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Lead Ammo Used in Elk Poaching Endangered Condors

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Authorities are investigating a mid-November poaching incident in Redwood National and State Parks that left two Roosevelt elk dead and put the region's recently released California condor flock at-risk due to the lead-tainted carcasses left behind.

Not only is it illegal to hunt in the interlacing span of protected coastline, old growth forests and prairies that stretches up the North Coast, but California has banned the use of lead ammunition since 2019 in an effort to prevent the residual deaths of other wildlife that scavenge the discards of kills — permitted or not.

One of the elk found at the poaching scene contained enough lead to "kill several condors," according to the Northern California Condor Restoration Program — a partnership between the Yurok Tribe and the park — with manager Chris West describing the situation as coming "as close as you can get to a worst-case scenario."

"If the carcasses weren't quickly reported, and our free-flying condors accessed them, it is very likely that one or more of the condors would have consumed a life-threatening quantity of lead," said West, who has more than two decades of experience in condor reintroduction efforts and is also manager of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department. "The risk this incident presented to the condors cannot be understated, since at least four of our recently released condors were less than a 10-minute flight from the poaching event at the time that it occurred."

While few details have been released, the case is being investigated by rangers and game wardens with Redwood National and State Parks and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"We are so fortunate that we did not lose one or more members of the new condor population," Redwood National and State Parks Superintendent Steven Mietz stated in a news release. "We are doing everything possible to find the people who illegally killed the elk and put the new condor population at risk. If you have any information that might help us hold those responsible for this illegal act accountable, please contact the park or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife."

According to NCCRP, team members X-rayed the elk remains Nov. 12 and found "several lead fragments, including the bulk of the lead ammunition round," in the neck of one cow, as well as in "a fist-sized chunk of meat presumably dropped by the poachers at the site."

Poaching and being hit by vehicles are among the major causes of death for Roosevelt elk, which — like the California condor — once roamed a wide swath of territory, in their case from British Columbia to Sonoma County, but were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1920s. They are now only found in Humboldt, Del Norte and Siskiyou counties, according to the National Park Service.

The area of the kill was cleared of any meat containing lead, including what NCCRP described in a release as around 40 pounds left on each of the illegally poached animals.

"Based on the circumstances, we're lucky we didn't have to transport condors for treatment or lose a bird to lead poisoning," said Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen, who spent most of her adult life working to fulfill a council of Yurok elders' wish to bring back the bird they hold sacred, and know as prey-go-neesh, to its historic territory. "Lead is by far the single biggest threat to condors in the wild."

Known as nature's clean-up crew, condors play an important role in the ecosystem as apex scavengers that use their powerful beaks to pierce the tough skins of dead animals ranging from elk to sea lions, and even the occasional whale, clearing the large carcasses from the landscape and helping to prevent the spread of disease.

This makes the massive birds with a nearly 10-foot wingspans highly susceptible to lead poisoning from ammunition. If untreated, this poisoning results in the paralysis of the gastrointestinal tract and an increasing buildup of toxins in the condors' vital organs, skeleton and muscles, ending ultimately in dehydration and starvation.

"In general, when a condor consumes lead fragments, the bird will experience a series of worsening symptoms that often unfold over the course of days and weeks and lead to an excruciating death," the release states.

Before March, the last sighting of a California condor in the North Coast region occurred in 1892 — after the once flourishing local population was decimated by settlers who poisoned and shot the condors, while destroying their habitat and depleting their food supply, overhunting the game and marine mammals on which they depended.

By 1967, with fewer than 100 surviving in the wild, the birds were declared endangered. Two decades later, only 22 remained in a small pocket of mountainous area in Southern California and the last of the condors were placed into captive breeding programs in a race against time to save the largest bird in North America from extinction.

Today, around 330 are flying free in the wild and another 200 are in captivity, with the eight released locally by the NCCRP — the first taking flight in May and the most recent Nov. 16 — included in those numbers.

The North Coast wild flock now includes: Ney-gem' 'Ne-chween-kah ("She carries our prayers," A0), Hlow Hoo-let ( "Finally, I/we fly," A1), Nes-kwe-chokw' ("He returns/arrives," A2) and Poy'-we-son ("The one who goes ahead, leader," A3) as well as Cher-perhl So-nee-ne-pek' ("I feel strong," A4), Neee'n ("Watcher," A5), Me-new-kwek ("I'm bashful" or "I'm shy," A6) and He-we-chek' ("I am healthy" or "I get well," A7).

For nearly 20 years, the Yurok Tribe worked to bring prey-go-neesh back to the North Coast — one of many efforts to bring balance back to their ancestral lands. This included extensive outreach to local landowners, mapping of potential habitats and the trapping of fellow scavengers, like turkey vultures and ravens, to test their blood for lead exposure, which is the single greatest threat to condors' survival in the wild.

The tribe also worked to educate hunters about non-lead ammunition to prevent the exact scenario that just played out, which could have been a fatal encounter for the condors at the poaching site.

Moving forward, the NCCRP plans to release a new cohort of prey-go-neesh each year for the next 20 years, at least, with the hope of eventually spreading the species throughout the Pacific Northwest.

An important piece of bringing that goal to fruition is ending the use of the lead ammo in hunting to protect the condors and other wildlife, said Williams-Claussen, who notes in a recent release that non-lead options are "high performing and viable as a harvest tool."

"Every condor is critical and sacred. Older condors teach younger birds how to make it in the wild," she said. "When a condor dies prematurely from lead poisoning, all of the knowledge it amassed throughout its life, such as where to find forage or safely roost for the night, is lost and won't be transmitted to the next generation. This transmission of knowledge is essential to the health of our condor population."

Kimberly Wear is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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