Condor deaths point to failure of mandatory lead-ammo bans, says FWS official

Posted: May 3, 2013

Written by

April Reese, E&E

As California considers an expanded ban on lead hunting ammunition, some key wildlife-management officials are pointing to recent lead-poisoning deaths of endangered California condors as evidence that voluntary measures are more effective in spurring a switch to nonlead bullets.

California condors have been protected by federal law for 46 years, and in the last decade state and federal wildlife officials have made a concerted effort to reduce the birds' exposure to lead.

California imposed a ban on the use of lead ammunition within the condor's range in 2007, and Arizona has had a voluntary lead-reduction program in place since 2005. But lead poisoning from consuming contaminated big game carcasses or gut piles is still the primary killer of the birds.

Three condors have died of lead poisoning in Arizona since December, and another died in central California in November. Each hunting season, 10 to 12 percent of California condors have to be treated for lead poisoning, said John McCamman, California condor recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"If the rate of observed poisoning continues, we won't be able to achieve our goal of a sustainable population," said McCamman, who served as director of California's Department of Fish and Game before moving to his current post in March 2012. "It's our No. 1 priority."

Condors feed in groups, so just one contaminated carcass can sicken or kill several birds, McCamman added.

California condors, one of the world's most endangered birds, were granted federal protection in 1967 under a precursor to the Endangered Species Act. The birds, which are North America's largest flying land birds, are opportunistic scavengers that feed primarily on dead mammals such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep and cattle.

Thanks to reintroduction and recovery efforts, about 124 California condors now live in the wild in California, Mexico and Arizona, up from 22 in the 1980s. About 26 condors have died of lead poisoning since 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

California lawmakers have proposed a bill backed by conservation groups that would expand the state's existing ban on the use of lead ammunition in the eight counties where the birds live to the entire state.

But mandatory prohibitions may not be the answer, McCamman said.

"I actually think it's more beneficial to have a voluntary program," he said. "I think that at the end of the day it's a hunter's choice. If they're educated on the issues, they'll make the right choice. Hunters are conservationists."

Education and outreach are the centerpiece of Arizona's 8-year-old voluntary lead ammunition reduction program, which boasts an 85 to 90 percent compliance rate among hunters, said Allen Zufelt, California condor coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"If you look at it fairly, a legal ban on lead ammunition is doing no better than a voluntary program," Zufelt said, adding that about 50 percent of condors in both Arizona and California are dying of lead poisoning.

It's "kind of silly" to expand the California ban into areas where condors are not found, he added.

"If you ban lead in San Diego, it's not going to benefit condors because they don't go to San Diego."

But environmental groups that support the expanded lead-ammunition ban, including Defenders of Wildlife and Audubon California, say it could reduce the lead risk to condors because for the first time, the prohibitions would apply to farmers and ranchers who shoot coyotes and other animals that aren't subject to hunting permits.

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Center for Biological Diversity in March found that a slim majority of voters favor a mandatory switch from lead bullets to nonlead ones (Greenwire, March 18).

The California bill passed out of the State Assembly's Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife earlier this month.

Gun advocates, including the National Rifle Association, oppose California's expanded ban, saying it could have a chilling effect on hunting and pave the way for new gun control regulations.

"When we have the propaganda out there saying this is a backdoor approach to take our guns, it's hard to go up against that," McCamman said.

Nonlead bullets are harder than lead bullets, and authorities could claim that they violate federal rules prohibiting armor-piercing ammunition, NRA officials have said. Some nonlead bullets can be used in either rifles or handguns.

'We're asking them nicely'

While a few brands of nonlead bullets have come on the market in recent years, lead ammunition, which is generally cheaper, continues to be far more popular with hunters.

Getting hunters to switch to nonlead bullets is far easier when they understand the harm using lead ammunition can cause, Zufelt said. Hunters often don't realize that the contaminated carcasses or gut piles they leave behind can end up sickening and possibly killing California condors or other scavengers, because they don't see it happen, he said.

In 2005, when Arizona's voluntary lead reduction program began, about 50 percent of hunters made the switch. Now, after a widespread education campaign, about 74 percent of hunters in the state use nonlead ammunition, and another 14 percent use lead bullets but pack out their gut piles so condors and other species won't consume them.

"Without any legal obligation, 14 percent are packing out this nasty, sticky gut pile, just because it's the right thing to do," Zufelt said. "That can show to some degree how much success this program has had."

Compliance rates have remained high since about 2008, he added.

"We have 85 to 90 percent compliance because we're asking them nicely," Zufelt said.

Utah, which has seen an influx of condors from the Arizona population in recent years, just adopted a voluntary lead ammunition reduction program last year, and many hunters there still are not aware of the harm that lead-contaminated carcasses can do to condors. The birds that died in Arizona last winter most likely fed on contaminated game in Utah, Zufelt said.

"There's a lot of livestock and sheep in southern Utah in the summertime, and the birds are taking advantage of finding food sources that time of year," said Chris Parish, condor project director for the nonprofit Peregrine Fund, which was instrumental in the reintroduction of condors to northern Arizona in 1996. "After they pull off the sheep [from grazing sites], then hunting season begins, and that's where the problems happen."

After comparing California's mandate and Arizona's voluntary program, Utah officials decided to follow its southern neighbor's policy -- partly on the advice of the ammunition industry.

"I believe Arizona's approach to the issue is the way to go. California has been a disaster," said Jessica Brooks-Stevens, marketing and product manager for Barnes Bullets in Mona, Utah, which specializes in nonlead bullets. "So when the director of the Utah program came to me and said, 'What do you recommend?' I said, 'Absolutely use Arizona's model.'"

Brooks-Stevens added that she knows hunters in California who have stopped hunting because they find the state's lead bullet ban too onerous.

Congress has taken up the lead ammunition issue as well. Late last year, the Senate considered a package of hunting, fishing and conservation bills from Montana Democrat Jon Tester that included a measure clarifying that U.S. EPA couldn't regulate lead bullets under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The measure died in the lame-duck session (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2012).

'Long way to go'

While nonlead bullets have been available for years, they constitute a fraction of the ammunition market. Lead-free ammunition is not labeled as such, and hunters shopping for scavenger-friendly bullets may be left scratching their heads in the ammo aisle, said Zufelt, the Arizona official.

"One of the hardest things to do is tell the difference between a lead bullet and a nonlead bullet," he said. "The packaging is almost identical. You almost have to have an engineering degree to see the difference."

Brooks-Stevens, however, said her company's nonlead bullets are clearly marked as all copper, which should be sufficient to convey to hunters the absence of lead in the product.

"I have a hard time believing someone couldn't figure that out," she said. "We want people to know it's all copper, because that gives it better performance."

FWS's McCamman said getting more nonlead options to market is hindered by a paperwork backlog at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has to approve new ammunition products. About 19 nonlead applications are awaiting ATF consideration, some of which were submitted in 2011, he said.

"There's lots more that can be done and probably should be done" to reduce condors' exposure to lead ammunition, McCamman said.

"It's a question of how to move it forward," he said. "We've got a long way to go."

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