A Bill to Ban Lead Ammunition Could Protect California Condors

A Bill to Ban Lead Ammunition Could Protect California Condors

California outlaws lead ammo to safeguard an iconic bird.

By Geoffrey Giller
Published: 09/03/2013

UPDATE: California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 711 into law on October 11. The California State Senate approved it on Monday, September 9, by a vote of 23 to 15. On September 10, the amended bill was confirmed by the State Assembly.

The toxicity of lead and the dangers it poses to humans and wildlife alike are a given. After all, it was banned from house paints and phased out of gasoline in the 1970s after the long-term neurological damage it could cause in young children became clear. And birds, especially waterfowl, were known to suffer from lead poisoning as far back as the 1890s. George Bird Grinnell, who founded the first iteration of the National Audubon Society, wrote in 1894 about "the destruction of ducks, geese, and swans by lead-poisoning." Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, lead-based ammunition is still widely used by hunters for other types of birds and game animals.

A bill signed into law on October 11 by Governor Jerry Brown aims to stop that. But it has sparked a fiery debate among environmentalists, hunters, and legislators across the state and the country. The bill, AB 711, bans the use of lead from all hunting ammunition in California; non-lead ammo is to be phased in by 2019. The bill was passed in the State Assembly in May, and the California Senate approved it on September 9.

The bill expands regulations that were passed in 2007 to protect the California condor from ingesting lead-based ammunition from the carcasses of animals killed by hunters.  Despite those regulations, which were in effect only in the embattled birds' range, condors are still turning up with lead poisoning. Audubon California, which is spearheading the effort to pass the bill, believes that the only way to stop the continued lead poisoning of condors is to require nonlead hunting ammunition throughout the state.

There are currently only 224 California condors in the wild, spread across Arizona and Mexico as well as California. (Almost half the population lives in California). The birds are North America's largest land birds, with wingspans reaching nine feet or more. Their much-celebrated comeback--they were down to 22 birds in 1982 before a captive-breeding program boosted their numbers--belies their tenuous status.

Garrison Frost, Audubon California's director of marketing and communication, suspects that lead poisoning from hunting ammo contributed to the original decline of the condor. "People who look back now, a lot of them think that the reason the bird was dying off so quickly back then was because of lead ammunition," he says. Frost attributes stubbornly high lead levels in condors to their exceptional scavenging abilities.

Even if only one percent of carcasses contain lead, "in a year there's a 50/50 chance that a condor will encounter a carcass with lead, because they find them so well, so quickly and easily," Frost says. The big difference between condors and such scavengers as golden eagles and turkey vultures, whose lead levels have dropped, is that those birds "will kind of stay in [their] neighborhood[s]," unlike the condor, which "will range hundreds and hundreds of miles in a day." In addition, he believes that many hunters are still using lead-based ammo in the restricted areas, and that this new bill is the only option left. "When you make that requirement statewide, then you're not going to see people buying it; you're going to have to buy the nonlead alternatives," he says.

Kim Delfino is a program director for Defenders of Wildlife, which is also sponsoring the bill. "Lead is a very toxic material that affects a lot of animals, particularly condors and raptors," she says. She hopes that California "will lead the way" in switching to non-lead ammo: "Once California goes, the rest of the country will follow."

Jennifer Fearing, senior state director of the Humane Society (another backer of the bill), agrees that now is the time to pass this legislation. "The Humane Society is drawn to solving those kinds of problems - the ones where the right solution is the best for the animals, the best for the people, and the best for the environment," she says.

Thirty-five states already require the use of nonlead ammo in certain areas when hunting particular types of game. California's bill would result in the country's first statewide ban. 

Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has drawn a line in the sand. On its website against the bill, HuntForTruth.org, the NRA points to the lack of change in condors' lead levels since 2007 as evidence that "hunters' ammunition is not the cause of lead exposure and toxicity in condors and alternative sources of lead are to blame." Among these purported alternative sources are "microtrash," such as nuts, bolts, coins, mining waste, and leaded paint. A 2012 study found that the lead isotope ratio (used for determining sources of lead) in the blood of five condors did indeed match the ratio found in leaded paint; at the same time, the study also found that the isotope ratios in the majority of condors tested matched the ratio found in lead ammunition.

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Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller is an intern at Audubon magazine and a master's student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffsjg or see some of his work at www.geoffgiller.com.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


This has nothing to do with

This has nothing to do with law-abiding gun ownership and crime. This has to do with using a safer form of ammo. Many gun owners and hunters have already taken the initiative on their own to switch to lead-free ammo. Stop thinking that your rights are always being infringed upon. We ALL live by rules and regulations.

As a writer and former

As a writer and former "huntress," issues of past and present for me have met in the condor. Years ago I thought nothing of hunting with lead-based ammo. The thought shames me now. I've seen the effects of lead poisoning in condors, in particular, then America's bald eagle. Helpless in their struggle to survive, they often don't, due to the body's shut-down and eventual starvation. One video is worth a thousand words on this one. I continue to write of the condor and its ancient lineage on earth, surviving every battle to sustain life since the last Ice Age. Foolish I'd be to think Man hasn't the power to make or break this bird's existence. . . lead could easily be the tie-breaker.

Rob, no one is trying to take

Rob, no one is trying to take your guns or Ammo. Just a change to protect an iconic American bird. If we do not try to protect our wildlife then there will be nothing left to hunt, and your guns would only be good for shooting each other.

Thanks you Audubon and

Thanks you Audubon and Geoffrey Giller for bringing this issue to light. I grew up in California and used to see California condors all of the time. I t is shocking that they are now so critically endangered and for such a stupid, avoidable reason.

At last some have seen the

At last some have seen the light. Lead was the downfall of the California Condor. I just am delighted that this has come to pass.

Another sad day for law

Another sad day for law abiding firearm owners. When will the insanity stop. Just purchased some ammo at Foxtrot Gear. American that understand and believe in the Constitution understand the constant assault against the Second Amendment. Actions and laws like this do nothing to stop crime, just to impede against law abiding citizens.

I don't hunt but I do own a

I don't hunt but I do own a hand gun and used to love fishing until I had some ducks I'd raised from eggs that died of lead poisoning after some idiots went fishing at my parent's pond and dropped lead weights on the ground and were too lazy to bother picking them up. I'd gladly buy alternate ammo to save birds from this horrible sickness that is 100% preventable.

Surely we have something else

Surely we have something else we can make bullets with beside lead. I am not opposed to hunting and I have enjoyed fishing, but if there is any concern over lead staying in the ground or water or poisoning secondary animals we should stop using it. I don't understand why anyone would be opposed to this.

A true "no brainer." The ban

A true "no brainer." The ban should be nationwide, and it should include a ban on the use of lead in fishing tackle, too. Untold thousands of waterfowl such as swans, loons, cormorants, diving ducks, et al., sicken and die annually from ingesting lost lead fishing weights (sinkers).

AB 711 could be heard by the full Senate as early as tomorrow, Wednesday, September 4. Last-minute calls of support to your State Senator are needed NOW. (If in doubt as to who your rep is, see the "Government" pages in the front of your local telephone book.)

Sadly, to date the votes have been almost 100% along party lines: Democrats in support; Republicans against. Go figure. Shouldn't environmental protection be a bi-partisan issue? Teddy Roosevelt must be whirling in his grave.

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