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String of poached elk threaten recovering California condor population

Chris West / Yurok Tribe

Several recent incidents involving poached elk on the Northern California coast have threatened the endangered California condor population. The condors are only just recovering from near-extinction.

Authorities are investigating two cases of elk that were illegally killed this month. They were found in areas frequented by condors, which were recently released as part of a tribal reintroduction program. Two elk were found on November 11th, and one more was discovered on the 19th.

One of the carcasses contained enough lead from the ammunition to kill several condors, which feed on dead animals.

“They weren’t right there,” says Yurok Wildlife Department Manager Chris West. “But for a condor taking flight it would have been minutes for any of them to get to the carcasses if they had wanted to.”

West says it takes a very small piece of lead to poison a condor. And they’re at a greater risk than other scavengers because they feed on the same animals many people hunt.

West says when an animal is shot with a lead bullet, the projectile breaks apart and can spread throughout the body. Since poachers are often working quickly to avoid capture, they often leave much of the carcass behind when butchering it, including parts of the animal with lead still inside.

The use of lead ammunition – as well as habitat destruction and other environmental toxins – contributed to condors becoming extinct in the wild by the 1980’s. Since then, captive breeding programs have allowed condors to be released into the wild again. Almost 200 condors were flying free in California in 2020.

West says lead remains a very big threat. Since condors were first reintroduced in 1992, half of all deaths in the wild have been caused by lead poisoning.

Besides being outside of elk hunting season, it’s been illegal to hunt with lead ammunition in California since 2019.

West says his agency has been successful in teaching lawful hunters about the environmental dangers of lead ammunition.

“It’s difficult though, when you’re talking about a fringe category of poachers out there,” he says. “People who are not lawfully hunting. People that maybe don’t really care about the laws, maybe don’t care as much about the wild communities that they’re harvesting from.”

West hopes that as the lead-free ammunition becomes standard, there will be a trickle-down effect, and poachers – who may try to get whatever bullets they can – will use ones without lead.

Officers with Redwood National and State Parks and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating the two incidents to find those responsible.

The officers are asking for those any information to assist with the case to call Redwood National and State Parks Ranger Attendorn at 707-465-7789 or Game Warden Castillo at 707-673-3678.

The CDFW also has an anonymous tip line at 1-888-334-CalTIP (888-334-2258).

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.