Condors vs. the NRA

The remarkable recovery of California condors is now threatened by lead bullet fragments left in the wild by hunters. Its fate rests with the governor. What will Schwarzenegger do?

Published September 22, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

In Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis of open grasslands and oak savanna in central California, California condor No. 245 spent her last moments in the wild. In late July, biologists captured the giant vulture and took her to the Los Angeles County Zoo, where a blood sample revealed that the bird suffered from severe lead poisoning. No. 245 had one of the highest blood lead levels that biologists had ever seen in a California condor, registering 10 times the amount of lead that requires treatment in the bird and 56 times the amount that calls for treatment in a human child.

Despite receiving emergency chelation therapy, which aims to speed the body's expulsion of the heavy metal, Condor No. 245 languished in the zoo, expressing little interest in the carcasses of rats and rabbits provided by zookeepers. On Aug. 15, she died. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 30 condors have died from lead poisoning in the past 10 years, an alarming figure, given that condors have clawed their way back from near extinction in the '80s. "Lead stops peristalsis -- the automated swallowing response -- in condors, and inhibits all their digestive functions," says ornithologist Gary Langham, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. "That is a really slow and difficult way to die."

Biologists have pinpointed the condors' fatal exposure to fragments of lead ammunition lodged in the remains of an animal carcass. After gutting game like wild pigs and deer, and taking the parts they want, hunters leave the remaining viscera or "gut pile" in the woods. California condors, the largest land-based bird in North America, are "obligate scavengers," meaning that despite the birds' intimidating appearance, they cannot kill. The condor, a giant vulture, can only feed on the carrion that other killers have left, making them "nature's garbage disposal," as one hunter puts it. Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group that works to preserve the birds, says, "I don't think we have any hope of condors sustaining themselves in the wild without a complete switch from lead to nonlead ammunition."

That sounds like a simple solution. But a California bill proposing just that faces stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association and a host of Republican lawmakers in the state. Along with hunting groups like Gun Owners of California, they argue that efforts to restrict hunters' use of lead bullets in the condors' range are nothing less than the first shots in a battle to ban hunting in California altogether. The fate of the bill currently rests with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a prospect that has conservationists worried.

Cooped up in a zoo, the California condor, with its black plumage and bald head designed for eating carrion, can strike Homo sapiens as pretty ugly. Yet in flight the birds are awe inspiring as they soar on afternoon thermals, their enormous wings stretching almost 10 feet across. In the air, the birds are so impressive that a soaring California condor shares the back of the California quarter with an image of John Muir and Yosemite Valley as a symbol of California's civic pride, a design chosen by Schwarzenegger himself.

California condors once ranged from Vancouver, B.C., to Mexico, but by the mid-'80s they'd been eliminated from almost their entire historical habitat with only 22 individual birds still in existence. Since then, under the Endangered Species Act, biologists have taken extraordinary efforts to bring the condor back from near extinction. In the past 20 years, an estimated $40 million, about half of that federal dollars, has been spent trying to restore the species, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1987, the 22 remaining condors had been taken into captivity for a breeding program to shore up their plummeting numbers, a highly controversial move at the time.

The captive breeding program worked better than anyone had dared hope. In the early '90s, birds began to be returned to the wild, tagged by biologists with radio collars to monitor their progress and health. Today there are 145 wild condors in California, Arizona and Baja California. An additional 160 condors rest in zoos or field pens, where many await future release. This year, six breeding pairs of condors are raising chicks in California, which will soon fledge and join the rest of the wild population, a sign of a species that is one step closer to being wild once again.

But while the radical captive breeding program brought condors back from the abyss, and back to the skies, the efforts to restore them have not eliminated the threat of lead in ammunition. Although 30 condor deaths have been linked to lead, the poison is not always the obvious cause. Biologists suspect that some birds who died before their time through electrocution, collisions or drowning suffered from lead poisoning.

Michael Fry, a toxicologist at the American Bird Conservancy, says the toxin interferes with the bird's coordination and ability to avoid obstacles. "A number of condors have run into electrical wires, and two condors drowned in a puddle. What bird is supposed to drown in a puddle?" says Fry, who has conducted research on the condor's toxic exposure for California's Fish and Game Department.

It's not only condors that ingest lead when bullet fragments are left in the wild. Animal carcasses are picked over by golden eagles, mountain lions, bears, coyotes and dogs. But with their low population, condors are especially vulnerable. Plus, biologists fear that condors deliberately eat lead fragments, mistaking them for the calcium-rich bone fragments their diet requires.

