PHOENIX -- California condors are putting their lives on the line every time they eat.
The big birds ingest fragments of lead ammunition from the carcasses of animals they feed on.
"Twenty-two have died of lead poisoning here in Arizona already. That's the whole population at one point," said Mesa veterinarian Dr. Kathy Orr, who has worked with many condors sickened by lead ammunition.
She's referring to the total number of condors that remained in the 1980's, before successful reintroduction programs in Arizona and other states pushed the number of birds to now just below 400.
Because condors are social birds, many often feed on the same carcass, so Dr. Orr said just reducing the amount of lead fragments won't save the birds. She said it all must be gone.
In an effort to ban lead ammunition from the condor's northern Arizona range, the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council have sued the Kaibab National Forest.
"It's the number one killer of condors," said the Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr.
She said environmentalists unsuccessfully tried to work with the Kaibab National Forest before filing the lawsuit.
"They're not supposed to allow toxins on the land," Bahr adds, pointing out that laws have been passed to remove lead from paint and other products, including shot used to hunt water fowl.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Kaibab National Forest said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit.
Some gun owners are concerned that non-lead ammunition is more expensive and harder to find. Still the Arizona Game and Fish Department has already given non-lead ammunition to an estimated 90% of those who hunt on the Kaibab, but condors continue to get sick and die from lead poisoning.
Dr. Orr said if all lead isn't removed from the condor's food, they have little chance of making a comeback.