An unleaded wilderness

Gov. Schwarzenegger approves a bill banning the use of lead bullets in the California backcountry

By Chuck Graham 10/25/2007

The 2008 hunting season will be the first without lead bullets, and that’s good news for the critically endangered California condor.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed bill AB821 on Oct. 12, banning the use of lead ammunition in California’s rugged backcountry wilds. This was Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s (D-Santa Barbara) third attempt at passing this crucial legislation, which will go a long way in saving North America’s largest flying landbird. Nava’s previous attempts were snuffed out before reaching the Assembly floor.

This time, however, the Assembly and the Senate were on the same page, though it was hard to tell which way Schwarzenegger was leaning. The governor demanded the resignation of Judd Hanna from his California Fish and Game Commission after Hanna incited the ire of the National Rifle Association by supporting a lead bullet ban not specifically linked to Nava’s bill. Hanna is a moderate Republican, hunter and an advocate for saving the condor, and his ouster was perceived as a strong sign Schwarzenegger would not favor Nava’s bill, although, in a recent e-mail, Schwarzenegger said he remained committed to protecting California’s diverse wildlife for future generations.

“We are pleased the legislation was passed,” said Marc Weitzel, project leader for the California Condor Recovery Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “This is a significant step forward for the recovery of this bird.”

A remnant of the Pleistocene Age, condors forage for carrion from high above in thermal updrafts, relying on their superior vision to locate food. Condor ranges are broad and they soar an average of 100 to 150 miles per day. During hunting season, condors are more susceptible to ingesting lead fragments found in the gut piles left by hunters. After ingesting meat, condors store their food in their crops for digestive purposes. Lead does not allow the breakdown of food and the raptors eventually starve if they are not treated in time.

Nava’s bill, the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, would require hunters to use non-lead ammunition for hunting big game and coyotes within the condors’ range. Hunters will likely use copper bullets for larger game and steel pellets for fowl.

The condor has become the “poster child” for getting lead out of the environment, but lead bullets also affect other raptors, including bald and golden eagles and mammals feeding on carrion. Humans need to be cautious, too, said Jessie Grantham, California condor coordinator and team leader for field programs in Southern California for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“It’s the combination of human health and this critically endangered species,” he said. “People see how lead is killing this animal and the potential effect it can have on humans.”

The goal of the recovery plan is to establish two geographically separate populations: one in California, the other in Arizona. Currently, there are 127 birds in the wild. The condors in the Los Padres National Forest behind Ventura County make up the majority of the population in California. Each region will have 150 condors with 15 breeding pairs and another 150 birds in captive breeding facilities.

Although lead is the leading cause of death for reintroduced condors, it isn’t the only problem plaguing these magnificent raptors. These members of the vulture family are extremely curious and are attracted to shards of “micro trash” reflecting in the sun. They are mistaken for food items, which have been brought back by parents for hungry chicks. Like lead, the accumulation of trash blocks the digestive tract. West Nile virus is also a factor in their survival. Although the birds are inoculated, one condor chick succumbed to the virus in 2005.

“Lead is a toxin and a major factor, but there are a lot of other issues out there for the condor,” Weitzel said. “But ridding lead from the environment is good for all of us.” n

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