It 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