Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lead Bullets of Hunters Causing Lead Poisoning in California Condors: Populations Greatly Affected

But it’s not only other species who are affected by the irresponsible hunters. Humans are too.

“Supporters of a lead ban say hunters and their families also are at risk. Studies in Greenland and Canada have found elevated lead levels in people who eat seabirds and other animals shot with lead ammunition. On contact, a lead bullet fragments into tiny pieces and powder that disperses well beyond the wound.”


Lead poisoning eyed as threat to California condor


By John Ritter, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the great feel-good environmental stories of the past 30 years is the recovery of the majestic California condor, North America's largest bird, a scavenger-turned-billboard for the campaign to save endangered species.

On the brink of extinction, saved by a captive-breeding program, the condor population has grown from just 22 birds in 1982 to 289 today; 135 are in the wild and more are released every year.

Even so, condors have failed to gain a secure foothold in the hills and deserts of California and Arizona because of lead poisoning, the most often diagnosed cause of death, environmentalists say.

Environmental groups say the most likely source is condors' eating of game that was shot by hunters using lead bullets. Frustrated that most hunters have not switched to substitutes, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups notified California officials in July that they will sue under the Endangered Species Act to force a ban.

At a meeting of state fish and game staff this month to discuss potential hunting-rule changes to recommend, the groups again asked for a ban on lead ammunition. A decision is likely early next year. Lead shot used in shotguns to hunt waterfowl has been prohibited since the 1980s.

Andrew Wexler of the NRDC's endangered species project says, "The commissioners have a historic opportunity. It's a mystery why they've resisted a ban because the scientific evidence is so overwhelming."

That evidence isn't conclusive, says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, whose goal is to restore North American wildlife. "There are other potential pathways for lead," says Williams, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Bush administration. "I wouldn't speculate on what those other sources may be." He's "happy to learn that hunters are taking action on their own" but says more study is needed.

Many hunters who have tried alternatives, mainly copper bullets that don't poison wildlife, find them as good or better than traditional ammunition, though more expensive. A high-performance copper bullet costs $2 to $2.50, about $1 more than lead.

At a "free shoot" last weekend at a range near Pinnacles National Monument in Central California — prime condor habitat — hunters and ranchers were invited to try copper bullets. In questionnaires filled out afterward, more than 90% approved.

Alternative efforts

Some groups, such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, oppose a ban, though they support efforts to reduce lead exposure in condors and other animals that feed on carrion, eagles among them. These groups say voluntary hunting practices would achieve the same goal, including removing carcasses from the field and burying "gut piles," an animal's inedible portions.

"Clearly hunters have shown in studies that they're very willing to adopt one of those management steps," says Rick Patterson, director of the shooting foundation, which sets standards for firearms and ammunition manufacturing. He says studies have shown that some hunters resist the added cost of copper bullets.

Under the microscope

The coalition that threatened the lawsuit says a July study that analyzed blood of condors in the wild and compared it with blood of captive birds proves that lead from bullets is poisoning and killing condors.

The study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology was the first to identify a lead isotope in bullets bought at retail outlets in condor country and then match it to lead found in condor blood. Twenty of 26 condors sampled had high lead levels, and many exceeded levels toxic to humans.

"It's very analogous to situations we still encounter with kids who eat chips of lead-based paint," says Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on the study. "The chip might be small but have very high levels of lead in it, and it doesn't take much to cause lead poisoning."

Supporters of a lead ban say hunters and their families also are at risk. Studies in Greenland and Canada have found elevated lead levels in people who eat seabirds and other animals shot with lead ammunition. On contact, a lead bullet fragments into tiny pieces and powder that disperses well beyond the wound.

"Subsistence hunters especially who hunt for most of their protein, if they have kids in the household, to me that's a significant potential risk," Smith says.

Condors, flying as high as 15,000 feet with 9-foot wingspans, spot a meal and go straight to the bullet wound, because that's the easiest place to feed. They'll eat almost any dead mammal, from a squirrel to a cow.

California's fish and game commission last year rejected an emergency ban on lead bullets, and bills in the Legislature to outlaw them in hunting died twice. Groups such as Ventana Wildlife Society urge an approach like Arizona's. The state offered free non-lead bullets to hunters last year in areas frequented by condors. Nearly two-thirds accepted them, and condor lead-exposure rates fell 40% from 2004, according to Arizona's game and fish department.

Ventana wants California lawmakers to approve $200,000 a year for five years to pay for coupons that hunters could redeem for free or reduced-price non-lead bullets. "That's a million bucks. Big deal," says Ventana's president, Kelly Sorenson. "Compared to the total cost we're spending on the condor recovery program, it's a small price to pay."

That program, involving state and federal agencies, zoos, foundations and universities, has cost at least $40 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

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