The government should ban the use of lead bullets to save the struggling condors of northern Arizona, according to a coalition of environmental groups who have threatened to file a lawsuit if the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department fail to act.
Lead poisoning from bullet fragments in game animals remains the leading cause of death among the 60 condors released in the rugged Vermillion Cliffs area north of the Grand Canyon.
As many as 15 condors have died from lead poisoning, apparently after eating the carcasses of deer and elk shot by hunters. Studies show lead bullets fragment when they hit a deer, scattering sometimes-microscopic particles over a wide area. A 2006 study showed that 90 percent of the reintroduced condors had lead contamination. Presumably, the same applies to a whole range of predators — including bald and golden eagles, which also feed on carrion.
“At a time when other agencies are stepping up efforts to get toxic lead out of the food chain, the U.S. Forest Service continues to bury its head in the sand,” said Jay Lininger, with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“If we want condors to survive, we must stop using ammunition that contaminates their food supply with toxic lead.”
The conservation groups hope the Forest Service will negotiate a ban on lead bullets in most of the Kaibab Forest, without the necessity of a lawsuit.
Experts note that the spray of tiny lead particles from a bullet can also contaminate the meat hunters take home.
Even very low levels of lead can affect health and intellectual development, especially among children.
“Lead poisoning is a huge problem, not just for the condor but for other wildlife and even humans,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Canyon.
“Non-lead ammunition is now available for virtually all hunting uses, including the 22 rimfire ammunition previously thought to be technically infeasible. Our national forests should lead the way in protecting the magnificent condors of the Grand Canyon region from further lead poisonings.”
Many types of non-lead ammunition are widely available and California recently banned lead ammunition in areas where the state and federal governments are trying to reintroduce condors, the largest flying birds on the planet. The ban has resulted in a big drop in lead poisoning among the 226 condors living in the wild in California.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent millions trying to reintroduce condors to Arizona, after the Ice Age survivors vanished from the state — probably as a result of the impact of the pesticide DDT on the thickness of their eggshells.
The northern Arizona condor flock has grown to about 60 birds, but requires constant reinforcements from a captive breeding program. The gigantic vultures frequently delight Grand Canyon visitors and often float on thermals or perch on the bridge girders at the highway crossing over the Colorado River near Lee’s Ferry.
A recent Arizona Game and Fish Department study documented 300 instances in which condors tested positive for lead and at least 15 condor deaths.
Biologists send the condors off for chelation therapy if they develop high levels of lead in their blood, but often don’t get to the birds in time.
The Game and Fish study proved that lead bullets account for most of the lead poisoning in the condors.
The lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council seeks a court order to require the Forest Service to ban the use of lead ammunition in the condor recovery area.