Raptor Poisonings Prompt Call by California Conservationists, Hunters and Native Americans for Safer Ammunition

SACRAMENTO, CA (December 16, 2004) -- Conservation groups, Native Americans and hunters petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission today to require non-lead ammunition for hunting deer, pigs and other game in an effort to protect California condors, eagles and other wildlife. Lead poisoning from ammunition left behind in carcasses is the single greatest threat to California condors, and a significant threat to bald eagles and golden eagles. In fact, lead-tainted carrion could prevent the recovery of the once nearly-extinct California condor, according to the federal government's California Condor Recovery Team and the California Department of Fish and Game.

The petition urges the Commission to phase out lead bullets for hunting of large game in the habitat of the endangered California condor (south-central California), and eventually statewide. It was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Wishtoyo Foundation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Ventana Wilderness Alliance and individual hunters.

"Without a doubt, the copper, lead-free bullets I use when hunting have performed better ballistically than the lead bullets I used to use," said co-petitioner and hunter Anthony Prieto, a founder of Project Gutpile, a volunteer organization that educates hunters about the impact of lead ammunition on California's wildlife.

"Lead is an extremely toxic substance that we have sensibly removed from most of our environment, including water pipes, gasoline, paint and cooking utensils," said Jeff Miller, research associate with the CBD. "In the interest of protecting imperiled wildlife and safeguarding public health, the state should move quickly to eliminate toxic lead ammunition."

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. "California raptors are very much a part of our outdoor experience. We've worked hard to bring these birds back from the brink of extinction. But spent lead ammo is jeopardizing their survival," said Andrew Wetzler, a senior attorney with NRDC. "This is a common sense solution to a problem hunters can all understand."

There is overwhelming evidence that ingestion of lead from bullet fragments or shot in carrion is responsible for most lead exposure and poisoning of condors and other avian scavengers. 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 U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Releases of captive-reared condors began in the mid-1990s and there are currently about 100 reintroduced condors in the wild.

As scavengers, condors encounter bullet-killed carrion left by hunters, which often contain fragments of lead. Condors can mistake bullet fragments for the calcium-rich bone fragments they require, and unlike other birds of prey, they do not tend to regurgitate foreign objects. Condors also absorb lead more quickly and excrete it less efficiently than other raptors.

"Lead poisoning is the primary threat to California condors in the wild and was the main reason why all wild condors were brought into captivity in the mid 1980s," according to Dr. Noel Snyder, former leader for condor field conservation at the USFWS and author of "The California Condor," a definitive history of condor conservation. "The failure to address the lead threat is resulting in numerous cases of lead poisoning in released condor populations and promises to preclude real success in the reintroduction program. Nothing less than a full replacement of lead ammunitions with non-toxic alternative ammunitions can be expected to solve this problem," added Snyder.

Released condors must be captured frequently to have their blood lead levels checked, and birds often need to undergo intrusive chemical chelation therapy to reduce dangerously high lead levels. At least 35 percent of the entire wild condor population has experienced acute lead poisoning and up to 80 percent of the birds released in southern California have experienced elevated lead levels since 1997. Released condors are supplied with lead-free cattle carcasses, but they still forage for carrion that may be lead-tainted. Since 1997, five reintroduced condors have died and at least 33 others have required blood treatment after feeding on lead contaminated carcasses. Mass mortalities may occur as released birds begin to forage more widely.

Hunters who use lead ammunition also risk poisoning by accidentally eating shot or bullet fragments embedded in meat. Lead is an extraordinarily toxic element that can damage the brain, central nervous system and reproductive system, and cause kidney disease, high blood pressure and numerous reproductive disorders. Health effects in humans following ingestion of whole lead shot pellets have been reported in many cases. A Canadian study of blood lead levels in hunters showed that shotgun ammunition used to harvest wild game is a major source of lead exposure in Native American communities in Canada.

The USFWS has required non-lead shot for hunting waterfowl nationwide 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.

Lead-free ammunition currently is available for many hunting and shooting activities. All-copper bullets are available in a wide variety of calibers as are bullets whose lead cores are entirely encased in steel. These bullets perform as well as or better than lead bullets for hunting big game. Effective, affordable non-lead shotgun ammunition also is widely available. The U. S. military is exploring a conversion to lead-free bullets, which promises to spur development of alternative ammunition and lower its price.

"I hunt elk and deer and I only use lead-free bullets because they are effective and I am concerned about the harmful effects lead has when accidentally consumed by scavengers like condors and eagles," said David Clendenen, a deer and elk hunter who also manages Wind Wolves Preserve, which contains important condor foraging habitat in the southern San Joaquin Valley. "Why would I want to poison myself, and my family and friends?"

"Our Chumash ancestors believed that the condor traveled on ancient flyways carrying the spirits of loved ones when they died to the upper world or heavens, and our elders told us as long as the health of the condor is secure our culture will continue," said Mati Waiya, a Chumash Tribe ceremonial leader and founder of the Wishtoyo Foundation, a Native American organization based in the heart of the condor range in Ventura County. "Even today we continue our traditional condor dances, songs and stories."