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Fight to protect California condors from lead ammunition moves to Arizona

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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California condorIt has been 22 years since the last 22 California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were collected from the wild and placed in captive breeding programs. The species, which nearly went extinct due to habitat loss, poaching, DDT and lead poisoning, has since rebounded to 332 birds, according to counts maintained by the Zoological Society of San Diego. But despite that conservation success, condors still face a major threat from lead poisoning, which often occurs when the birds eat carcasses killed by hunters’ lead ammunition.

“Condors are particularly susceptible to lead, more so than other scavengers,” says Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “It doesn’t take much to poison them.”

To help the endangered birds, California banned the use of most lead ammunition in condor habitats in 2007. This year, the CBD filed a lawsuit to institute a similar ban on federal lands around the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where about a third of the world’s wild California condors live. The CBD argues that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife Service are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing the use of toxic lead ammunition in the condor’s protected habitat.

“Arizona has a pretty significant lead-poisoning problem,” Miller says. “It’s been worse than in California for the last few years, and the Arizona government is bending over backwards to hand out free nonlead ammo to hunters. Still, there have been quite a few lead-related deaths.

“It doesn’t take many hunters using lead ammo to poison a significant number of birds,” Miller says. “One flock of birds on a carcass can create an immediate crisis. We would have had more deaths if the condors were not so well managed and monitored.”

But on October 14, the National Rifle Association (NRA) filed to intervene against the CBD’s lawsuit as it attempts to block any further bans against the use of lead ammunition. “My clients are concerned about the ballistic performance of nonlead ammunition and the increased environmental impact of nonlead bullets,” says Chuck Michel, senior counsel for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, the NRA’s local affiliate.

The NRA has long contested the idea that lead bullets contribute to poisoning in California condors and other species. The NRA says it has “been at the forefront of debunking the so-called “science” behind the theory that lead bullets are responsible for condor illness.” Most of the NRA’s pro-lead claims come from research by scientist and former NRA board member Don Saba.

But is the NRA’s science strong enough? “The science is in on lead in wildlife and other carnivores. There’s no debate,” says the CBD’s Miller. “The only debate is over what makes sense from a policy point of view. There are alternative ammunitions, which are becoming more widely available, and their cost is coming down. Switching from lead is no problem.”

In fact, an entire conference was held last year to discuss the effect of lead ammunition on wildlife and humans. The Ingestion of Spent Lead Ammunition conference, sponsored by the Peregrine Fund, featured more than 50 peer-reviewed papers about the negative effects of lead ammunition on the environment.

California’s lead-ammo ban has already been a success, at least in terms of acceptance by hunters. Earlier this year, the state’s Fish and Game Commission reported that 99 percent of hunters they field-checked were in compliance with the new laws. “The irony is that hunters play an important roll in the recovery of condors,” Miller says. “Condors feed primarily on hunters’ carcasses. Hunters love copper bullets. There’s no reason to keep using lead.”

The U.S. District Court in Arizona is expected to rule on the NRA’s request to intervene in the CBD’s lawsuit in the coming weeks.

Image: California condor, via Wikipedia





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  1. 1. Frosty46 3:39 am 11/21/2009

    The NRA has become an association of political nutcases who would poison their own children to prove a political point!

    Rational thinking left the auditorium many years ago for these machine gun lovin Republicans.

    Link to this
  2. 2. doug 1 6:55 am 11/21/2009

    There are many hunters of all political persuasion who are fully supportive of efforts to remove lead from their ammunition. Contrary to other comments, hunting in the modern sense is an integral part of conservation. The NRA despite ideological differences that may occur on specific legislation regarding gun ownership and use, is in agreement that management and information regarding hunting and ammunition is vital for continued and responsible behavior in hunting.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Richieo 10:44 am 11/21/2009

    I would really like to see a a total ban on all forms of hunting, gun ownership, "bloodsports", cowboy attitudes… What kind of a future do you want to see???

    Link to this
  4. 4. SCasey 10:59 am 11/21/2009

    The same cause and effect science that gave us global warming…uhh I mean climate change , proves condors are on the verge of extinction because they are eating lead bullets with their dinner. Now I know it’s irrational thinking machine gun loving Republicans and the children poisoning NRA members that are responsible for all that condor killing lead.

    I used to think banning lead ammo might be just another backdoor 2nd amendment restriction since there has never been a provable direct connection between lead ammo and condors going extinct. Thanks for the heads up SciAm!

    Link to this
  5. 5. SCasey 11:03 am 11/21/2009

    The same cause and effect science that gave us global warming…uhh I mean climate change , says condors are on the verge of extinction because they are eating lead bullets with their dinner. Now I know it’s irrational thinking machine gun loving Republicans and the children poisoning NRA members that are responsible for all that condor killing lead.

    I used to think banning lead ammo might be just another backdoor 2nd amendment restriction since there has never been a provable direct connection between lead ammo and condors going extinct. Thanks for setting us straight SciAm!

