(Still) getting the lead out


Lead is banned in paint, gasoline, dishes, and children’s toys, and now California is looking at removing the largest unregulated source of the neurotoxin by also banning lead ammunition. One motivation is to generally protect wildlife and human health, but some see it as a way to improve the prospects of California condors; lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for the massive, inky-feathered carrion eaters.

Twenty-six endangered California condors have died from lead poisoning since 1996. One recently notable lead casualty was a 9-year old bird in Big Sur that died last November. Even though lead ammunition is already banned in the bird’s California range, the source of the lead was a .22-caliber bullet, and he likely swallowed it while chowing down on a shot-up carcass.

Condor #318 was one of the first captive bred condors released on the California coast around Big Sur. According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, which studies and manages the central California population, he was one of only a handful of breeding males in the region—and the first to breed in Pinnacles National Park in 100 years.

In 1987, there were only 26 California condors, all in captivity. Now there are about 150 of the intensively monitored scavengers flying free in central California, Utah, Arizona, and Mexico, and some are starting to breed on their own. But after years of extreme, hands-on efforts to rescue North America’s largest land bird, poisoning from lead ammunition in left-behind animal carcasses or in post-hunt gut piles is still one of the major things preventing a self-sustaining population of wild condors emerging from the priciest species rescue in American history.

There’s strong scientific evidence for the connection between lead ammo and condor deaths [pdf], even though some groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation try to discredit it. And unlike with some endangered species, it’s easy to point to individual human actions (like loading that lead .22 round) that have real consequences for single condors in the sparse population.

After so many years and dollars have been spent trying to bring the condor back to the landscape, the question is: What will it take for people to change their behavior, and stop using lead ammo in the bird’s range?

California and Arizona have taken two distinct tactics. Arizona began a voluntary lead ammo reduction program in 2005, and in 2008 California rolled out a lead ammo ban for everything but small game animals in the condor’s range. Utah is following Arizona’s lead, as reported in Greenwire (subscription required). But condors in Arizona and California are still dying from lead poisoning. In California, a 2012 study concluded that as far as reducing lead levels in condor blood goes, the ban wasn’t effective, at least for the handful of years for which data exist. It appears that neither strategy is working very well so far.

Now a ban on lead ammo in the entire state, and for all wildlife, is on the table in California, and it’s currently working its way through committees on the way to the legislature. Critics say that if a lead ban in the condor’s range hasn’t really worked, why would a statewide ban work? Even the Fish and Wildlife Service’s California condor recovery coordinator, John McCamman, is on the side of voluntary changes. "I actually think it's more beneficial to have a voluntary program," he told Greenwire. "I think that at the end of the day it's a hunter's choice. If they're educated on the issues, they'll make the right choice. Hunters are conservationists."

Aside from the reality that almost nothing is going to stop a handful of bad actors from making the wrong choice, though, copper ammunition has an image problem within the hunting community. It’s had a reputation for being more expensive than lead ammo; it’s been harder to find in a range of calibers; and some people question its performance.

However, as a 2012 Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences study found, those problems, whether real or perceived, seem to be falling away as the market for copper ammo has grown and the technology has evolved (I know hunters who switched to copper rounds because they think their performance is superior to that of lead—my household included, and here’s a Wisconsinite who was sold on it after an ammo demonstration day.)

Last year, the Ventana Wildlife Society received a lot of attention for taking an ammo-centric approach to condor conservation. The wildlife group spent $47,000 to buy and ship 1,246 boxes of non-lead ammunition to hunters in the condor’s territory. They had 400 orders within 48 hours of rolling out the program. In a report released last year [pdf] 34 percent of the people who responded to their survey said the program made them more willing to shoot with non-lead ammunition.

Here are some of the comments the group received:

“I am happy to see that we hunters and non-hunters can work together on these difficult issues. Thank you for your efforts.”

“I think it was a good way to break the ice. It shows me that you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.”

In an NPR story, the executive director of the Ventana Wildife Society credited hunters with “moving the needle in the right direction.” That’s an important point, but I’m also frustrated that these commenters still think that there’s ice to be broken or that this is still a “difficult issue.” Also, as the NPR story points out, even if hunters are on board, their efforts are distinct from private landowners who may still use lead ammo to shoot unregulated “varmints” like ground squirrels and coyotes.

