Lead bullets threaten the long, expensive effort to return condors to the wild in northern Arizona, but key groups continue to oppose a ban on lead ammunition in the range of the reintroduced birds.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission officially opposes the kind of ban on lead ammunition being considered in California.
However, at a summit conference at the Grand Canyon hosted by U.S. Senator John McCain, Game and Fish lauded its own, nine-year effort to convince hunters in the region to use non-lead bullets to protect the condors and a host of other animals that feed on the carcasses of animals shot by hunters.
Since 2005, Game and Fish has offered free, non-lead ammunition to hunters in the condors core range, centered on the Vermillion Cliffs and extending to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and up into Utah.
McCain, after the summit meeting on Aug. 9 issued a statement urging hunters to use non-lead ammunition, but opposing a ban on lead bullets in the condors’ range.
“At the meeting, there was a broad recognition that the reintroduction and recovery program can never achieve its goals when 50 percent of condor deaths are caused by lead poisoning,” said McCain.
However, he also opposed a mandatory ban instead of the voluntary program. “I want to be clear that I do not support the effort to ban lead ammunition being considered in California. It is unfair to the sporting community that has a vested interest in enjoying healthy game populations. It is also unclear that there would be demonstrable benefit to the condor.”
However, a statement signed by 30 wildlife and environmental scientists strongly supports a lead ammunition band to protect a host of species — and the families of the hunters who eat meat contaminated with invisible particles of lead that spread outward through the meat along the path of a bullet.
Manufacturers turn 60,000 tons of lead into bullets annually, although lead remains one of the most toxic elements, with lasting neurological effects on children even at extremely low levels. Bullets break into hundreds of fragments, often too small to see, which can poison any animals that feed on the carcass, according to the statement signed by researchers from Harvard, Cornell, Rutgers, UC Berkeley, Tufts, Cambridge and a host of other universities. Species affected include condors, bald eagles, golden eagles, wolves, turkey vultures, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, bears and others. Studies have also documented toxic levels of lead in meat brought home by hunters.
The federal government has spent millions of dollars trying to return condors to areas in Arizona, California and Mexico where they thrived for tens of thousands of years. The largest flying bird in North America, the 26-pound scavengers have wingspans of up to 9-1/2 feet. They form lifetime bonds, seek carrion over a vast area with their telescopic vision and keen sense of smell. Since their reintroduction, they have reoccupied caves in the Grand Canyon their ancestors used during the last Ice Age — and consistently delighted tourists at the Grand Canyon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the Peregrine Fund captured the last few wild condors to start a captive breeding program. In 1996, they began releasing condors into the wild near the Vermillion Cliffs.
Of the 166 condors released into Arizona and Utah since 1996, 81 have died or disappeared. In cases where biologists could determine the cause of death, lead poisoning accounted for half of the mortality. Since December of last year, 7 of the 80 condors in the Arizona population have died. Biologists have established lead poisoning as the cause of three of those deaths — and suspect lead played a role in the other four deaths as well.
Since 2008, California has banned nonlead ammunition within the condors’ range in central and southern California. Studies have shown no decrease in the number of hunting tags issued in that area and also shown that lead-free ammunition costs about the same as lead-based ammo.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculates that despite a federal ban on lead in birdshot, hunters discharge about 14,000 tons of lead bullets and buckshot into the environment each year.
“Lead is dangerous to people and wildlife, even at very low levels,” said Sandy Bahr, with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, “which is why it is critical that we take mandatory actions to remove it from ammunition and require less toxic alternatives.”
A study by the Peregrine Fund and others concluded that the condor reintroduction effort cannot succeed without a drastic reduction in the amount of lead in the diets of the condors. Not only has lead played the leading role in at least half of the 80 known deaths, but biologists have recaptured and administered life-saving chelation therapy for lead poisoning to about half of the surviving birds.
The report concluded that with the constant use of the chelation therapy biologists can keep the Arizona population alive, but the population will never be self-sustaining as long as so much lead remains in the condors’ food supply.
Some hunters groups and the National Rifle Association meanwhile have fiercely opposed any restrictions on lead ammunition.
The NRA at one point in response to the push for a ban on lead bullets put both environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on an “enemies list” published on its Web site. The since removed posting said, “anti-lead ammunition groups will not rest until all lead ammunition, and ultimately hunting, is abandoned.”