A Bill to Ban Lead Ammunition Could Protect California Condors

A Bill to Ban Lead Ammunition Could Protect California Condors

California outlaws lead ammo to safeguard an iconic bird.

By Geoffrey Giller
Published: 09/03/2013

UPDATE: California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 711 into law on October 11. The California State Senate approved it on Monday, September 9, by a vote of 23 to 15. On September 10, the amended bill was confirmed by the State Assembly.

The toxicity of lead and the dangers it poses to humans and wildlife alike are a given. After all, it was banned from house paints and phased out of gasoline in the 1970s after the long-term neurological damage it could cause in young children became clear. And birds, especially waterfowl, were known to suffer from lead poisoning as far back as the 1890s. George Bird Grinnell, who founded the first iteration of the National Audubon Society, wrote in 1894 about "the destruction of ducks, geese, and swans by lead-poisoning." Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, lead-based ammunition is still widely used by hunters for other types of birds and game animals.

A bill signed into law on October 11 by Governor Jerry Brown aims to stop that. But it has sparked a fiery debate among environmentalists, hunters, and legislators across the state and the country. The bill, AB 711, bans the use of lead from all hunting ammunition in California; non-lead ammo is to be phased in by 2019. The bill was passed in the State Assembly in May, and the California Senate approved it on September 9.

The bill expands regulations that were passed in 2007 to protect the California condor from ingesting lead-based ammunition from the carcasses of animals killed by hunters.  Despite those regulations, which were in effect only in the embattled birds' range, condors are still turning up with lead poisoning. Audubon California, which is spearheading the effort to pass the bill, believes that the only way to stop the continued lead poisoning of condors is to require nonlead hunting ammunition throughout the state.

There are currently only 224 California condors in the wild, spread across Arizona and Mexico as well as California. (Almost half the population lives in California). The birds are North America's largest land birds, with wingspans reaching nine feet or more. Their much-celebrated comeback--they were down to 22 birds in 1982 before a captive-breeding program boosted their numbers--belies their tenuous status.

Garrison Frost, Audubon California's director of marketing and communication, suspects that lead poisoning from hunting ammo contributed to the original decline of the condor. "People who look back now, a lot of them think that the reason the bird was dying off so quickly back then was because of lead ammunition," he says. Frost attributes stubbornly high lead levels in condors to their exceptional scavenging abilities.

Even if only one percent of carcasses contain lead, "in a year there's a 50/50 chance that a condor will encounter a carcass with lead, because they find them so well, so quickly and easily," Frost says. The big difference between condors and such scavengers as golden eagles and turkey vultures, whose lead levels have dropped, is that those birds "will kind of stay in [their] neighborhood[s]," unlike the condor, which "will range hundreds and hundreds of miles in a day." In addition, he believes that many hunters are still using lead-based ammo in the restricted areas, and that this new bill is the only option left. "When you make that requirement statewide, then you're not going to see people buying it; you're going to have to buy the nonlead alternatives," he says.

Kim Delfino is a program director for Defenders of Wildlife, which is also sponsoring the bill. "Lead is a very toxic material that affects a lot of animals, particularly condors and raptors," she says. She hopes that California "will lead the way" in switching to non-lead ammo: "Once California goes, the rest of the country will follow."

Jennifer Fearing, senior state director of the Humane Society (another backer of the bill), agrees that now is the time to pass this legislation. "The Humane Society is drawn to solving those kinds of problems - the ones where the right solution is the best for the animals, the best for the people, and the best for the environment," she says.

Thirty-five states already require the use of nonlead ammo in certain areas when hunting particular types of game. California's bill would result in the country's first statewide ban. 

Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has drawn a line in the sand. On its website against the bill, HuntForTruth.org, the NRA points to the lack of change in condors' lead levels since 2007 as evidence that "hunters' ammunition is not the cause of lead exposure and toxicity in condors and alternative sources of lead are to blame." Among these purported alternative sources are "microtrash," such as nuts, bolts, coins, mining waste, and leaded paint. A 2012 study found that the lead isotope ratio (used for determining sources of lead) in the blood of five condors did indeed match the ratio found in leaded paint; at the same time, the study also found that the isotope ratios in the majority of condors tested matched the ratio found in lead ammunition.

