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Environment & Science

Getting the lead out of California Condors: A word from one of KPCC's own hunters

During the Civil War, all the bullets had lead in them.
During the Civil War, all the bullets had lead in them.
Mr. T in DC/Flickr

It ain't easy being a condor in California. If you grew up in here, or lived here in the eighties, you might remember that the condor population diminished so severely they all got scooped up by the state into protective custody and have been breeding under protection, with their offspring now in the wild. Now a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at California Condors and their vulnerability to lead poisoning. According to the study, 30 percent of all condors' blood samples each year revealed lead exposure that could cause reproductive and immune system problems. 

The story caught the eye of our program manager, Craig Curtis, himself a sometime hunter, who wanted to know what lead ammunition was banned and where. According to the state regulations that went into effect 4 years ago, it included pellets and shot, not to mention "any bullet, ball, sabot, slug, buckshot or other device which is expelled from a firearm through a barrel by force." In other words, it's not just bullets.

What's also interesting about the study is that we're supposed to be doing better, condor-wise, in the last four years since the state of California banned the use of lead shot for "hunting deer, bear, wild pig, elk, and pronghorn antelope" not to mention "coyotes, ground squirrels, and other non-game wildlife" in areas where condors are living. (In other words, it's not just game, and it's not just wildlife, that you're supposed to shoot at with better ammunition. Also in other words; it's pretty much the central valley where the condors and the hunters run into each other.) 

Anyway, what I learned from Craig Curtis is that hunters notice in stories like these when environment and science reporters don't distinguish among their ammo. As he wrote to me: 

...a stray spent bullet is a relatively benign thing in the environment,  A shotgun load, on the other hand--and I say this as someone who has personally deposited hundreds of pounds of lead into the environment this way--is anything but benign.  Shot spreads over a wide area, is more easily ingested, more easily dissolved, and more easily passed from animal to animal.

His email inspired me to try to school up on ammunition. A key objection to lead shot alternatives is that they're too expensive. But it goes beyond that. In an article from Wyoming, I read that the reason people like lead for ammunition so much is that it's "dense and soft and cheaper than gold."  RT Cox writes for WyoFile:

Rifle and pistol shooters like lead bullets because the density holds speed and transfers shocking power. Shotgunners like lead pellets for the same reasons. A faster projectile with a flatter trajectory also makes it easier to adjust one’s aim.

Some gun owners' groups claim placing a limit on the type of ammunition that can be used is a back-door gun regulation. National Rifle Association chapters promote this view, too. On the other side, environmental groups are getting more aggressive about banning lead ammunition. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned earlier this year to seek a national standard, a national ban on lead-filled ammunition based in the idea that it's toxic and covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act. This month they sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect wildlife from the hazards of lead.

It's not impossible to find hunters who have moderate views on the subject of lead ammo; while they don't deny that lead has environmental impacts, they wonder about a wide ranging ban. The best I've found comes from something called the Hog Blog

Call me stupid, but I honestly believe that most hunters don’t want to incidentally kill birds or animals that they’re not targeting.  None of us wants to poison an eagle, or even a raven.  Of course, statistically, I think most of us are perfectly OK if we never change a thing… especially those of us who aren’t hunting in the condor zones.  The odds of our specific bullet or shot pellets poisoning a raptor are fairly slim.  But the chance is there, and I know a lot of conscientious hunters out there who would like to mitigate that chance.

California fish and game officials are overtaxed and understaffed as it is, especially according to the game wardens themselves. Bans like these in wildlands, where tracing violations is too time consuming to be frequent, rely on the honor system. If you have hunters grouped in a region, sharing views on this subject, I'd bet it's easier to enforce compliance than it might be for a partial-statewide standard. So would a national standard clear up confusion or escalate a fight that already tends toward the extremes?