But at least the dialogue started by giving out free ammo is a sharp contrast to the rhetoric unleashed in response to the suggestion of a statewide lead ammo ban:  "These people want to ban hunting. Go to their cocktail parties and snuggle up to them, and that's what they'll tell you," Don Saba, a member of the NRA board of directors, told the San Jose Mercury News. "They characterize hunters as crazy rednecks, even as they talk about tolerance and diversity." (Never mind that lead was banned nationally for waterfowl hunting in 1991, and no one lost their shotgun over it. Those were the days.)

Given the conservation heritage that many hunters identify with, this shouldn’t be the us-versus-them issue, that the NRA suggests it should be. What if conservation-oriented hunting and sporting groups were to acknowledge the amount of lead that generally creeps into habitats and food chains from ammo and fishing tackle, and take a courageous stance by actively promoting non-lead alternatives? Copper will probably be the standard some day, but until then, a condor-sized part of our natural heritage is at stake. Ten extra dollars for an already-expensive box of ammo, or the time it takes to find copper ammunition, re-calibrate a rifle’s aim with the new rounds and practice with them, seems to me like a relatively small price to pay—especially when it means playing an individual role in saving an animal that makes the world feel like a wilder, older place.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.

Condor image courtesy of the U.S Geological Survey.

Eric Mills
Eric Mills
May 04, 2013 11:19 AM
California Assembly Bill 711 (AB 711), introduced by Assemblymember Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), recently passed the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee by a strictly partisan vote of 9:5 (all Dems voting AYE, all Repubs NO--go figure). AB 711 will be heard before the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, May 8, chaired by Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake). Other committee members are: Diane Harkey, Frank Bigelow, Raul Bocanegra, Steven Bradford, Ian Calderon, Nora Campos, Tim Donnelly, Susan Eggman, Jimmy Gomez, Isadore Hall, Chris Holden, Eric Linder, Richard Pan, Bill Quirk, Donald Wagner, and Shirley Weber. THEY NEED TO HEAR FROM YOU NOW.

EMAIL PATTERN FOR ALL: assemblymember.gatto@assembly.ca.gov

If successful there, AB 711 then goes to the Assembly floor, then a Senate committee.


Nor is it only condors who suffer the adverse effects of spent lead ammo. Scavengers such as bears, coyotes, badgers, foxes, eagles, vultures, ravens, jays, etc., also succumb to a painful and unnecessary death.

Ideally, there should also be a national ban on the use of lead fishing weights. It's well documented that waterfowl such as swans, cormorants, loons, diving ducks and others sicken and die from swallowing lost lead sinkers.

And surely the slightly-higher cost of a box of non-lead ammo is a poor reason not to support this legislation. If hunters are the true conservationists they claim to be (and I think most are), then they should be leading this effort.

Eric Mills, coordinator
Hunt For Truth
Hunt For Truth
May 06, 2013 11:43 AM
Advocates for the “get the lead out” campaign frequently use misinformation to push their agenda. For example, the Condor Recovery Program team members have documented that condor #318 has been found ingesting alternative sources of “soluble” lead. At Pinnacles National Monument in California, California condors 317 and 318, were observed ingesting lead paint fragments from the North Chalone Fire Lookout Tower. In turn, these parents fed the regurgitated lead paint fragments to their fledgling (550). Condors 317, 318 and 550 were all tested and found to have elevated blood-lead levels, while 550 had to be evacuated to the Los Angeles Zoo for intensive chelation treatment for lead poisoning.

Radical animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the US, Audubon California, Center for Biological Diversity, and Action For Animals are conducting a war aimed at the banning of sport hunting in California. One way they are trying to accomplish this is by sponsoring AB711, which calls for a state-wide ban on most kinds of hunting ammunition available to the public. Now, the same groups are trying to expand the ban to other states. However, there are serious scientific questions about the validity of their claims to justify a lead ban. What these groups are not revealing is that there are other sources of lead in the environment. To learn all the facts in the lead ammunition debate, visit www.huntfortruth.org.
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
May 08, 2013 03:05 PM
Truth, why are pro-animal groups "radicals" but vocal groups in opposition are not described as such?

Nevertheless, yes, condors do ingest lead paint fragments, as well as micro-trash, like bottle caps, coins, etc. that they may mistake as bone fragments, an occasional source of protein for them. Lead ammo is not the only cause. It is, though, the most prominent.

Further, if lead paint contributes to their demise, can't lead bullets as well? Lead is lead, is it not? I'm not sure how saying condors are sick from lead paint exposure is different from lead exposure from bullets.

