SALT LAKE CITY -- A California condor found dead at Zion National Park is believed to have died from lead poisoning after foraging on a bullet-ridden game carcass, in another setback for the recovery project on the Utah-Arizona border, officials said Monday.
Separately, two condors found dead in northern Arizona in December were confirmed by The Peregrine Fund to have died of lead poisoning. The latest fatality involved a 9-year-old female that had been observed searching nesting cavities together with a mate at Zion, which takes out a breeding pair.
The condor was found dead Wednesday near Angel's Landing at Zion National Park. Biologists were alerted to a problem when a motion device signaled the bird hadn't moved for much of a day, said Chris Parish, project director for The Peregrine Fund's recovery project for an area from Arizona's Grand Canyon to southern Utah's Zion National Park.
The condor's body was sent to a San Diego lab for testing. Results aren't expected for a week or more.
Restoring the California condor to much of its historic range across the Southwest has been hampered by dozens of deaths linked to lead from the remnants of hunters' bullet.
About half of the roughly 130 condors released since 1996 along the Arizona-Utah border have died or vanished, wildlife officials say. For birds that have been recovered, lead poisoning turned up as the main cause of death, Parish said.
More condors are released ever year, with the current population hovering at just under 80, he said.
As scavengers, North America's largest land bird feasts on carcasses such as deer and coyotes left behind by hunters.
Hunters generally prefer lead bullets because they are heavier and shoot straighter than other types of ammunition. They are cheaper than bullets made of copper or other metals. But they break into hundreds of fragments when they hit an animal, then get ingested by scavengers like the condor.
The condor recovery program would have been wildly successful if not for the lead problem, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have told The Associated Press.
Condors can live for 50 years, but nesting pairs usually produce only one egg every other year, creating a challenge to build up a population once down to just 22 birds in the 1980s.
California has built up a population of more than 100 wild condors, largely due to a separate recovery program there.
The California Department of Fish and Game in 2008 banned the use of lead ammunition in the 15 counties considered condor territory, but many ranch owners ignore the directive, and some have said it's because they believe the ammo ban subjugates their rights.
Arizona is trying to reduce the toll on condors by providing vouchers for lead-free bullets and other rewards for hunters who dispose of carcasses properly.
The birds are known for flying 100 miles or more a day on wings that stretch up to 9 feet from tip to tip, surveying the land for any sign of commotion. Even wildfires alert the birds to a possible dinner, experts say.