Ben Margot  /  AP file
Forty-six condors have died or disappeared after being released in California from 1992 through July 2006, said the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.
updated 12/1/2006 10:57:26 AM ET 2006-12-01T15:57:26

Advocates for the California condor sued state wildlife regulators for allowing lead hunting ammunition despite concerns that the rare birds can die after eating carcasses contaminated with the pellets.

The environmentalists, who filed the federal suit Thursday in Los Angeles, claim the state is violating the Endangered Species Act. They want the state to require hunters to use ammunition made of copper or other materials.

One plaintiff, the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, said 46 of the giant vultures have died or disappeared after being released in California from 1992 through July 2006, and that lead poisoning may have factored into many of those deaths.

Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game, said the timing of the suit was disappointing because the commission has been encouraging the use of nonlead ammunition and is considering changing hunting regulations by next spring.

“This issue has been of concern to the department for quite some time,” Martarano said.

The condor is North America’s biggest bird, with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. It could once be found from coast to coast, but hunting, pesticides and development drove the birds to the brink of extinction.

The federal government declared the bird endangered in 1967. In 1987, the last 22 wild condors were trapped and taken to zoos for a captive breeding program that raised their population to just under 300. Now 135 condors fly freely throughout the southwestern U.S.

Other plaintiffs include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Wishtoyo Foundation, a Chumash Indian environmental group.

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