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[Republished with permission of the authors: Kieran Suckling, Kim Crumbo and Sandy Bahr. See end of article for bona fides.]

The Arizona Game and Fish Department sent out a bizarre press release last week attacking conservation groups while trying to defend the agency’s abysmal record in protecting the Grand Canyon’s endangered condors from lead poisoning. Game and Fish also tried out some scare tactics, claiming that protecting condors from unnecessary lead poisoning would somehow derail the condor reintroduction program . . .

The occasion was Arizona’s effort to intervene in a lawsuit filed by conservation groups against the U.S. Forest Service for failing to control toxic lead ammunition left behind by hunters in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest. That lead ammunition is often consumed by wildlife, including condors, eagles and other raptors, and also jeopardizes human health.

While Game and Fish trumpets the “success” of voluntary measures to reduce lead in the wild, the metric that matters is whether condors are actually protected from needless lead poisoning.

Here are the sad facts:

More than 30 condors have died of lead poisoning in Arizona since 1996.

More than two-thirds of the Grand Canyon condor flock has to be captured and given emergency blood treatment to save their lives from lead poisoning each and every year, causing all kinds of behavioral problems for reintroduced condors.

Condor biologists and the federal condor recovery program have repeatedly warned that condors will not recover unless the lead issue is addressed and lead is removed from the food chain.

It’s hardly a record worth bragging about.

And yet, Game and Fish makes the ridiculous claim that groups advocating to end use of toxic lead ammunition do not participate in condor conservation efforts. These are the very groups working hard to protect condors in Arizona, Utah and California from lead poisoning, urban development, oil and gas drilling, inappropriate wind-turbine placement and poaching, and have consistently helped with condor conservation projects.

Game and Fish fashions itself a leader in condor conservation efforts, yet has consistently opposed effective protections against lead poisoning and authorized hunting that has caused collateral deaths of more than two dozen condors.

This is the agency that in 2008 killed the only known jaguar in the U.S. at the time and opposed habitat protections needed for jaguar recovery; opposed reintroduction of endangered Mexican gray wolves and advocated for trapping and shooting as many wolves as possible; and opposed protections for Arizona’s endangered desert nesting bald eagles. The commission that oversees this agency passed a resolution opposing habitat protection for a broad range of wildlife species.

When it comes to ending lead poisoning from ammunition, Game and Fish claims that implementing hunting regulations would harm hunters. California switched in 2008 to mandatory nonlead ammunition for hunting in that state’s condor range and hunters there have easily transitioned to hunting with nonlead bullets. There has been no decrease in game tags or hunting activity since those requirements for nonlead hunting went into effect.

While it is too early to tell if there is enough compliance with the new regulations to end the lead poisoning threat for condors in California, there have only been three lead-poisoning deaths of condors since the regulations went into effect — and incidentally, eight condors in Arizona have died from lead poisoning during that same period. In California, scientists also documented immediate reduction in blood-lead levels in golden eagles and turkey vultures in the areas with restrictions.

Hunting regulations exist to prevent depletion of our wildlife and prevent killing of non-target animals. They are a good idea: Sportsmen have been required to use nonlead ammunition for hunting waterfowl for the past two decades, saving millions of birds from lead poisoning. It’s time for our forests and wildlife to get the same kind of benefits, because ultimately no animal in Arizona should die from preventable lead poisoning.

[Kieran Suckling is executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Kim Crumbo is conservation director of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. Sandy Bahr is director of the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter.]

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  1. The proof that lead bullets are the reason for condor lead poisoning? We put millions more lbs of lead into the environment through lead paint, lead wheel weights and other products. If people don’t get lead poisoning from eating wild game killed by the same bullets, how come condors do? Even large programs with xray machines instituted in the midwest couldn’t find enough lead to make the case. Iowa is a state that kills 95% of its deer by shotgun slug and most of those are just soft unclad slugs of lead. These projectiles are known to fragment in meat and even though most of our deer are harvested this way, vigorous testing by Iowa over decades have not revealed any elevated lead levels in residents.

