Many of the 75 rare California condors that inhabit northern Arizona and southern Utah forage on the remains of deer and elk left by hunters. But some of the carrion contains fragments of lead bullets so toxic that at least 12 condors have died in recent years from lead poisoning.
"Being intelligent birds like ravens and turkey vultures, they have figured out when the hunting season is," said Kathy Sullivan, condor program coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which has begun a voluntary program to get big game hunters to use non-lead ammunition. "They key in on fall hunting season because they know there will be gut piles in the field from these deer hunts."
Sullivan and Chris Parish of the Peregrine Fund met with the Utah Wildlife Board on Thursday about starting an educational program, coupled with vouchers for one free box of non-lead ammunition, to encourage big game hunters in Utah's Paunsaugunt and South Zion units frequented by condors to avoid lead shot.
Hunters who draw a limited entry permit in the Kaibab unit of northern Arizona where condors were reintroduced into the wild in 2000 have been receiving free non-lead ammunition (paid for by a statewide lottery and Indian gaming revenue) since 2005. Sullivan said there is about a 90 percent compliance rate among hunters, though the Center for Biological Diversity puts that number closer to 70 percent.
The situation in Utah more problematic because hunters purchase a permit to hunt the entire southern Utah region, not just the areas frequented by condors. Funding a program to offer free ammunition is also difficult: Non-lead ammunition has different shooting characteristics than traditional lead bullets and costs up to $15 a box more than lead.
Non-lead bullets are often solid copper, but also include copper-tin alloys, tungsten and frangible bullets -- those that disintegrate when they hit something solid.
Jim Parrish, avian program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, estimated $135,000 would be needed for the first year and $785,000 for a five-year program. A nonprofit foundation called Utah Wildlife in Need (UWIN) has contributed 10 percent of the funds needed for the first year, but Parrish said the state agency is still 86 percent short of the overall goal.
"Arizona's outreach efforts encouraging hunters to use non-lead ammunition has been a huge success and a great boost to the condor's recovery," said Bob Hasenyager, UWIN's executive director. "It is our goal to duplicate that success and for Utah to take a greater role in the recovery of these magnificent birds."
Non-lead options appear to be accurate and effective.
"I've been delighted with the performance [of non-lead options]," said Utah Wildlife Board member Ernie Perkins. "I've taken two elk using it. The performance beats lead heads down. I'd like to challenge folks to give it a try and I want to compliment Arizona for figuring out how to do this so quickly."
Byron Bateman, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said his organization has not taken a stand on the issue.
"It's up to everybody's individual discretion," he said. "We are looking at more scientific data to go along with what they are saying ... A lot of people are shooting a copper bullet anyway. [Utah based] Barnes Bullets makes a copper bullet and a lot of people are using these bullets because of the accuracy and quality of the bullet."
The alternative to a voluntary program is an outright ban, which is what has happened in parts of California where condors roam. Under threat of legal action by environmental groups, California lawmakers passed the ban, which angered some groups that viewed the measure as anti-gun and anti-hunter.
The Peregrine Fund's Parish rejects that notion.
"I'm a lifelong hunter and a member of the NRA [National Rifle Association] and Safari Club International," he said. "In order for us to maintain ourselves as hunters in today's day and age, we need to look at all of the science and different available technologies and maintain our history of conservation. It's all the same, it's all about habitat. There is no separation between endangered species and game. ... Our agenda is simply to conserve condors and bring them back from near extinction."
Other conservation groups are skeptical about the effectiveness of volunteer programs.
Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said his organization is lukewarm, at best, about the volunteer programs. He claims only about 70 percent of northern Arizona hunters have switched to ammunition that avoids lead.
"It doesn't take a lot of lead to cause serious problems for condors," he said. "We favor a complete switch to non-lead ammo. There is no good reason not to go to non-lead. It's becoming more widely available in more calibers and, while the price is still up, it is going to start coming down. With the non-lead regulation in California, there has been no drop in the number of hunters or problems with the ammunition."
Another factor in the discussion is the effect of lead on human health. Parish said his organization conducted a study in which 30 deer were taken to 30 different meat processors. About a third of the deer burger packages contained lead, which was being consumed by hunters and their families.
At Thursday's Wildlife Board meeting, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources director Jim Karpowitz said the evidence against lead appears to be mounting.
"There is a potential issue with bullet fragmentations in the meat that any of us eat," he said. "There is research being done on what it means in terms of human health and I encourage people to become informed. It's an important thing to do for many reasons, not the least of which is conservation of this great species."
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brett Prettyman contributed to this report.