The Science of Sustainability

Condors vs. Lead Bullets

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This video story was originally produced by Christopher Bauer and updated by Sheraz Sadiq.

In October 2013, California Gov.Jerry Brown signed a new law banning the use of lead bullets for hunting anywhere in the state.

Supporters of the bill, AB 711, say it was created to protect wildlife, especially the endangered California condor, an iconic native species that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the early 1980s with a captive breeding program that today has resulted in more than 420 condors in a range that encompasses parts of California, Arizona, Utah and Baja, Mexico.

As scavengers, wild condors can be sickened, or killed, by lead poisoning when they eat the carcasses of animals that have been shot with lead bullets, and ingest the bullet fragments.

Condors can get lead poisoning when ingesting carcasses shot with lead bullets and left by hunters, ranchers or poachers. Image courtesy of Tim Huntington / Ventana Wilderness Society.

Condors can get lead poisoning when ingesting carcasses shot with lead bullets and left by hunters, ranchers or poachers. Image courtesy of Tim Huntington / Ventana Wilderness Society.

“When lead enters the bloodstream, it blocks neurological receptors that control the digestive system,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a non-profit organization that rehabilitates condors along California’s central coast. “So literally what happens is the bird starves to death because it doesn’t know that it’s hungry.”

Condors sickened by lead poisoning can be treated with chelation, a medical procedure that removes lead in the birds’ bloodstream by binding it to heavy metals that the birds can then excrete. Scientific labs at the University of California, Santa Cruz and other institutions have matched lead removed from sickened birds to lead used in traditional hunting ammunition.

Environmental and wildlife organizations such as Audubon California and The Humane Society of the United States supported AB 711, while the National Rifle Association and hunting groups opposed it. Critics noted the extra cost of non-lead ammunition, which can be twice as expensive or more than traditional hunting ammunition. In response to this argument, the bill authorized the California Fish and Game Commission to implement the state-wide lead bullet ban by 2019, which would allow ammunition manufacturers time to ramp up the production of bullets made with non-toxic metal alloys.

Bill Gaines, a Sacramento-based hunter and lobbyist, said the ban is unnecessary because a 2007 state law already bans the use of lead ammunition in the condors’ California range, which extends roughly from Monterey to Ventura county.

“When it comes to the rest of the state where the condors aren’t, there’s really nothing we can do to benefit the condors in those parts of the state, and hunters should be allowed to use lead ammunition in those parts of the state” Gaines said. He also said he believes that “the jury is still out” on the source of the lead poisoning the condors.

Supporters of the new law, however, note that condors eat dozens of dead deer, wild pigs and other animals every year, and can be poisoned if just one has lead in it from a poacher, rancher or hunter who ignored the law.

In 2014, officials at Zion National Park in southern Utah recorded the birth of the first condor chick hatched in the wild in Utah. This is an image of one of the parents. Image courtesy of Eric Newmark / National Park Service

In 2014, officials at Zion National Park recorded the birth of the first condor chick hatched to a pair of adults in the wild in southern Utah. Image courtesy of Eric Newmark / National Park Service

Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death among California condors, with more than 50 wild condors dying from it since 1992. For organizations working to save the California condor, conservation efforts are yielding results: the bird’s range today appears to be expanding. In June of 2014, for the first time in more than 100 years, a wild California condor was spotted in San Mateo county.

Also in 2014, National Park Service officials reported the birth of Utah’s first condor chick in the wild in Zion National Park.

With a wingspan that can reach nearly 10 feet, the California condor is the largest flying bird in North America. As tagged condors spread their wings and expand their range, their chances for survival in the wild still remain uncertain.

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Category: Biology, Chemistry, Environment, Television, Video

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Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.
  • flipperfeet

    I am curious how a doubling in the price of ammunition is equivalent to "going through the roof, both data points were presented by Bill Gaines. The fact is that a box of 20 of 30-06 ammo is readily available for $35.00, this is not a hobby preventing expenditure. Point of fact, non-lead ammunition prices have continued to fall since 1991 when it was banned federally for waterfowl.

    Lead has long been shown to harm other scavengers and opportunistic feeders, eliminating it is not just about protecting condors but protecting over 130 different species. http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/campaigns/wildlife_abuse/toxic-lead-ammunition-poisoning-wildlife.html