    • Good point on the sources of lead. But we are talking apples and oranges here, different situation. They have proof of the way condors encounter lead from bullets. Here is an excerpt:

      “Recent studies using distinct isotope signatures of lead have been used to determine sources of lead in a variety of applications. Church compared the isotopic composition of commonly used ammunition purchased in the range of the condor to the lead found in condor blood and found these two sources to match. When lead in the blood of condors was elevated, indicating a recent exposure, the source of the lead was predominantly from ammunition. Furthermore, in both California and Arizona, either lead shot and/or rifle fragments have been recovered in the digestive systems of condors since the 1980’s. Given the tendency of lead to fragment, it is no wonder why lead ammunition is commonly ingested by condors, which only eat the remains of dead animals.”

      • That is utter poppycock. That technique works fine when isolating the single source of lead poisoning in a stable environment, like a home. Little Johnny has elevated lead levels and the isotope signature matches the paint on his crib. But there is no way it would apply to world of ammunition. Ammunition manufactures use industrial lead ingots in their process. All of the sources for these ingots use at least 25% recycled lead. So, every batch of ingots would have its own distinct isotope signature. Unless Church (whoever he is) is saying that discerning condors will only consume Winchester White Box, lot BB2756, there would be credible scientific way to prove the correlation.

    • Cyrano, the proof at this point is overwhelming. Just do a Google search for “condor + lead” and you’ll see dozens of reports. Here is a recent article from the Christian Science Monitor:

      “A review of more than 1,154 blood samples taken from wild California condors and tested from 1997 to 2010 found that 48 percent of the birds had lead levels so high, they could have died without treatment.”

      Lead paint has been outlawed since the 70’s by the way, and its ban is credibly linked to subsequent cognitive gains in children and decreases in violence as a result. You’re right that there are other sources of lead, but that’s hardly an argument for inaction. Suppose a neighbor was dumping pcb’s into your well, and when confronted he pointed out that some pcb’s were leaching into your well naturally. Would you say “hey you’re right, keep on dumping pcb’s into my well…”?

      The facts here are really beyond dispute. Lead is a poison. Either we care about that (I do!) or we don’t; and we either care about our wildlife and preserving our natural American heritage or we don’t, but let’s not confuse the issue by debating things that really aren’t debatable. As sportsmen we have an obligation to preserve what’s around us for our kids to enjoy. Kudos to Robert for highlighting the issue.

      • Damn Sleepy, we were so on the same wavelength. But you included more information. But I was first. Therefore, I win, You owe me a cup of coffee. HAH!!

      • Cant have lead bullets in Condor habitat. Either Condor or lead bullets. Just use something other than lead.

    • Another factor: humans may not react to lead the same way condors do. Different metabolism and body chemistry. What’s insignificant to us can kill them (and vice versa).

  2. Restricting lead ammo for waterfowl makes sense. But what is going on with these condors? Is this legit or a cynical attempt to hamper hunting by making it more costly?

    • Its legit. What happens is hunters don’t always kill and collect what they shoot. So anything that gets shot and then dies has pieces of lead in it, pieces which condors, vultures, and other raptors end up eating.

      And its not like the copper bullets are inferior these days: How many lead hunting bullets boast about “weight retention”? Thats the real reason you want to use copper bullets, even outside a condor zone: a much cleaner wound track and less wasted meat.

  3. another aspect not to be overlooked: bad hunters (and bad shots?) not collecting their kill is what leads to condors being able to scavenge on carcasses full of lead. I don’t care if ignorant people give themselves lead poisoning, sadly they fail to limit it to themselves.

    • True, Curzen. When I was reading the material, it also pointed out that many times the lead ingested came from fragments found in the gut piles of the animal. So, when hunters field dress, they are leaving the hazard behind.

      Another factor that hurts the condors is that they have a slow metabolism. So the lead stays in their body longer, being absorbed into the blood.

    • STIFF fines for idiot lead heads (not including fans of Led Zeppelin…unless they use lead shot on Condor land).

    • Come on Ralph, I have read your posts before. You care about some of the same stuff they do. We both agree that they are loony toons sometimes. But also, on occasion, have done some good things.

  4. When a brick of .22s has to be made of Barnes Bullets and costs $65, which one of you will pick up the tab for me? Most Eco-mentalists don’t want to ban lead hunting bullets, they want to ban all lead bullets. And the guns that shoot them.

    • There are also documented problems with copper slugs, in that copper bullets tend to penetrate body armor. (personally, I don’t see a problem with ammunition that penetrates body armor, but, I digress)

      Anyway, so, what happens if lead ammunition is banned and then copper ammunition is banned because it penetrates body armor?

      Banning lead ammunition is nothing more than back door gun control.

