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 No. 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 problems 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, 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 at 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, for all wildlife, is on the table in California thanks to Assembly Bill 711, and it’s currently working its way through committees on the way to the full 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.”

Beyond the reality that almost nothing is going to stop a handful of bad actors from making the wrong choice, 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 nonlead 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, 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.”

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, once 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.

This was originally posted at High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

3 replies on “Get the Lead Out: Effort to Ban Lead Ammo in California Should Be a No-Brainer”

  1. Lead ban proponents have clearly introduced AB 711 to avoid the scientific debate on lead ammunition. They are aware that the facts and the science are not going to support an expansion of the current lead ammunition ban under the heightened scrutiny from the Department and the Commission, where “the science has got to make sense or else you’re not going to sell the rest of us [on a lead ammunition ban], that’s for darn sure.” (Commissioner Rogers at the August 8, 2012 meeting) Accordingly, the extremist environmental groups are instead using petitions and polls to proffer support in the legislature to implement a statewide lead ammunition ban. Petitions and polls are exactly how these groups were able to obtain the initial lead ammunition ban (AB 821), which has scientifically been proven to be an absolute failure.

    Cancer researcher Dr. Don Saba made a presentation to the Commission on behalf of the NRA and CRPA Foundation, comparing pre-AB 821 lead ban and post-AB 821 lead ban condor blood-lead level data. The comparison showed that, contrary to the lead ban proponents’ assurances, the incidence of lead exposure and poisoning in condors has not gone down since AB 821 took effect. In fact, the blood-lead levels remain mostly static, and in some condors, blood-lead levels and mortality have actually increased.

    The extremist environmental groups continue to use faulty scientific papers, where researchers have been found to be hiding underlying data and avoiding further peer scrutiny, to achieve their agenda of banning lead ammunition altogether. These researchers have long argued the science shows that lead ammunition is the cause of lead poisoning for California condors and other wildlife. However, the recently published Finkelstein, et al. paper concedes that AB 821 has had no effect on lead poisoning in condors. The paper, however, tenuously concludes that despite 99% hunter compliance with the lead ban, a total ban on lead ammunition is required to achieve success.

    There are obviously other sources of lead in the environment. These alternative sources are likely an industrial lead compound (e.g leaded gasoline, paint or pesticides), which is far more soluble and bioavailable to condors. We have identified some of those potential alternative sources, and we encourage you to join the hunt for the truth with us and learn the real facts! To learn all the facts in the lead ammunition debate, visit http://www.huntfortruth.org.

  2. A “no brainer,” indeed. If sport hunters were the true conservationists they claim to be, then they would be leading this effort. Ideally, there should be a nationwide ban on the use of ALL lead for hunting and fishing alike. Many waterfowl suffer and die from ingesting lost fishing weights.

    The committee analysis for AB 711 makes for interesting reading. See also the list of supporters (about 100 organizations and “numerous individuals”; and the list of opposition (eight organizations, all with vested interest in the status quo, and “several individuals”). The bill may be found at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov.

    AB 711 now goes to the full Assembly floor. If successful there, as expected, then probably to the Senate Natural Resources Committee chaired by Senator Fran Pavley.




    Eric Mills, coordinator

    And a P.S. – As for the Fish & Game Commission, commissioner Richard Rogers’ term expired MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO, yet there he sits. There’s been a vacancy on this five-member commission for far too long. Gov. Jerry Brown needs to hear from us. Would be nice to have a biologist, maybe a former game warden or a non-consumptive user on the commission for a change. In 140 years all commissioners have been either hunters or fishers, or both. And only TWO women in all that time. We can do better. THE GOVERNOR AND ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814.

  3. If you think you care just a tiny bit about the condors or hunting, then try doing a search on ‘Grinding America Down 63749370″ before it’s scrubbed from the net.

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