The lead threat is so acute that biologists strive to capture all wild condors at least once a year to have their blood levels checked for possible treatment by chelation. The highest levels of lead consistently show up in the condors during fall deer-hunting season.

Biologists now routinely provide the carcasses of stillborn calves to the condors so that they won't risk consuming lead by chowing on the remains of dead game, an approach one scientist cheekily dubs a "condor welfare program." More than half of the "wild" condors' food comes from such deliberate human handouts. "We're essentially creating zoo animals in the wild that show up at feeding stations. It's affecting their feeding behavior, and it prevents them from acting like wild birds," says Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Without addressing the lead problem, it's clear we're not going to be able to recover condors."

In the early '90s, the federal government outlawed the use of lead birdshot for hunting waterfowl, which hunters objected to at the time. "They screamed it was going to end waterfowl hunting and be a huge crisis for duck hunters," says Donald Smith, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. But replacing lead with steel or tungsten birdshot hasn't ruined duck hunting. "I think that sportsmen have embraced it," says Smith, who was one of 45 scientists who signed a "statement of scientific agreement" in July 2007, which concluded that lead ammunition should be banned in condor country. "The hunters who are truly conservationists will embrace these changes."

Some already have. Anthony Prieto, a member of the National Rifle Association, who hunts blacktailed deer and wild pigs with his 17-year-old son, has volunteered with the federal condor recovery program, and launched Project Gutpile to help educate hunters about the lead threat to the birds. Prieto has been using nonlead bullets for 10 years.

Yet some hunters complain that copper bullets, a typical substitute, are more expensive and don't work well in some guns. Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, says that hunters should be offered a choice when hunting in the condors' range: Use nonlead ammunition or use lead and bury their gut piles to reduce the threat. Referring to the current California bill, he says, "The proposals that are being shoved down the hunting community's throats are heavy-handed. They dictate to them how they are going to hunt." Yet his overriding objection to the condor legislation is this: "As in gun control, we believe the ultimate goal is to ban hunting." Prieto calls that "B.S. Nobody is trying to take hunting privileges away."

The state of Arizona has tried to work with hunters to get them to voluntarily switch to nonlead ammunition or bury their gut piles to protect the condors, even going so far as to hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of coupons for free nonlead ammunition. While many hunters have tried the nonlead ammo, and even liked it, the voluntary approach hasn't gone far enough. "Even in Arizona, we're still seeing the same amount of lead toxicity and deaths," says Sorenson from the Ventana Wildlife Society.

Advocates for the condors in California hope that regulation can achieve what voluntary efforts have not. The Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, which has passed the California Senate and Assembly, now awaits Schwarzenegger's signature or veto. (He will make up his mind by Oct. 22.) It would require that hunters use nonlead ammunition to shoot wild pigs, blacktailed deer or coyotes within the condors' range. California's Fish and Game Commission, which oversees hunting regulations, is also considering new rules that would restrict the use of leaded ammunition. The commission plans to vote on the issue by the end of the year.

But the condor cause suffered a blow on Sept. 13, when Schwarzenegger fired a state Fish and Game commissioner, Judd Hanna, a Republican, Vietnam vet and hunter. At a meeting of the commission in late August, Hanna had voiced support for banning lead ammunition in the condor range. On Sept. 10, Republican state senators and assembly members, who had been lobbied by the NRA, petitioned the governor to oust Hanna. A letter to the governor, signed by 34 Republicans, argued that Hanna had "become an outspoken advocate seeking to achieve his own personal objections by influencing the Commission's actions." The letter also complained about the lack of geographic diversity among commissioners, given that none of its members are from Southern California. The governor's office maintained that Schwarzenegger fired Hanna to improve the group's geographic diversity.

Following his ouster, Hanna sent an e-mail to his supporters. "The mission of the Commission has been deflected by a special interest group," he wrote. "Thus, an issue bearing on one of the Commission's most important mandates, protecting endangered species, has been hijacked."

The commissioner's forced resignation sparked outrage among condor conservationists, and dimmed hopes that the governor will sign the bill protecting the birds. "I think it's shameful that they made Judd Hanna resign from the commission," says Bob Risebrough, an ecologist for 30 years at the University of California. "It was just an effort to get his vote out of the way, which I thought was really crude."

As the political shenanigans play out, Peter Bloom, a biologist who captured free-flying condors in California for the breeding program in the '80s, takes the long view and remains upbeat. "Lead was first diagnosed as a problem in waterfowl in the late 1800s," he says. "It took over 100 years before lead pellets in the ammunition of duck hunters would be legislated against. I am hopeful. This has to happen."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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