    • Since being an avid hunter and outdoorsman for 50 years, I must be an “Eco-mentalist”.

      Anyone who has followed the results of the ban on lead shot for waterfowl knows…….we would have NO ducks to hunt today without it.

      This stuff is not made up. GLOBAL research, for the last 40 years shows the havoc that lead causes in the environment. When lead is put, in large quantities, where it will be ingested, by animals and/or humans, you will die. Period.

    • Chris, cost is very definitely an issue right now, but not nearly as severe as you suggest. Currently lead-free ammo is 50% more expensive than conventional, leaded ammo, and I’m not aware of any .22lr ammo that costs $44 bucks a brick.

      Further, this is the cost NOW, when lead-free manufacturing has not been adopted on a widespread scale and occupies single-digit market share versus conventional ammunition. Experience with phasing out other manufacturing materials suggests that a gradual phase-in that offers companies some timeline certainty coupled with the benefits of economies of scale will bring those prices down significantly.

      Lastly, the suggestion that those who want to ban lead poisons also want to ban guns is simply false. There may be some fringe idiots using the issue to crusade (there always are), but the vast majority of people who care about this issue are themselves sportsmen whose primary concern is preserving and protecting the American traditions of hunting and fishing for future generations (lead in lakes, oceans, and waterways is a separate, equally important issue). Let’s not be distracted by less-than-credible conspiracy allegations.

      • See?, there you go again. Another excellent response. Everyone voted, we will keep you around (for a while at least).

    • Unless you blow through a brick of .22LR every time you go hunting, I don’t see how a well written restriction on lead ammo would affect you in that way. The article only proposes a ban on lead bullets when hunting in the protected range of the condor. It shouldn’t mean a damned thing if you’re going to your local range to plink or shoot paper. Again, this assumes a well written law. And while your statement about the “Eco-mentalists” may be true in some cases, one must separate individual issues from their general politics to rationally look at an issue.

      Furthermore, I would never be in favor of an outright ban on lead ammo. However, if the case can be made under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act to limit its use in certain circumstances, I don’t see the downside. By the time their range grew so large to really be burdensome, the condors would have likely recovered from their endangered status (not that either of those situations are likely). And the issue isn’t lead riddled backstops at ranges, its fragments in carcasses left by hunters. I haven’t done the research, so I can’t say if the evidence of lead poisoning is there, but if it is, it seams reasonable to do something.

      • Again, this assumes a well written law.

        Experience has taught us that this is not a good assumption to make where firearms are concerned.

        I am also curious as to how ingesting lead shot compares to other causes of death for california condors. I’ve heard that they’re all tagged, so this is something that can probably be determined with some accuracy.

        • Very true. But I think that when people outright dismiss something, like many posters are here concerning a ban, they too easily remove themselves from the legislative process. Perhaps a less polarized discourse would lead to a better outcome for all.

  5. California’s lead ban is gun control. Period.

    Hunters there would do a far better service to “draw straws” among themselves and then hunt down the 26 outdated birds and kill them. This would remove the hook upon which environmentalists and gun control fiends hang their hat.

    Do you know that many California Fish and Game Wardens have resigned rather than enforce the new regulations that prohibit even the carrying of lead ammo while hunting (even if the hunter has non-lead ammo for hunting and the lead ammo is for target practice). The enforcement result is that ‘everything in the vehicle’ is seized (guns included).

    Nothing is too radical for California. The ‘bullet train’ they wish voters to finance is the train to third world gun confiscation and ruin. The serfs cannot be made to be too dependent upon government fast enough.

  6. I am guessing you believe everything that comes up in a google search? Only six condors were linked to the “similar” isotopes. They did not mention that other sources carry similar isotopes. Nor did they mention about the ones that died of lead paint ingestion. The studies are testing very small numbers of captured birds. Not only this but majority of the nestlings are dying because the parents are feeding them trash. The condor is suffering from lack of habitat more than anything else.

  7. Proponents also relied on a study by UC Santa Cruz researchers Myra Finkelstein and Donald Smith, who recently published a paper that admitted that the AB 821 ban on hunters’ lead ammunition in the “Condor Zone” did nothing to reduce condor blood-lead levels! Nonetheless, they insist that their research supports their conclusion that condor lead exposure and poisoning is due to hunters’ use of lead ammunition. The UC Santa Cruz researchers’ latest publication claims to show that isotopic ratios of lead found in the blood of condors matched the isotopic ratios of lead found in ammunition. But that publication also relied on the discredited isotopic compositional analysis technique to claim that the isotopic ratios of lead from the captive condors fall within background range of lead in the California environment, while free-flying condors had lead isotopic ratios that more closely matched hunters’ lead ammunition. Any conclusions based on the use of that discredited technique are unreliable.

