KINGMAN - The number of California condors treated for lead exposure in Arizona and Utah is at its lowest level in nearly a decade, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Hunters in both states have made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of the metal by using non-lead ammunition. Their voluntary efforts, according to the department, could pay dividends for the endangered condor, which can be found along the Arizona Strip in Mohave County, the Grand Canyon and other areas of northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Thirteen condors were treated from Sept. 1, 2013, and Aug. 31, a significant reduction from the year before, when 28 condors were treated for lead exposure. The average number of those treated over each of the past five years is 26.
"This is potentially exciting news," said Chris Parish, the project director for the Peregrine Fund, a group dedicated to the once nearly extinct species - the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere.
"We're hopeful that the decreased measurements of lead exposure are a direct result of the hunters' actions. With continued effort, we may well see a continuing trend of lower lead levels in coming years."
So why are hunters involved?
According to Keith Day, a wildlife biologist with the state of Utah, there is only one item on the condor's menu: carrion, also known as dead animals.
"When they eat an animal that died after being wounded by a gunshot, or they eat the entrails left in the field after a hunter has cleaned an animal he or she has harvested, they ingest lead fragments," said Day in a statement.
"If hunters use non-lead ammunition, the threat of lead exposure is non-existent."
To help offset the added cost of using non-lead ammunition, Game and Fish in Arizona and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have programs that provide hunters in core condor range with a free box of bullets.
Allen Zufelt, a Game and Fish condor recovery biologist, said more than 80 percent of hunters in Arizona support the lead reduction program.
Many that continue to use lead ammunition remove the entrails of a harvested animal from the field, said Zufelt.
The decline of the condor was dramatic - the last nine known to live in the wild were captured as part of an aggressive recovery program in the 1980s. While several factors can be attributed to the declining numbers, the exposure to lead tops the list, according to the National Park Service.
In 2013, 73 condors soared the skies over Mohave County, according to the service.
Click for home delivery with comics, grocery deals, inserts, TV listings, coupons and more