Poisoned Condors Prompt Call for Non-Toxic Bullets and Shot

SAN DIEGO, CA (February 2, 2005) -- The California Fish and Game Commission on Friday will consider phasing out lead hunting ammunition to protect endangered California condors, eagles and other wildlife from lead poisoning. Lead poisoning from ingesting ammunition in carcasses is the single greatest threat to released California condors, and also causes deaths of bald and golden eagles. The federal California Condor Recovery Team recently concluded that re-introduced populations of the once nearly-extinct California condor likely will not survive unless lead is eliminated from condors' diet by reducing lead-tainted carrion. Two adult condors that died within the last month are thought to be the latest victims of lead poisoning from ingested ammunition fragments.

The Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Wishtoyo Foundation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, and individual hunters petitioned the Commission in December 2004 immediately to end the use of lead bullets for hunting deer and pigs in habitat of the California condor in south-central California, and to eventually phase out lead ammunition statewide. There is scientific consensus that lead fragments in hunter-shot game and viscera left in the field have poisoned and killed many wild condors.

"The Commission has the opportunity to remove the threat of lead poisoning, both to conserve condors and to safeguard public health," said Jeff Miller, research associate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "California has put the condor on the state quarter as a symbol of our natural heritage, but if we want condors to survive, we must stop poisoning their food supply with lead."

Non-lead bullets with performance equal or superior to that of lead bullets are widely available, and non-lead shotgun ammunition already is required nationwide for hunting waterfowl. More than three-quarters of California hunters responding to a recent survey by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) stated their willingness to use lead-free ammunition.

"We've worked hard to bring condors back from the brink of extinction, but spent lead ammo jeopardizes their survival," said James Birkelund, staff attorney with NRDC. "Immediate conversion to non-lead ammunition for big game hunting in the condor range is practical, affordable, and overdue."
All-copper bullets are available in a wide variety of calibers as are bullets whose lead cores are entirely encased in steel, and effective, affordable non-lead shotgun ammunition also is widely available. Switching from the cheapest lead bullets available to all-copper bullets would increase ammunition costs for hunting deer or wild pigs only a tiny fraction of the more than $800 the average big game hunter in California spends per hunting trip. The petitioners are urging interim rebates and lead ammunition buyback programs to offset any increased ammunition costs. In response to demand, market forces will quickly decrease the cost and increase the availability of non-toxic ammunition for big game hunting and spur development of lead-free ammunition for sporting rifles and .22-rim fire ammunition.

Condors were so close to extinction in the mid-1980s that the last wild birds were captured and a captive-breeding program was initiated by the USFWS. Releases of captive-reared condors began in the mid-1990s and there are currently about 113 reintroduced condors in the wild. Condors and other avian scavengers encounter bullet-killed carrion left by hunters, which often contain lead fragments or lead shot. Condors can mistake lead pieces for the calcium-rich bone fragments they require. Since 1997, at least 7 reintroduced condors have died and at least 33 others have required intrusive emergency blood treatment after feeding on lead contaminated carcasses. Released condors must be monitored intensively and captured frequently to have their blood lead levels checked. Continued exposure and emergency treatment of condors is exacerbating the problem, and is resulting in neurologically impaired birds.

Two adult condors died in Arizona last month from lead poisoning. One was found dead of acute lead toxicity on January 12 with a lead pellet in its stomach and the other was found dead on January 23 with material thought to be lead pellets in its gizzard. At least 35 percent of the entire wild condor population has experienced acute lead poisoning. Released condors are supplied with lead-free cattle carcasses, but they still forage for carrion that may be lead-tainted. Mass mortalities may occur as released birds begin to forage more widely.

Hunters using lead ammunition risk poisoning by accidentally eating shot or bullet fragments embedded in meat. Lead is an extremely toxic element that can cause brain damage, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and numerous reproductive and nervous system disorders.

The USFWS has required non-lead shot for hunting waterfowl nationwide since 1991, in response to widespread lead poisoning of waterfowl and secondary poisoning of eagles. Lead poisoning of loons, swans, upland game, and the continued poisoning of eagles prompted additional restrictions on lead shot and lead fishing tackle in National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and on public lands in many states. The U. S. military is exploring a conversion to lead-free bullets, which promises to further spur development of alternative ammunition and lower its price.

More information about condors and the lead poisoning threat can be found here.