GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - The Arizona Game and Fish Department filed a motion Nov. 6 to intervene in a lawsuit recently filed against the Kaibab National Forest by the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and Center for Biological Diversity. The groups want the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to place a mandatory ban on hunting with lead ammunition in northern Arizona.
The authority governing hunting regulations rests with the state of Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish believes that voluntary, cooperative efforts to reduce lead available to condors is the best approach for long-term success of the condor program. The department also believes that a ban, which other conservation groups want, could create a backlash against condor conservation and hinder future endangered species' reintroductions if the original condor reintroduction agreements are changed by court order.
"A lead ammunition ban in Arizona is not the answer," Arizona Game and Fish Department Director Larry Voyles said in a recent press release. "We've grown accustomed to seeing these litigious groups in the courtrooms, yet seldom are they seen in the trenches and almost never with the dirt of hard conservation work under their fingernails. These groups have ignored the absolutely critical role that cooperation and on-the-ground involvement play in a successful wildlife conservation program. A court-forced ban could result in important condor conservation partners withdrawing from the reintroduction effort."
Game and Fish contend that none of the groups that filed the lawsuit have participated in on-the-ground condor conservation efforts despite several invitations to join the partnership that oversees condor conservation in Arizona and Utah.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter said that statement is untrue.
"Time to move past using this toxin and spreading it across our public lands," she said. It would be nice if game and fish would join us instead of throwing out unfounded accusations and false information."
Bahr went on to say that after many years of working on the lead issue, and concluding Game and Fish's program is "inadequate," only then did the conservation groups file the lawsuit.
"It's not like it was some kind of arbitrary action," she added.
Condors are now frequently using lands in southern Utah for foraging, especially during the fall hunting season.
According to Game and Fish, with the expansion of the condor's range come new hunters to educate. The Utah Division of Wildlife began a more aggressive non-lead program in 2011.
"We need to give Utah the opportunity to educate hunters. Remember, lasting change takes time, but results in lasting cooperation. It is naïve to think a lawsuit will fix the problem of ingested lead in condors," Voyles said. "This reckless litigation risks future species' reintroductions as well as the destruction of good will with, and hard work by, hunters and other cooperators."
USFS used a special provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the 10(j) Rule, and an agreement between a coalition of counties and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when California condors were reintroduced into Arizona to obtain acceptance among communities in Arizona and Utah that had strongly opposed the reintroduction. This rule classifies the Arizona-Utah condor population as experimental and not essential to the species' survival. The 10(j) rule offered assurances that "current and future land...uses...shall not be restricted due to...condors" and that the federal government did "not intend to" modify or restrict "current hunting regulations anywhere...in the experimental population area." An agreement with the effected local counties commits to removal of condors if the status of the condor under ESA is changed.
Arizona's lead reduction efforts are voluntary and fully comply with assurances the federal government made when they sought local support for condor conservation. If this lawsuit is successful, it will force the federal government to renege on the local commitments it made and jeopardize future support for condors and other endangered species' reintroduction programs.
The State of California banned lead ammunition in California's condor range in 2008, but a recent study by the University of California/Davis concluded that condor lead poisoning has not been significantly reduced in that condor population.
Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death in condors and the main obstacle to a self-sustaining population in Arizona and Utah.
Game and Fish said their voluntary non-lead ammo program is designed to reduce the threat over the long term, without reneging on promises that were made to local communities.
"There was no promise made that people could continue to poison wildlife and that's what's happening," Bahr said.
The Arizona-Utah condor conservation effort is a joint project of many partners, including The Peregrine Fund, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Kaibab National Forest and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
"It is not too late for these groups to withdraw their lawsuit and join us as cooperators, putting their resources towards on-the-ground conservation that can make a difference for condors," Voyles said.
Bahr said Game and Fish has not desire to cooperate with her organization, as well as others.
"Unfortunately, Game and Fish, rather than seeking to work with conservation organizations for the betterment of wildlife has decided to take a very hostile attitude and approach and has made people representing the interests of conservation feel unwelcome," she said.
Endangered California condors were first reintroduced into northern Arizona in 1996 under the 10(j) umbrella when six captive-bred birds flew free from the rugged cliffs of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. After dropping to only 22 individuals in the world in the 1980s, there are currently about 78 condors soaring free in northern Arizona and southern Utah and more than 400 in the world.