Getting the lead out

A proposed ban on lead ammo in California could save condors

  • USFWS

  • Lead bullets have a tendency to explode when they hit their victims, as is evident in this X-ray of a deer carcass, shot by a lead-core, lead-tip, 175-grain bullet. It scattered 547 lead fragments through the animal, some inches away from the bullet’s path

    PEREGRINE FUND
  • California Condor 134, stricken with lead poisoning, receives mouth-to-mouth at the Phoenix Zoo’s animal hospital in March 2006

    MITCH TOBIN
  • California Condor 134, then receives a blood transfusion. After a desperate fight for life, the condor recovered

    MITCH TOBIN
  • USFWS

 

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A few weeks after I visited 134, the other two condors Orr had treated were returned to the zoo with paralyzed digestive systems. One bird died the day he arrived in Phoenix; less than a week later, the other condor was also dead.

 

Condor advocates have long urged hunters to retrieve their quarry and remove or bury gut piles to reduce the odds of lead poisoning. But every year in California’s condor country, hunters leave behind the remains of more than 36,000 deer, coyotes and wild pigs, plus an untold number of squirrels, according to a 2003 University of California at Davis study.

Forcing hunters to switch their ammunition isn’t without precedent. Before lead shot was outlawed for waterfowl hunting, 2 to 3 percent of North America’s waterfowl died each year after swallowing the toxic pellets.

Though the 1991 ban saved millions of birds, it initially didn’t sit well with hunters. Back then, alternatives were harder to come by. Today, unleaded rifle bullets are a few clicks away on the Internet, but they still aren’t manufactured for all guns.

Anthony Prieto, an avid sportsman from Santa Barbara, says the extra few dollars for a box of unleaded ammo is a pittance compared to the money that hunters spend on rifles and scopes. Prieto thinks psychology, not economics, makes hunters resist. “I always use the analogy of a baseball player with a certain bat or a certain glove,” he says. “They’re superstitious.”

Prieto was sold on unleaded bullets in the mid-1990s, after trying homemade ammo. Compared to regular rounds, the bullets were faster, more accurate and retained more weight — and therefore killing power — when they struck their target. “Back in ’99, I used it to shoot an elk in Montana,” Prieto says, “and that elk was dead before it hit the ground.” Prieto was able to eat the meat knowing he wasn’t ingesting lead himself.

In November, Prieto joined fellow hunters, physicians, environmentalists and Native Americans in suing California Fish and Game. The department has since proposed a ban on lead ammo in condor habitat; as early as April, the independent commission that oversees state hunting rules may approve the recommendation.

Not everyone believes the ban will work, and some biologists fear it will prompt a lethal backlash against condors. Walt Mansell, a retired game warden who is secretary for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, dismisses it as a “feel good” measure that will be tough to enforce. “We’re talking about millions of dollars per year in increased patrol costs to raise the compliance level so it has a positive effect on the condor,” he says.

Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity acknowledges that compliance will never be 100 percent. Still, he says, “voluntary measures alone aren’t going to work.” Because of the lead threat, he says, the condors are somewhere between zoo animals and wild birds: They must be monitored intensively, captured frequently, subjected to chelation and fed subsidies of lead-free carrion. All this can acclimate the birds to people and make them more likely to fall victim to manmade hazards.

For years, sporting and firearms groups have opposed new regulations, questioning whether hunting with lead ammo is really to blame for sick condors. But a hefty stack of scientific studies, including five published in 2006, supports the connection. Veterinarians have repeatedly extracted lead shot and bullet fragments from the birds’ guts. The smoking gun was published in August 2006, when researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz used isotope analysis to determine that the lead in condors’ blood matched the “fingerprint” of the lead used in bullets.

In Arizona, condor advocates have no choice but to rely on voluntary measures. The species’ reintroduction there was contingent on the bird not forcing any regulatory changes. In 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish Department spent $105,000 of lottery proceeds to give hunters coupons for free unleaded bullets if they drew a permit on the Kaibab or Paria plateaus, prime foraging areas for condors just north of the Grand Canyon. About two-thirds of the 2,393 hunters redeemed their coupons, and 89 percent said they’d use the bullets again if they were free, suggesting that a significant dent could be made in the problem with a relatively inexpensive program.

 

The blood transfusion cured 134’s anemia. After more than three months of treatment, Kathy Orr sent the bird back up to northern Arizona, this time via the highway. About six months after 134 nearly died at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, he exited a pen atop the Vermilion Cliffs and took to the sky.

“He’s starting to show courtship behavior, and we’re hoping he’ll be a breeder this year,” Lord says. “This is a great example of a bird that would have no problem doing just fine in the wild — with the exception of this lead issue.”

 

The author, a former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, is completing a book on the Southwest’s endangered species.

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