Last January, three endangered California condors were found dead in Arizona. The cause of death: lead poisoning. After eating carrion riddled with spent lead ammunition, the birds' digestive systems likely shut down, starving them to death. Since condor reintroduction began in Arizona in 1996, 15 have died of lead poisoning; in California, 18 condors have bit the bullet. After 25 years spent trying to recover the condor from near-extinction, the birds remain imperiled by lead in their scavenged prey. Despite growing concerns about health effects on both humans and wildlife, however, lead ammunition still flies widely unregulated across the West.
Senator Jon Tester, D-MT, wants to keep it that way. With a bill introduced last month, Tester hopes to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to permanently exempt lead bullets, shot and fishing tackle from regulation. The bill comes in the wake of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups demanding that EPA ban lead ammunition; an earlier petition was refused when EPA claimed it has no jurisdiction over the stuff. Last November, EPA refused to ban lead fishing sinkers, despite its own warnings of threats to health and wildlife.
Lead's effects on birds resulted in a 1991 nationwide ban of lead ammunition for hunting waterfowl. California banned lead ammo in the condor's range in 2007 with mixed results blamed on poor enforcement. Arizona has distributed free coupons for the more expensive lead-free alternative ammo since 2005 with high hunter participation. Most other states have no such programs or restrictions.
The potential for human exposure by eating wild game shot with lead ammunition has also been documented. One study concluded, "At risk in the U.S. are some ten million hunters, their families, and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations."
The gun lobby decries any restriction on lead ammunition, claiming that banning lead ammo would exclude low-income hunters, and denies its harmful effects.
Meanwhile, condors continue eating lead. Recent research from the University of California Santa Cruz found that 90 percent of condors tested have lead in their blood with isotopes tracing back to bullets. Ongoing efforts to recover the condor include recapturing and treating individuals for lead poisoning. In Pinnacles National Monument in 2009, over half of the 30-strong flock needed emergency lead treatments to prevent fatal poisoning.
Just a few weeks ago, Sen. Tester successfully de-listed the Northern Rockies wolf with a budget rider, and it seems likely this is another move aimed at shoring up his conservative cred in a red-leaning state. We'll have to wait until 2012 to see whether that strategy works.
Nathan Rice is an HCN intern.
Condor image courtesy USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.