California condor. (Photo © The Peregrine Fund)

California condor. (Photo © The Peregrine Fund)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A California condor found dead at Zion National Park this month is believed to have died from lead poisoning after foraging on a bullet-ridden game carcass. The female had been observed searching nesting cavities together with a mate which means her death takes out Utah’s only breeding pair of the endangered birds. Biologists were alerted to a problem when a motion device signaled the bird hadn’t moved for much of a day.

Photo taken Jan. 16, 2013. (Photo: Eddie Feltes/ AP/The Peregrine Fund)

By 1982 the world population of California condors had dwindled to 22. The last remaining individuals were captured in the 1980s and a captive breeding program was begun. In the last three decades, captive-bred birds have been released in California, Baja California, and northern Arizona. Condors are now breeding successfully in the wild. Pairs mate for life and produce only one egg every other year.

About half of the roughly 130 condors released since 1996 along the Arizona-Utah border have died or vanished. For birds that have been recovered, lead poisoning turned up as the main cause of death. Despite mounting scientific evidence about the dangers of lead to both wildlife and people, the National Rifle Association keeps pushing legislation to ban the federal government from addressing these preventable poisoning.

California condors. (Photo: National Park Service)

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.

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.

The world population of condors inches up and down at around 400, approximately half of which are flying free in the wild.