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Gov. ignores gun lobby, and condors get a lift

Eons ago, when my brother and I were teens hunting in the mountains behind Ojai, we’d marvel at the giant birds soaring far overhead. They were California condors.

Or maybe they were turkey vultures. We really didn’t know. But we’d always say they were condors because that made us feel good, like it was a special event.

This was prime condor country, after all, in the Los Padres National Forest. The condor was a source of local pride, the largest bird in North America, with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. Never mind that the prehistoric critter, up close, was grossly ugly and survived on animal guts.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” notes biologist Jesse Grantham of Ojai, California condor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You may think my wife is ugly, and I think she’s beautiful.

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“Every species is worth saving. They’re part of the big fabric that holds this ecosystem together. I don’t think culturally we’re ever going to be at the point where we say, ‘This species goes, and this one we save.’ All have value to humans.”

Just watching these guys soar for hours, hitting speeds of 55 mph and altitudes of 15,000 feet, provides plenty of human value. Not to mention helping to keep the land clean of smelly guts.

Even back in the ‘50s, we realized that condors were vanishing. They were down to about 60 in number, by some calculations. After they had dwindled to 22 in the mid-'80s, public and private groups began a $40-million restoration effort, including captive breeding and chick releases into the wild.

Today, there are 305 condors living in zoos or in the wild, according to Audubon California. Of these, 145 exist in the wild -- 70 of them in California, the rest around the Grand Canyon or in northern Baja.

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My brother and I didn’t have a clue that the jack rabbit and ground squirrel carcasses we were leaving behind -- or the quail we’d merely wounded and had scooted away to perish in view only of carrion eaters -- were poison bait for the disappearing condors we so admired.

Last weekend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a huge step toward protecting the prehistoric birds from lead poisoning derived from hunters’ bullets. The birds ingest the bullet fragments while gobbling gut piles cut from carcasses by hunters. Schwarzenegger signed a bill aimed at detoxifying the largest, most tempting meals -- the guts of big game, such as deer and wild boar.

The bill, by Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), will ban the use of lead center-fire ammunition -- bullets used in big game rifles -- throughout condor country, stretching roughly down the coastal range from Monterey to Santa Paula. The alternative metal presumably will be copper.

The gun lobby ranted, but Schwarzenegger ignored it.

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The governor also snubbed the firearms lobby and signed another milestone gun bill. It will make California the first state to require all new semiautomatic handguns, starting in 2010, to come equipped with “microstamping” aimed at helping police trace the bad guys. When fired, the gun will stamp each shell casing with the make, model and serial number of the weapon. Then the gun can be traced back to the purchaser.

Revolvers aren’t affected because they don’t eject shell casings. But 70% of new handguns sold in California are semiautomatics. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), says there are no arrests in 45% of California homicides because the killers don’t leave enough evidence behind.

Schwarzenegger would have been hammered -- and justifiably -- if he had vetoed these two bills. He signed both and deserves kudos.

The governor got a bum rap recently when he forced a member of the state Fish and Game Commission to resign. The commissioner, R. Judd Hanna, had been an outspoken advocate of banning lead bullets in condor habitat. Schwarzenegger was widely accused of pandering to the gun lobby. Wrong.

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He was pandering to Republican legislators, offering them an olive branch. It’s GOP lawmakers who consistently pander to the gun lobby. When 34 of them sent Schwarzenegger a letter asking that he oust Hanna, he did the next day. Then Republicans didn’t reciprocate, showed no gratitude and still blistered his healthcare proposal.

Not one Republican voted in either legislative house for the condor or microstamping bills. And in the end, that had zilch influence on the estranged GOP governor.

Schwarzenegger realized it’s undeniable -- unless you live in denial, like the gun lobby -- that lead poisoning kills condors.

There’s “a robust chain of evidence” that warrants banning lead bullets in condor country, 44 scientists reported in July. For one thing, they said, “free-flying condors frequently have elevated levels of lead in their blood, and these levels peak during the fall deer-hunting season.”

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For years, waterfowl hunters have been banned from using lead shot. Eagles were dying from nibbling on lead-saturated duck carcasses.

The condor bill wouldn’t have prevented my brother and me from using .22-caliber lead bullets to shoot jack rabbits, or lead shot to hunt quail. But that should be the next step. Condors feast on these smaller animals too.

California Indians used to revere condors, considering them sacred and capable of providing communication with supernatural powers. Sacramento politicians should preserve these birds and tap into the mojo.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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