Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Protecting the California Condor

Since we're in the last week of the regular California legislative session, there will be a flurry of bills, and as always Frank D Russo at California Progress Report has the madness well in hand. Here is his first report on the September legislat-a-thon.

I noticed among the long list of legislation that AB 821 (Nava) passed on a straight party line vote with Democrats voting to ban lead ammunition in the habitat of the California Condor, and Republicans voting to allow the practice to continue. The giant bird with the 10 foot wingspan was once a common sight throughout North America, but by 1987 only 22 remained. One of the primary factors that drove the condors to near extinction was lead poisoning.

In 1987, all of the surviving condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program in an effort to save the species. Over the past several years, the success of the program could be measured by an increasing population and the reintroduction of the birds to their natural habitat over California, Arizona and Baja California. But once again, lead is causing death and illness among the condors. Incredibly, we saved the species only to release them back into the wild to face the very same environmental threat. At one time it was thought that a substantial native population of condors would be established in the wild by 2015 but that date has been pushed back 5 to 10 years now because of lead poisoning.

Condors are scavengers, and will eat the remains of animals that were shot with lead bullets, and since lead breaks apart upon impact, the poisonous fragments and dust can be spread throughout the carcass and ingested by a flock of hungry birds. Since reintroduction of condors to the wild, at least ten have died from lead poisoning, and others have been made very ill.

There have been many successes with reintroduction of the condors to the wild. The current population of 140 free condors continues to grow. The goal of connecting the isolated groups of birds from multiple habitats into a contiguous, natural range was given a huge boost earlier this year with the sighting of a California Condor in San Diego 's back county for the first time since 1910. If we protect this habitat, someday soon the condors range will once again stretch from northern California, and into Baja Mexico.

There are those who claim that there's no proof that lead bullets are the culprit, however last year a study was released showing the strong link between the lead isotopes in bullets and identical isotopes found in the blood of diseased birds. Between the strong scientific evidence and the easy availability of alternative products of equal quality such a copper bullets, there is no reason to continue to pollute our environment and kill our wildlife with this toxic metal.

There are actually 49 other birds of the world that are poisoned by lead ammunition, but the negative effect is particularly dramatic with condors who have long natural lives, and a slow reproductive cycle. They simply can't breed fast enough to replenish the population lost to poisoning.

According to CPR there was floor debate on AB 821, but the Democrats in the Senate overwhelmingly passed this smart bit of legislation. It will now go back to the Assembly for concurrence in amendments. I'm really pleased about this, because I see it as the best bet to avoid a tragic ending to what has been a crowning success in species conservation and wildlife reintroduction programs.



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