service
California condors, the rarest bird in North America, are occasionally spotted in Utah's Zion National Park.

With the fall hunting season underway, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will set up a series of checkpoints to encourage hunters to clean up gut piles and use non-lead ammunition.

Southern Utah hunters have been working with the state to eliminate lead poisoning in California Condors. The program Hunters Helping Condors has been in place since 2011 and brings awareness to the danger of lead ammunition consumption by scavenging wildlife.

Condors are “obligate scavengers,” meaning they only get their food from carrion sources, like game that hunters leave behind or other animal kills. They have bald faces and large wingspans and generally scavenge in groups.

“So any time an animal is shot with lead-based ammunition and its remains are left in the field where scavengers can consume them, that's where the highest probability of lead exposure occurs,” said Chris Parish, CEO of The Peregrine Fund, a wildlife conservation nonprofit.

As of May 2022, there were 113 California Condorsin Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Their re-introduction to Utah came in the early 2000s after they were put on the endangered species list in 1967.

After the DWR found a correlation between the mortality rates in birds and the amount of lead in the body, they began to think of alternatives that would benefit both birds and hunters.

The DWR is encouraging hunters to use non-lead ammunition or pick up gut piles if they are using lead ammunition, said Avian Conservation Program Coordinator Russell Norvell.

Oct. 8 will mark the start of checkpoints off SR-18 in Cedar City where hunters can pick up non-lead ammunition and drop off gut piles. The checkpoints will go throughout October. Another checkpoint will be near the entrance of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, beginning Oct. 12, a DWR press release said.

The hunter participation rate from last year is in the low 70% range, according to DWR data.

“We do have some modeling to suggest that we need to get hunters to participate in the program at a pretty high level, 80% or better before we really have much of a biological impact, because even a few carcasses out there can poison a lot of condors. They're such a social creature that one instance can hurt a lot of animals,” Norvell said.

The program is entirely voluntary which differs from a similar program in Arizona also focused on restoring California Condor numbers.

Utah has seen some success preserving condors by preventing lead ammunition poisoning.

“From a statistical perspective, to demonstrate the benefit of the incremental change, because we're only talking about 114 birds in the wild in the first place. And because of the social nature of feeding, it complicates things a little bit, too. That said, we have, for example, seen breeding in Utah. Successful breeding in Utah for the first time in hundreds of years anyway,” Norvell said.

Prizes are the main incentive for hunters. The Peregrine Fund offers Southern Utah hunters the opportunity to win hunting rifles and outdoor gear by using the checkpoints and non-lead ammunition.

Most Southern Utah hunters in the program opt to use non-lead ammunition instead of collecting leftover gut piles; however, non-lead ammunition is more expensive. Norvell said the DWR is working on making it more available to local hunters.

Parish is also an avid hunter and has found that hunting and conservation go hand-in-hand.

“We have an opportunity to educate ourselves and to take the new information we have and make more informed decisions. And the resulting actions like that of Utah's program for Hunters Helping Condors. We can do good things for wildlife,” Parish said.

Norvell said the latest study from the DWR will evaluate what outreach tactics the program will take moving into the winter.

Elle Cabrera is a former KUER reporter
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