The current rift between hunting and environmental groups marks something of a departure, since they have collaborated on such efforts as deer population control. To make things more complicated, some conservation groups oppose the bill as well. For example, Ducks Unlimited, along with several other groups, wrote in a letter that the new bill "would be devastating to the thousands of Californians that participate in hunting and recreational shooting, the firearms and ammunition industries, as well as the vital conservation programs they fund." Many in this camp regard the bill as veiled attempt to limit hunting, a direct attack on hunters, or an issue of "sav[ing] California's hunting heritage."

Most of their complaints center on the supposed higher price of nonlead hunting ammunition, and ignore a recent study concluding that the price of copper-based ammunition (the common nonlead alternative) is generally comparable to the price of lead-based ammo. And for good measure, AB 711 even calls for establishing "a process that will provide hunters with nonlead ammunition at no or reduced charge."

Frost insists this bill is not about limiting hunting itself. "That's not our goal. We're not trying to outlaw hunting," he says. "We're trying to find something that's good enough to help the birds but doesn't impact these hunting groups and other folks who don't want to make a more radical change."

*This story has been updated to reflect that the legislation was signed into law. 

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Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller is an intern at Audubon magazine and a master's student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffsjg or see some of his work at www.geoffgiller.com.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

caca haha

caca haha

This rule is a good one.

This rule is a good one.

In my former role at a

In my former role at a conservation group, I spent a great deal of time reviewing the literature on lead poisoning of wildlife. I also had many opportunities to discuss the issue of lead poisoning of condors and raptors with condor and raptor biologists. The data is extremely compelling and has been for decades.

When a hunter shoots an animal with a lead bullet, the bullet does not remain intact as a previous commenter suggested. Indeed, lead bullets are designed to fragment on contact--to do enough damage to kill the animal. The lead fragments move through a great deal of tissue, some of which may be remain in the gut piles hunters leave in the field (gutting big game in the field is a common practice). The smaller fragments may well be ingested and digested by scavengers, like condors, resulting in lead poisoning.

Copper bullets are now available and tests indicate that they are effective. With regard to cost, a good hunter should drop an animal with one shot, so a large number of bullets is not needed for deer or elk season so the increased cost of the bullets should have little economic impact.

I also wanted to mention that when I gave talks at conservation meetings, a member of a pro-gun lobbying group would attend each of my talks and refute any evidence about lead poisoning, even data that had been confirmed for decades. I finally started to understand that they were not in the least bit concerned about the effects of lead, they just attack any topic/research/speaker that questions the impacts of lead as a means of protecting their guns--with no concern for wildlife. They make any such debate into a red herring about people wanting to take their guns away when, when in cases like these, people just want to see the condor and other species persist. And this is a viable possibility if people choose different products when they go hunting.

In my former role at a

In my former role at a conservation group, I spent a great deal of time reviewing the literature on lead poisoning of wildlife. I also had many opportunities to discuss the issue of lead poisoning of condors and raptors with condor and raptor biologists. The data is extremely compelling and has been for decades.

Please note that when a hunter shoots an animal with a lead bullet, the bullet does not remain intact as a previous commenter suggested. Indeed, lead bullets are designed to fragment on contact--to do enough damage to kill the animal. The lead fragments move through a great deal of tissue, some of which may be remain in the gut piles hunters leave in the field (gutting big game in the field is a common practice). The smaller fragments may well be ingested and digested by scavengers, like condors, resulting in lead poisoning.

Copper bullets are now available and tests indicate that they are effective. Further, a good hunter should drop an animal with one shot, so a large number of bullets is not needed for deer or elk season.

I also wanted to mention that when I gave talks at conservation meetings, a member of a pro-gun lobbying group would attend each of my talks and refute any evidence about lead poisoning, even data that had been confirmed for decades. I finally started to understand that they were not in the least bit concerned about the effects of lead, they just attack any topic/research/speaker that questions the impacts of lead as a means of protecting their guns--with no concern for wildlife. They make any such debate into a red herring about people wanted to tale their guns away when people just want to see the condor and other species persist.

In my former role at a

In my former role at a conservation group, I spent a great deal of time reviewing the literature on lead poisoning of wildlife. I also had many opportunities to discuss the issue of lead poisoning of condors and raptors with condor and raptor biologists. The data is extremely compelling and has been for decades.

