Let them eat copper

by Ted Williams

I am sitting on the sun-blasted South Rim of the Grand Canyon, tracking condors through binoculars and trying to read the numbers on their wing tags as they dip and wobble above and below me. Next to me is Elaine Leslie, the heroic National Park Service biologist who never gave up on condors, even when a large element of the environmental community advocated "extinction with dignity." Without the courage and tenacity of Leslie and her fellow Park Service and San Diego Zoo condor advocates, we'd have lost these priceless ice-age artifacts to "plumbism."

Plumbism is an especially hard way for an animal or person to die. The agent is lead. Symptoms include anemia, loss of memory, depression, convulsions, brain deterioration, impotence, stillbirth, miscarriage, paralysis, kidney damage and liver damage.

"When lead is ingested or inhaled, the body ‘mistakes' it for calcium and beneficial metals, incorporating it into nerve cells and other vital tissues," explains Leslie, now with the Park Service's Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate. Many people survive plumbism, albeit with diminished motor and mental function. Wild animals usually die.

On March 5, Elaine Leslie sent me this eloquent e-mail: "!" Attached was an intra-agency memo from the Park Service's equally heroic acting director, Dan Wenk, ordering a ban on lead bullets and fishing tackle "in NPS units where those activities are authorized." Leslie flings credit around like confetti, but her fingerprints are all over this bold, belated action.

Condors were in freefall to extinction until October 2007 when another bold, belated action by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger banned lead bullets in the bird's known range. Hunters weren't much inconvenienced. Non-toxic copper bullets are more expensive but have better ballistics.

It's not just condors that are being poisoned; it's everything from eagles to hawks to bears to wolves to songbirds to people. The media paid scant attention to plumbism-by-bullet until 2008, when studies in Midwestern states turned up fragmented lead in venison donated to the poor by the "Sportsmen Against Hunger" program. And research by the North Dakota Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that people who eat wild game killed by lead bullets tend to have elevated blood levels of lead.

I'm against poisoning the poor. But that's not the only problem I have with "Sportsmen Against Hunger," which was hatched by Safari Club International in an attempt to boost an image diminished by "canned hunts," during which members purchase caged animals -- some with names -- and then shoot them. I grew up in a culture in which, if you successfully hunted something, you ate it -- a dictum that was sternly enforced even on a friend who dispatched a skunk.

I have an even greater problem with the mantra from the Safari Club and the gun lobby that all evidence of plumbism-by-bullet has been fabricated as part of a plot to disarm America.

The NRA, which fought viciously against the California lead ban, attributes such reforms to the secret agenda of "environmental and anti-gun extremists." The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance pooh-poohs the North Dakota and Centers for Disease Control studies with this non sequitur: "Hunters have been feeding their families with deer taken by lead bullets since firearms were invented."

Plumbism was first seen in ducks in 1874, but it wasn't until 1991, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got around to banning lead shot for waterfowl. When I was writing about the impending ban back in 1988, I got precisely the same response from the gun lobby I get now. NRA president James Reinke said that "anti-gunners, attacking lead shot under the guise of environmentalism, have succeeded in gaining a beachhead." Neal Knox of the Firearms Coalition called the ‘91 ban "the latest scalp in a well-organized, scarcely recognized series of flanking attacks upon the right to keep and bear arms." And Miles Brueckner of Migratory Waterfowl Hunters Inc. offered this explanation: "Someone's getting wealthy on steel shot."

I never understood why so many of my fellow hunters were fine with annually depleting their game supply by about 300,000 ducks and geese fatally poisoned by lead shot.

We've banned lead in paint, toys, gasoline and shotgun loads for waterfowl. Yet we persist in festooning the landscape with bullets made from this deadly neurotoxin. Elaine Leslie puts it this way: "It is 2009. We are better than this. Time for a change. Time to be accountable to future generations. Time to get the lead out!"

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel Magazine.

© High Country News