(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.