In the “My Turn” opinion piece published on November 12, 2012, Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club and Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council summarized their stance on the California condor reintroduction project in Arizona with the final statement: “no animal in Arizona should die from preventable lead poisoning.”

The issue is, of course, not whether animals should die from lead poisoning, but rather, the real issue is what the best approach is to address the problem of lead poisoning.

The environmental litigation groups headed by Suckling, Bahr, and Crumbo have taken the approach of suing in federal court to order the U. S. Forest Service to ban lead ammunition for hunting in the Kaibab National Forest.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department favors a different approach.

Repatriation of condors in Arizona faced intense local opposition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gained support by developing agreements with local parties, under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. These agreements were memorialized through rules published in the Code of Federal Regulations. These rules constituted promises to local groups in exchange for their support. Some of those promises have since become the center of intense controversy. In the case of the condor, the Service promised not to seek the regulation of lead in ammunition.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been consistent in its belief that agencies must live up to those legally-binding promises. Failure to do so risks the loss of local support, which in our experience, can make or break critical endangered species programs.

Every in-the-field success in condor repatriation to date has been accomplished through partnership with fellow conservationists…on the ground, not in a courtroom.

The Southwest Condor Working Group, which includes Arizona Game and Fish, The Peregrine Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 24 other partners, has devoted countless hours and well over one million dollars annually to fieldwork and outreach programs to make condor reintroduction successful. Today, 80-90 percent of Arizona hunters use non-lead ammo or physically remove big game gut piles from the field to reduce the amount of lead available to condors. Today, 77 condors fly free in Arizona-Utah where once there were none because of this group’s efforts. Now Utah is emulating the very successful Arizona program to address the condor’s increasing use of its lands. 

The mandatory ban approach to the lead problem, conversely, not only has the potential to damage the valuable partnerships we deem necessary to successful conservation, it may even fail to produce the intended benefit. California banned lead ammunition in condor habitat, but a 2012 study suggests the ban has not yet proven effective in reducing lead exposure in condors.

The Southwest Condor Working Group is devoted to keeping condors in the wild in Arizona.  Free-ranging condors exist entirely because of this group’s dedication. 

I was initially taken aback by the authors’ vitriolic characterization of the Arizona Game and Fish Department as an agency that shoots, traps and kills threatened and endangered species. In spite of the dramatic condor photo accompanying the opinion piece, virtually no public outcry or response occurred. Either the public saw through the diatribe or the public has grown so jaded, as a result of the name calling and never-ending environmental litigation, that their passion for wildlife is waning. For those of us who love wildlife and wild places and the sight of a condor majestically soaring above vermillion cliffs, that would be the ultimate tragedy.

Image courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department

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