  8. The press release from AZ Game & Fish is accurate. There are numerous members of various hunting clubs (especially varmint hunting) who will drop their support of the condor project if lead is restricted or banned in Arizona. AZGFD already supports the voluntary choice to not use lead ammo for big-game hunting in northern Arizona units where these few condors live. But we don’t support it for varmint, especially coyote hunting. The problem of too many coyotes is more pressing. Not allowing already-expensive lead bullets will translate into many more coyotes, which are devasting the deer and antelope herds.

    I enjoy watching the condors floating on currents around the Vermillion Cliffs. But it’s far from natural. Every single day there are numerous people on the Condor lovers’ payroll that monitor and attend to these condors, which have numbers painted in white on their wings, and are all banded. These condors are treated like pets, and some of the more extreme members want all of northern Arizona to be treated as their personal yard where they can tend to their pets. Believe me, I’ve met too many of these people to think differently.

    Many hunting groups will drop their support of this condor project, and other wildlife project, if Arizona gives in to any ammunition restrictions, which have proven to be back-door methods to limit hunting and firearms. Some people say this entire condor project was born to do just that.

    And this press release from Suckling, Crumbo and Bahr is misleading, at best, regarding AZGFD’s involvement in the other projects. AZGDF supports eagles, just not to the bizarre lengths that some Sierra Club people want. AZ supports limited wolf reintroduction, just not to the extremes that this extremist groups are asking for. If AZGFD supported and implemented all the measures these extremists ask for, there would be no more hunting in AZ becase the regulations would choke it out. Sort of like what is progressively happening in California.

  9. I believe the ban applies to hunting with lead, not to lead ammo generally. You can still buy and shoot lead ammo, you just cant hunt with it.

  10. God I hate pseudoscience. This is same type of environmental BS that created global warming, ah… I mean enlightened the world to dangers of man-made climate change.

    Might as well jump right into it:

    JDP says: “Recent studies using distinct isotope signatures of lead have been used to determine sources of lead in a variety of applications. Church compared the isotopic composition of commonly used ammunition purchased in the range of the condor to the lead found in condor blood and found these two sources to match.” Really? That is utter poppycock. That technique works fine when isolating the single source of lead poisoning in a stable environment, like a home. Little Johnny has elevated lead levels and the isotope signature matches the paint on his crib. But there is no way it would apply to world of ammunition. Ammunition manufactures use industrial lead ingots in their process. All of the sources for these ingots use at least 25% recycled lead. So, every batch of ingots would have its own distinct isotope signature. So, unless Church (whoever the hell he is) is saying that discerning condors will only consume Winchester White Box, lot BB2756 – I call bull shit.

    Sleepy says: “Currently lead-free ammo is 50% more expensive than conventional, leaded ammo… Further, this is the cost NOW, when lead-free manufacturing has not been adopted on a widespread scale and occupies single-digit market share versus conventional ammunition.” Really? Let me clear this up for you by focusing on where the true cost difference is – the bullet. Lead, $0.99/pound. Copper, $3.45/pound. Tungsten, $20/pound. Bismuth $9.75/pound. Lead is the cheapest by more than 300%. And that is just the beginning, lead is by far and away the easiest of these metals to craft into a bullet. This reduces the cost of production 3 fold over the alternative. So, when you compare a 150 grain Remington Core-lock at $0.25 to a 150 grain Barnes Triple-Shock at $0.68 you get a 270% increase. This price comparison reflects the fact that Barnes pushes their prices as low as possible to compete with lead. No lead, prices for the alternative skyrocket!

    Lead is not even close to the leading cause of mortality for these birds. Windmills, electric lines and vehicles destroy most of these animals. I don’t hear anyone calling for a ban on these.

    We have no idea what the natural, background level of lead is in the blood steam of a free range condor, primarily because there is no such thing as a free range condor. For all we know, our breeding effort has produced a bird that sucks up environmental lead like a vacuum cleaner and is addicted to chelation.

