Tim Huntington, courtesy the Ventana Wildlife Society
Tim Huntington, courtesy the Ventana Wildlife Society

After teetering on the brink of extinction 30 years ago, the California condor has made a gradual recovery in the state. But scientists say hunters are hampering a full recovery – not because they’re shooting at condors, but because the giant scavenger birds swallow lead bullet fragments when hunters leave an animal carcass behind.

The California legislature is considering a bill that would ban the use of lead bullets in hunting across the state. It would be the first statewide ban in the country and in the midst of a tense national debate over gun rights, the bill, AB 711, is raising controversy.

Slow Progress

The condor’s incremental recovery has taken longer than many expected, demanding substantial resources. “There’s plenty of other species to be focusing on,” said Kelly Sorenson, a biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society. “But instead we’re entrenched in this very intensive effort to save this species.”

Sorenson is ensconced in a spot along the Pacific Coast Highway, overlooking a large, rotting gray whale carcass, washed up on a beach. The windswept stretch of Big Sur coast is prime condor country.

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“Oh yeah, from a condor point of view this is a smorgasbord,” Sorenson says. “This is dinner for months.”

Just over the hill, two condors come soaring out of the trees. “This might be a breeding pair,” he says. “They’re both adults, I can tell from here. They have a bright red head.

Condors resemble turkey vultures, but dominate the skies with an imposing nine-foot wingspan. Sorenson scans their wings with binoculars, looking for numbers. “I can almost make it out. It looks like it might be 51.”

There aren’t many condors without numbered tags, because most were born in captivity. Centuries ago, condors ranged from Canada to Texas. But by 1982, under pressure from hunting and habitat loss, only 22 remained. Scientists took them out of the wild in a last-ditch effort to save the species.

“Fortunately they bred very well in captivity and we started reintroducing condors to Big Sur in 1997,” Sorenson says.

It’s been a slow recovery since. Today, there are about 400 condors in California, Arizona and Mexico, including a large portion in captivity. On California’s central coast, just 70 live in the wild. It could be why Sorenson is having trouble shaking what happened the day before we met. His team found one of those condors dead, a male that Sorensen had been tracking for 10 years.

“That’s what makes it especially hard when one of those birds dies,” he says. “But if it’s what it usually is, which is lead poisoning, it makes it even harder to deal with.”

Sorenson’s team traps condors twice a year to test for lead poisoning. If they catch a case in time, the bird is taken to a treatment center in Southern California. Ten condors have already been treated this year.

Condor Forensics

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“The problem is really epidemic,” says toxicologist Myra Finkelstein. “These California condors are exposed to chronic harmful levels of lead.”

In her lab at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Finkelstein holds up a vial with a small shard of metal: a lead bullet fragment found in the digestive system of a dead condor.

“This is enough lead to poison and potentially kill a condor,” she says.

As scavengers, condors will feed on any dead animal, including carcasses or partial carcasses left by hunters or ranchers. “They’ll come to eat it and they inadvertently will also ingest these fragments,” Finkelstein says.

Through tests on hundreds of condor blood samples and feathers, Finkelstein’s lab has worked to trace the source of lead. In the majority of cases, she says it matches the chemical profile of lead bullets.

In response, former Governor Arnold Schwarzengger banned the use of lead bullets in hunting in 1997, but only in condor territory. Condors are still showing high levels of lead, which can shut down their digestive system.

“It only takes one meal so that’s why the problem is so severe,” Finkelstein says.

Now, the California legislature is considering taking the ban a step further by banning lead bullets for hunting statewide. Lead ammunition could still be used at shooting ranges.

Casting Doubt

“We don’t know exactly what the source of the soluble lead is,” says Chuck Michel, an attorney for the National Rifle Association. “There are multiple sources of soluble lead in the environment.”

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The NRA and other gun groups have targeted the scientific research, saying the lead could be coming from paint or garbage dumps. Hunters could use copper ammunition as an alternative, but it’s often twice as expensive. A box of 20 rounds that costs $25 for lead, goes for around $50 for copper.

“It prices a lot of people out of the market,” says Michel. “If it’s mandatory, there’s really going to be a lot less people that can afford to go hunting.”

That’s why gun groups see the bill as a threat. “This is a way to bring a cultural attack on hunting and sportsmen and women,” he says.

“We heard all the same arguments in the late 80s and early 90s,” says Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society of the United States, referring to when lead shot was banned in duck-and-goose hunting nationwide.

“It actually restrains very little about activities with guns,” she says. “It just requires that a bullet be made of one metal rather than another.”

Lead was phased out of paint and gasoline decades ago. While AB 711 wouldn’t prohibit the sale of lead bullets, Fearing believes it would still be effective and could help other wildlife that also scavenge, like eagles and hawks.

“It’s just going to take some time, quite frankly, for ranchers and others to switch the ammunition they use on their properties and just for the culture within the hunting community to move to a place where they accept their responsibility,” she says.

The lead ammunition bill has already passed the California Assembly and is now being considered by the state Senate, where its chances look favorable.

With Condors on the Brink, California Considers a Lead-Bullet Ban for Hunters 21 June,2013Lauren Sommer

Author

Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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