Your comment suggests your well-researched in your argument. Thus, I assume you can connect carrion-eating wildlife with illnesses relating to field-harvested big game.

How might you explain x-rays that depict pieces of ingested lead ammunition in condors, both old and young?

The anti-lead ammunition effort is not at all anti-gun. There is a tremendous difference. Many, many wildlife advocates are also hunters and conservationists. Most of the people calling for stricter gun control couldn't tell a condor from a sea gull.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 08, 2013 07:37 PM
Craig I’m not “hunt for truth” but I’ll chime in.

Radical groups have as their agenda animal rights, you know like the bill of rights. Vegan. They have quotes on their web site equating slaughterhouses to the Holocaust. Anti lead is simply a vehicle to stop all hunting. See the second comment above yours.

Yes there is a difference between lead sources, not all lead is created equal. Lead in gasoline or paint is in a different form and readily passes into the bloodstream. Lead in bullets is similar to naturally occurring lead. The CDC study which Sarah skillfully references actually showed that people who eat meat shot with lead bullets had a lower lead level than the general US population. The study was done in N Dakota where the effects of leaded gasoline and paint linger much less in the ecosystem. People don’t get lead poisoning from ingesting a stray fragment of lead now and again, never a case.

Lead in the soil (from gasoline) is much easier to absorb when soils become more acidic. Like on the coasts. With acid rain. Ever notice those lead tire weights on the side of the road that fall off tires? I see a lot more of them than I do errant bullets. The only danger of bullets is during the process of melting down those weights for people who reload on the cheap. The lead is poisonous as a vapor, reloaders are aware of this. Also the primers in the middle of centerfire bullets contains a tiny amount of lead that vaporizes with the initial percussion. Indoor ranges have air systems for that very reason.

Hunters stopped using lead in the condor’s range years ago with a tested rate of 99% compliance, yet if anything rates of lead poisoning for condors are slightly up. There is a simple truth there that anti lead bullet folks don’t want to face. They lose in court, not on procedural issues but on the science. They are doing legislatively what they couldn’t do using facts and science.

Yes hunters are conservationists and wildlife advocates. I switched to Barnes 100% copper bullets four years ago, and I only use two or three a year. When I’m done with this box I’ll probably use a regular controlled expansion bullet again. I’m more informed than I was four years ago. Remember though, part of being an ethical hunter is being an accurate shot, and the time I put in at the range, shooting economical rimfire and handloaded centerfire, at five, or thirty cents a shot, is what helps me to be as accurate as I can.

The argument isn’t over the very few shots that shooters shoot at game, hunters can and do easily switch to copper for that, even if it’s not quite as good ballistically. The tussle is over the few hundred or more rounds shot to maintain skillfulness.
David Olsen
David Olsen
May 22, 2013 11:13 AM
Well said Rob. The 22 rimfire bullets of tin do not shoot as accurately as the common lead ones and they are hard to find and expensive. Muzzleloaders require soft pure lead to function at all. Metals proposed for use in alternative ammunition can cause serious environmental consequences. Bismuth leaches into the soil and groundwater and interferes with soil bacteria. Tungsten, which is transformed to a soluble form by oxygen, accumulates in the spleen of wildlife and can cause immune system disorders. Birds of all kinds already suffer from eating plastics. Even copper is toxic under certain circumstances. San Diego zoo is reporting Condors with copper poisoning. Steel shot does not perform as well as lead on game, leading to higher numbers of crippled game that escape and die in the field, and potential injuries to humans from ricochets. Traditional ammunition containing lead is still the best, and safest, alternative.

While most everyone wants the best for our animals and health, some extreme groups are heading up the charge on banning lead.

“We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States. We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.” Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society of The United States
(Full Cry Magazine).
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
May 23, 2013 10:57 AM
For the past 5 years or so, I have only used steel shot in my old side-by side. No problem. The large center-fire copper bullets like Barnes X or Corbin work fine. No problem. It's true that non-lead rimfire ammunition is a problem. Tin simply does not work as well as lead, and the difference is dramatic. However, I still mnage to shoot a lot of squirrels around the house with tin bullets, and I have the peace of mind knowing that I am not poisoning the ravens and vultures and coyotes that eat my dead squirrels. It will be nice wen the bullet manufacturers make a better non-lead rimfire cartridge - especially .22 WMR - but in the meantime, I make it work. I just don't see the problem; I don't see the commie plot to take your precious guns away. I'm using non-lead ammunition and the sun still rises everyday. What's the problem?