Will Lead Bullets Finally Kill Off the California Condor?

7 May

by Ted Williams, Cross Posted from Yale Environment 360


It was almost like watching wooly mammoths parting tusk-high savannah. In the gusty air above the Grand Canyon relicts from the Ice Age wheeled and dipped. Through my binoculars I could make out numbers on the wing tags of these California condors, North America’s largest and arguably most endangered bird.

By 1982 only 22 remained on the planet. Then in a decision that outraged a large element of the environmental community, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that all condors would be evacuated from the wild and bred in captivity. Friends of the Earth founder David Brower pled for “death with dignity.” But in 1993 the Peregrine Fund, a conservation organization, took on captive breeding, and the program proved a stunning success. After only three years, condor releases started in northern Arizona.

Today 234 birds are living in the wild (194 of them captive bred), but the prognosis for the species is scarcely brighter than in 1982; they’re being poisoned. When lead bullets strike bone they tend to splinter, impregnating meat and entrails with toxic fragments, any one of which can kill a condor. All manner of carrion-eating birds and mammals feast on the poisoned gut piles left when hunters field dress game.

On April 16, 2013 a bill to ban lead hunting ammo in California passed its first hurdle when the Parks and Wildlife Committee of the state assembly approved it by a 9 to 5 vote. Without such a ban, extinction of the California condor is inevitable, according to a 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences.

When vertebrates ingest lead, their bodies mistake it for calcium and beneficial metals, incorporating it into vital tissues. Symptoms include anemia, convulsions, paralysis, and deterioration of brain, eyes, kidneys, and liver. Humans generally survive lead poisoning, albeit with diminished motor and cognitive capacity. (Research indicates that after lead was removed from U.S. gasoline in the 1970s, children’s IQs rose an average of six points.) But to make it in the unforgiving world of nature, wildlife has to be fine-tuned. So lead-poisoning in wild mammals and birds is rarely survivable.


The California condor is the largest bird in North America, with a wingspan of more than 9 feet. (Photo by Scott Frier/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Today wild condors are on life support because of lead in their blood. They must be routinely captured and detoxed with calcium-based drugs. But the drugs strip away nutrients as well as lead, weakening the birds so they can’t be released for a month or more. A study by the University of California, Santa Cruz found that 48 percent of condors tested and treated between 1997 to 2010 had potentially lethal blood-lead levels.

In 2008, California banned lead hunting ammo in all or parts of 13 central and southern counties and seven deer-hunting zones — the presumed core condor range. But the law hasn’t worked; the birds have different ideas about what their range should be.

The statewide ban now before the legislature might not work either because condors also scavenge in Arizona and Utah. Of 166 captive-bred birds reintroduced in these two states since 1996, 38 are known to have died from lead poisoning. But the California bill would give the species a fighting chance, and it might set a precedent.

At least 130 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles ingest lead from bullets, so a national ban is desperately needed. On March 22, 2013, 30 leading scientists, doctors, and public-health authorities assembled by the University of California, Santa Cruz signed a statement warning that lead ammo should be phased out for hunting because it poses an unacceptable danger to humans and wildlife.

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