Lead is a nasty poison and can kill. So can bullets. Lead ammunition continues to take a deadly toll on endangered California condors that live in and around the Grand Canyon. Seven of the 80 wild condors in Arizona and Utah have died since December; three of those deaths have been definitively linked to lead poisoning from ingesting spent lead ammunition fragments in carrion and lead poisoning is suspected in the other four deaths. So bullets kill and, in this case, even by ingestion.
The California Condor is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor inhabits northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California.
In modern times, a wide variety of causes have contributed to the condor's decline. Its low clutch size (one young per nest), combined with a late age of sexual maturity, make the bird vulnerable to artificial population decline. Significant damage to the condor population is also attributed to poaching, especially for museum specimens, lead poisoning (from eating animals containing lead shot), DDT poisoning, electric power lines, egg collecting, and habitat destruction. The leading cause of mortality in nestling condors is the ingestion of trash that is fed to them by their parents.
"The continuous deaths of Grand Canyon condors from lead poisoning is preventable if we finally treat toxic lead ammunition as we did lead paint and leaded gasoline," said Jeff Miller at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It’s clear that voluntary efforts to reduce lead ammunition use around the Grand Canyon aren’t getting the job done. Given the wide availability, lowered cost and high performance of lead-free ammo, these states should admit it’s time to switch and require nontoxic rounds for hunting."
California condors, the biggest land birds in North America, are also the most endangered. Of the 166 condors reintroduced into Utah and Arizona since 1996, 81 have died or disappeared. When the cause of death could be determined, more than half were due to poisoning from ingesting lead ammunition fragments left in gut piles or carcasses of shot game. At least 38 condors have been killed by lead poisoning in Arizona and Utah, with more deaths suspected to be linked to lead. Lead poisoning recently killed the female of Utah’s only breeding pair of condors. Each year, up to half of the wild Grand Canyon condors must be given life-saving, emergency blood treatment for lead poisoning.
"Lead is dangerous to people and wildlife, even at very low levels, which is why it is critical that we take mandatory actions to remove it from ammunition and require less toxic alternatives," said Sandy Bahr with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. "Requiring nonlead ammunition for hunting on public land would be an important step in limiting lead exposure for condors and other wildlife."
The Arizona Game and Fish Department conducts a voluntary lead-reduction program, distributing free, nonlead ammunition to hunters in the condor range and educating them about the hazards of lead. Though most eligible hunters use the free copper ammunition, continued use of toxic rounds by a small number of hunters and ongoing condor poisonings show that voluntary efforts are not enough to remove the lead threat.
Since 2008 California has required nonlead ammunition for all hunting within the condors’ range in central and Southern California. Hunters in these areas have transitioned to nonlead bullets, with no decrease in game tags or hunting since the regulations went into effect. The California state legislature is currently considering a bill that would extend the ban on lead in hunting ammunition throughout the state.
For further information see Condor Lead.
Condor image via Wikipedia.