Please note that when a hunter shoots an animal with a lead bullet, the bullet does not remain intact as a previous commenter stated. Indeed, lead bullets are designed to fragment on contact. The lead fragments move through a great deal of flesh, some of which may be left in the gut piles hunters leave in the field (gutting big game in the field is a common practice). The smaller fragments may well be ingested by scavengers and digested, resulting in lead poisoning.

Copper bullets are now available and tests indicate that they are effective. Further, a good hunter should drop an animal with one shot, so a large number of bullets is not needed for deer or elk season.

I also wanted to mention that when I gave talks at conservation meetings, a member of a pro-gun lobbying group would attend each of my talks and refute any evidence about lead poisoning, even data that had been replicated for decades. I finally started to understand that they were not in the least bit concerned with the effects of lead, they just attack any topic/research/speaker that questions the impacts of lead as a means of protecting their guns--with no concern for wildlife. They just will not allow any attempt to protect wildlife or the environment from the dangers of lead to move forward.

I am an Audubon member, and

I am an Audubon member, and not a hunter. And as someone who has seen Condors in the wild (Pinnacles National Momument/Park, near Hollister, CA), I fully appreciate efforts to increase their population. I understood the ban on lead shot in shotgun shells. Each shell contains lots of pellets, not all of which hit a target. And they are small, so I can see how they are ingested when larger birds eat carrion (assuming the original target bird was only wounded). That said, I am very skeptical that the same issue exists for regular rifle ammunition. The bullets are larger, and therefor less ingestible. There is only one lead slug per bullet. If the target animal (which wouldn't be birds in this case, but usually mammals (deer being a prime example) is hit, it is usually going to be taken away by the hunter. So it seems that carrion left laying around is far less likely to cause a lead-ingestion issue.
One other point is that in the case of shotgun shells, lead pellets were primarily replaced by stainless steel pellets. However, stainless steel rifle bullets are considered to be armor-piercing, due to the greater hardness of stainless steel (I am not an expert in ammunition, but this is what I believe I've read. I may not be using the correct terminology). And so they are basically illegal. There are other theoretical alternatives, including the use of copper, brass, etc. But I don't think these are used today, and would also be quite expensive. So the "just use different ammo" argument is not nearly as simple as some make it out to be.
I fully believe that the elimination of lead shot in shotgun shells, as well as lead sinkers in fishing, has had beneficial effects. (And I notice that the photo of ammo used in the article is of shotgun shells, for which lead has already been banned....) I'm just not as convinced that a total ban of lead for rifle bullets will actually have any beneficial effect, unless the real objective is to simply limit hunting in general, due to much higher cost of ammo, as well as a (temporary?) lack of legal substitutes for lead.

I saw a program on the

I saw a program on the Seattle PBS a few months back (it may have been Oregon Field Guide) that showed that lead bullets fragmented into the game they hit and the Condors were quite likely to ingest some of these fragments, which were enough to poison the bird. They went onto show that copper bullets don't fragment in this manner and so were unlikely to cause poisoning. They did this with X-rays of carcasses of both animals and dead Condors if I remember correctly. I forget exactly who was doing this research.

After all the years and

After all the years and effort that has gone into saving the California condor from extinction, I cannot understand why anyone would not take as simple a step as changing their type of ammo to eliminate any possibility of lead poisoning from bullets contributing to the demise of this awesome bird!

The simplest way to save

The simplest way to save these birds is to simply ban hunting with lead bullets in their habitat. That could be done through the licensing process and enforcement.

As a state and federally

As a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I receive waterfowl that have lead poisoning all the time. 90% of Mute swans have lead poisoning and I am not exaggerating. I have a lead testing kit and test every swan I get in for lead. Waterfowl dabble in the water and pick up little pebbles at the bottom of the water in order to help them digest, they also pick up small pieces of lead fishing sinkers and lead shot. This is reality! And to address the comment made by Rob, this has nothing to do with taking away the Second Amendment! Be realistic, stop being so paranoid about laws taking away your right to bear arms. In this day and age it is mind boggling to think that an alternative for lead shot and lead fishing sinkers cannot be made and used instead of lead. When an animal has lead poisoning, the lead get stored in their bones and continues to leach out, even after they are treated with chelation therapy. It is also in their blood,( which is how they are tested for it) and body tissues. So think next time you shoot an animal, deer, duck or goose and eat their flesh, you too are ingesting lead residue!

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