Flying Free

California eliminates lead in hunting ammo, protecting condors and many other species

An awe-inspiring symbol of wilderness dating to the days of the mastodon, California condors are among the country’s most endangered wildlife. In a move that protects these slow-to-reproduce scavengers and many other species, California became the first state to eliminate lead ammunition for hunting statewide.  

Passed overwhelmingly by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, the new law will expand on the 2007 requirement to use nontoxic ammunition for big-game hunting within condor range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has required the use of nontoxic shot for waterfowl hunting across the country since 1991 after it found ducks confused lead pellets for the pebbles they swallow to aid digestion.

Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for California condors, accounting for 50 percent of condor mortality. Only about 230 of these birds remain in the wild. It also puts an additional 130 wildlife species at risk. 

When lead ammunition is shot into an animal, it fragments. Scavengers ingest pieces and particles of lead when they feed on animal parts left behind by hunters. Farmers and ranchers also use lead ammunition to kill what they consider nuisance animals, such as coyotes. “It takes only a small amount to have a devastating impact,” says Kim Delfino, Defenders’ California director who has been working to rid California of lead ammunition since 2005. “Lead poisoning is an excruciating way to die, and human exposure to it can be disastrous, too.”

Lead is a known toxin—one removed decades ago from paint, gasoline, pencils and pipes. More than 50 years of scientific research has shown that lead in the environment poses an ongoing threat to the health of the general public and to the viability of the state’s wildlife, including federally listed endangered species like the condor and countless other species. 

“Lead poisoning has become so serious for condors that they are frequently brought in from the wild to have lead removed from their blood, a painful and hugely stressful process for the birds—and it’s not always successful,” says Defenders’ President Jamie Rappaport Clark.

Once found throughout the mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest, California condors reached a record low of 22 birds in the wild by the late 1980s following the effects of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. To save the species from extinction, FWS captured the remaining free-flying birds and successfully bred them in captivity. Releases back into the wild began in 1991.

Today, besides California, the big birds soar in Arizona and Utah, where lead ammunition is still common. With the California victory in hand, Defenders has started to explore expanding the effort to neighboring states.

“With cost-comparable, performance-guaranteed alternatives to lead ammunition in the market today, it’s time to end lead ammunition in sport hunting across the entire country,” says Clark. “Gov. Brown has done the courageous thing for both citizens and wildlife in his state. Now the federal government and other states need to follow his lead and get the lead out of the rest of America.” 

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