    Link to this
  6. 6. playnice 3:37 pm 11/21/2009

    here we go with another ban. since you ban-a-holics banned DDT to save a few scavengers, 40 million children have died from malaria. At least the hunters eat what they harvest and it is a renewable resource. There are more deer around now than when the country was founded. What do you hand wringing environmentalists do with the blood of 40 million dead children. Ban mosquitoes.

    Link to this
  7. 7. grumpy7 6:46 pm 11/21/2009

    Lead is a poison. If it’s consumed. The point, overlooked in the hoo-raw is, that lead rifle bullets are not consumed. Or if consumed, at most by one scavenger. Visions of flocks of condors being poisoned by one deer carcass is simply silly.

    Lead bird shot, on the other hand, is a real menace to waterfowl. No doubt about it.

    Link to this
  8. 8. meggykitty 11:22 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  9. 9. meggykitty 11:24 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  10. 10. meggykitty 11:24 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  11. 11. meggykitty 11:27 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  12. 12. meggykitty 11:29 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  13. 13. meggykitty 11:32 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  14. 14. meggykitty 11:33 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  15. 15. meggykitty 11:34 am 11/22/2009

    Lead ammunition fragments when it enters the body of the animal that is shot. It shatters into hundreds of pieces that are then eaten by the condors. Copper ammunition is simply better because it does not fragment.

    One carcass or gut pile shot with lead CAN kill many condors.

    Link to this
  16. 16. ktrenkle 9:07 am 11/23/2009

    @playnice:
    The Stockholm Convention banned ONLY the agricultural use of DDT. It specifically recognizes the need to use DDT in malarial zones, especially until other, non-persistent alternatives are developed. Even after the ban in the US, DDT has been used to control fleas in the southwest to combat bubonic plague. In addition, I would argue that the American bald eagle and the peregrine falcon are not "scavengers" that the ban of DDT saved, but keystone species that play important roles in the ecosystems they inhabit.

    Link to this
  17. 17. ktrenkle 9:18 am 11/23/2009

    and for the record, the US is not a signatory of the Stockholm Convention.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Trent1492 3:36 pm 11/23/2009

    "here we go with another ban."

    Oh, no! Not another ban! I mean what will they ban next? Lead pipes? Lead paint, lead in gasoline? That would be horrible. We all know that it is far better to save some dollars than safeguard the health of a population.

    "Here we go with another ban. since you ban-a-holics banned DDT to save a few scavengers, 40 million children have died from malaria."

    I see the war on Rachel Carson continues to rage on. Tell me, can you provide a primary source for that number? Let us see how you derived that number.

    In the meat time you may want to play the DDT Ban Bingo Myth Game. Very Entertaining.

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2005/12/ddt-ban-myth-bingo.php

    Link to this
  19. 19. semi 10:38 pm 11/23/2009

    >here we go with another ban. since you ban-a-holics banned DDT to save a few scavengers, 40 million children have died from malaria.<

    Uh, the US banned DDT in the 1960′s. As far as I know malaria was not and is not a major threat in the US. DDT is still widely available on the world market for countries with malaria problems. Here is the pertinent information (from wikipedia):

    "Recognizing that a total elimination of DDT use in many malaria-prone countries is currently unfeasible because there are few affordable or effective alternatives, the public health use of DDT was exempted from the ban until alternatives are developed. The Malaria Foundation International states that "The outcome of the treaty is arguably better than the status quo going into the negotiations…For the first time, there is now an insecticide which is restricted to vector control only, meaning that the selection of resistant mosquitoes will be slower than before."

    Link to this
  20. 20. semi 10:45 pm 11/23/2009

    bonzo666@

    >It never dawns on the liberal collage waste other causes play a greater role in any environmental problem.
    Did it ever dawn on anyone that most of the condor’s range was heavily mined for silver ,of which lead was a major byproduct?
    Or that lead levels due to other forms of pollution such as leaded gas used for decades .
    Its time to GROW UP and realize how eco crap is used to push liberal socialist agenda. <

    Please. Have you read the papers tying lead ammunition to condor deaths? Scientist are able to trace the origin of the lead through chemical analysis to determine that it came from manufactured ammunition. Most lead in ammunition has a certain ratio of impurities and trace elements that make it easy to determine the lead did not originate from other sources.

    It’s called science. You might want to brush up on it.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Obviousman 4:23 pm 11/25/2009

    "The consensus is in and the debate is over" is the tactic used by those with weak arguments to silence opposition. We hear the same claim from the Gore-ites, and I believe we’ve all seen this week that the debate ISN’T over and the "consensus" is being artificially propped up. I propose a new Godwin’s Law for scientists: the first one to say "the debate is over" loses.

    Link to this
  22. 22. Trent1492 5:11 pm 11/25/2009

    "…and I believe we’ve all seen this week that the debate ISN’T over and the "consensus" is being artificially propped up."

    What do you mean "artificially propped up"? Please explain. What is your evidence for this assertion?

    "I propose a new Godwin’s Law for scientists: the first one to say "the debate is over" loses."

    So if somebody says that the debate is over in regards to the Theory of Evolution then the creationist wins?

    Link to this

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