    The real damage that man did to the condor took place when John Muir was actually running the Sierra Club and human pouching managed to all but wipe the last Gymnogyps from existence. What we have now are the gene pool-deficient ancestors of the last 27 birds that were all captured and taken into captivity in 1987. We are so zealous about the current 220 “wild” birds that we recapture them on a regular basis just to poke, prod, suck blood and pull feathers from them – nice “wild” existence. In short, the remaining population is a flock of mealy-mouthed, inbreed, shadows of what condors used to be.

    In 2008, the Governator signed a lead ammo ban in the California range of the condor. 4 years later there is no appreciable decrease in the blood-lead levels in birds in that range (which are recaptured on a regular basis just to be poked, prodded, blood sucked and feathers pulled – nice “wild” existence). Because that didn’t work they now want to increase the range of the ban, and also ban lead shoot from the larger area (sound like the tactics of any other groups mentioned on this form?)

    • You do realize the irony of your attack on “pseudoscience” when you’re making unsupported claims in the comments section of a blog, don’t you?

      If you wanna attack Church’s article, you should probably read it, understand his methods better, then criticize it. Any decent scientist is going to address most, if not all, of the issues you raised. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t be published.

  11. I don’t want to scoff at the study here, but do we know which species the birds are feeding on which has lead in them?
    I ask this for a number of reasons. Let’s say you find most is from feeding on water foul which were not recovered. So you make a law banning lead in shot, but if the bullets used to harvest deer, or other large animals is not showing up then leave it be.
    I am not sure how practical it is to tell hunters don’t field dress you catch. that would involve removing the animal, sometimes many miles our of the hunting area. It might be an option though, if only in the birds territory. This would allow farmers to continue using standard ammo on coyotes etc. I am not saying there isn’t an issue, but I am saying that it might be possible if some sort of legislation is needed to have it done in a way where folks are not affected heavily by it, or that at minimum it isn’t written like California law where guns, ammo and everything is confiscated.
    Really this needs to be driven from the hunters themselves, and in coordination with the fish and game. Then it won’t be an undue burden on the wardens to enforce, and certainly the hunters will have a say in how it is crafted, which protects their rights.

    • I am not sure how practical it is to tell hunters don’t field dress you catch.

      I’m not a hunter, and I have no idea how practical it would be, but would a rule saying the ‘leftovers’ have to be buried at least a foot down solve the problem? I doubt the condors are going to dig them up, and hardly anyone cares if yotes get lead poisoning.

  12. If Condors go extinxt, no one while carry more blame for it than CBD. Like tghe AZ carticle said” THESE FOLKS IGNORE THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF COOPERATION”. Species need money more than anything to survive, and the CBD keeps driving donors and supporters away. When the budget axe falls, it will be the vindicative, nasty-toned idiots at CBD who should properly skewered for killing public support for environmental programs. Please back off! You vulger, barroom-level language are killing birds and wildlife in the long run! You are all IDIOTS!

  13. One item caught my eye towards the end of the piece. This was the mention of concern about lead in turkey vultures. In California turkey vultures are common all over the state. How would habitat for these vultures be defined? Could it mean a ban on lead ammo for hunting wherever turkey vultures are found?

  14. i grew up in california. you know the state that “loves” guns. they love guns so well that the mere mention of the word “gun” gets politicians and LEO’s all over you like a homeless guy on a ham sandwich. now i live i arizona. you know arizona, its that state in the south west by california that some 1 million californians moved to cause, you know california is run so well. problem is some of those californians dont think arizona is run as well as california and that they need to change that. now, here in some parts of arizona you can say, “guns guns guns! my life would be so dull without them.” and the hippy looking dude nearby will say how he likes to go up every year and get himself a turkey for thanks giving and christmas.
    i dont know about all the rest of ya’s but when i started reading this i thought it might have had some real purpose behind it. then it started to go the way of ban lead bullets, blah blah blah. i remember the talk back in california when they were talking lead bullet bans and such. they said it wouldnt really affect anyone. yep that worked out quite well didnt it?
    i think the real issue is that the gun control folk are so pissed off about arizonas gun laws that they couldnt get their way through normal channels so now theyre trying to come at us sideways. comes down to the old saying, “give a mouse a cookie and he’ll want a glass a milk.” if we give them the lead bullet ban they will then say its something else dying and its because of the hunters, recreational shooters, etc. do you honestly think the conservationists really want the hunters out there doing what they do best?

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