California Agency Ignores Greatest Threat to Recovery of Rare, Signature Species

SAN FRANCISCO (July 11, 2006) -- A coalition of conservation and health organizations announced today they will sue the California Fish and Game Commission for continuing to allow use of toxic lead ammunition that experts say is poisoning rare California condors feed on contaminated carcasses left behind by hunters. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), and the Wishtoyo Foundation, along with representatives from the hunting community served a 60-day notice of intent to sue the commission required under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"Lead poisoning from ammunition is the single greatest obstacle to the recovery of wild California condors," said Jeff Miller with the CBD. "California 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."

The California condor is one of the most imperiled animals in the world. They were so close to extinction that in 1982, the last 22 wild birds were rounded up as part of a captive-breeding program. Of the 67 condors released back into Southern California between 1992 and 2002, 32 -- nearly half -- have died or disappeared and are presumed dead. Scientists say poisoning from lead ammunition is likely responsible for many of the deaths.

Condors are exposed to lead when they encounter carcasses or the remains of animals cleaned by hunters in the field. Microscopic lead particles are widespread throughout game shot with lead ammunition. Condors can also mistake bullet fragments for the calcium-rich bone they require. Condors absorb lead more quickly than other raptors and expel it less efficiently.

There is a simple solution to this problem. Non-lead bullets made from copper and other materials, with performance equal or superior to that of lead bullets, are widely available for hunting big game. Although this ammunition is currently more expensive than lead, ammunition constitutes just a small fraction of the total cost of a typical hunting expedition.

"I've hunted with lead-free ammunition for many years" said Anthony Prieto, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "I can tell you, these bullets are safe and ballistically out perform bullets made from lead."

Hunters using lead ammunition also risk poisoning themselves by 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 neurological disorders. It has been banned in water pipes, paint, and cookware for many years. One Canadian study found that ammunition used to harvest wild game is a major source of lead exposure in Native American communities.

"Lead ammunition is bad for hunters and their families, too," said Jonathan Parfrey, Executive Director for PSR. "People eating meat from animals taken with lead ammunition often have unhealthy lead levels in their own bodies."

Federal law already requires the use of non-lead shot when hunting waterfowl due to widespread lead poisoning of both 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.

Native Americans also have a powerful interest in protecting wild condors. "There is a win-win solution to this problem," said Mati Waiya with the Wishtoyo Foundation. "The use of safe and effective nontoxic ammunition will allow hunters to continue their activities and, at the same time, honor and protect condors, which are a critical part of our religious and cultural ceremonies."

"The Fish and Game Commission knows about these problems and has a clear responsibility under the law to protect the condor," said NRDC Attorney Andrew Wetzler. "Phasing out lead ammunition in condor habitat isn't even a close call. Unfortunately, it looks like it will take filing a lawsuit to make the Commission pay attention."

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