Monday, May 12, 2014

The California Lead Ammunition Ban, Why It Matters

The California Condor remains critically endangered, with a wild population of around only 230 birds. They are a living relic, brought back from the brink of extinction by countless hours of dedication and purpose. The tale of this salvation is one of mistakes learned from, success and loss.

Photo: D. Stillman

The CA Condor population steadily declined throughout the course of the last century, causes being poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. By 1987, when the political will to save the species was gathered, only 22 condors existed in the world. Though the condor has been saved, one thing has not changed, that being the very factors that brought the condor to it's brink of extinction in the first place.

On Easter Sunday of 1987 the last wild condor was taken into captivity. For the first time in tens of thousands of years the condor did not soar the skies of North America. The early years of the captive breeding program were fraught with challenges. Biologists had to learn everything about these birds, their behaviors, their physiology, and their reproduction. Efforts to reintroduce the condor to the wild began in 1992. These efforts continue to this day.

The condor is a unique and extraordinary animal. With a wingspan of up to 10ft in length, the condor can soar to 15,000 feet and cover up to 200 miles in a day. They can weigh up to 26lbs, rivaling the trumpeter swan as the heaviest of North American birds. Their anatomy is exquisitely adapted to their environment, and expressly designed for economy of travel. They have poor hearing, no vocal chords, a poor sense of smell, and incredibly acute long range vision. Their vocalizations are restricted to grunts and hisses. A condor's pale yellow pate can flush to bright pink when emotionally stimulated. Condors mate for life, and display distinct social behaviors with mates and when congregated at a food source. They are naturally curious about their environment, at times to their own detriment, often bringing bits of micro-trash (bottle caps, brass bullet casings, plastics, glass, etc...) back to their nesting sites. A healthy condor can live for as many as 50 years.

I recall the "wow" feeling of seeing my first wild condor soaring above the Sespe. Since then I have seen condors dozens of times, and for a while I just kind of took them for granted. My feelings for the condor have come full circle to that astonishment I first felt. I am grateful that there are those in this society that struggle to place value on the preservation and protection of wildlife. As a species we humans have asserted our belief that it is our right to destroy life, our own and the lives of those we share the planet with. We have been terrible stewards, especially since the advent of the Industrial Age. There is little chance that in my lifetime humanity will undergo a quantum shift in ideology, priorities, and economies. We will continue, as is our "right" to destroy habitat and call it "natural resources", continue to poison our own air and water, and continue to increase quarterly shareholder values. This does not mean that fighting for the issues that concern us and speak to our own values is not worth the effort.

Naturally, mankind is the greatest threat to the recovery of the California condor. The single biggest culprit is a behavior that can be changed--the use of lead ammunition. Lead core ammunition is an insidious toxin that percolates through the food chain. In humans, lead is neurotoxic, inhibits tissue development, and causes organ failure. This is also true of most organisms on the planet. Condors and coyotes are no different than us in that respect. Most multicellular organisms have not adapted to the absorption of heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, etc...). The absorption of these toxins, whether gradually accumulated in micro doses or in a single large exposure, causes bodily failure and/or death. Once these metals are absorbed into the bloodstream the only way to get them out is through a therapy called heavy metals chelation. Chelating agents are compounds which bind with the metals in the the bloodstream forming molecules which can then be excreted. The most common chelating agent for lead toxicity is dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA). Chelating agents can cause kidney failure, irregular heartbeat, vitamin deficiency, and death. The captions below describe how condors and other scavenging animals commonly become exposed to lead.

This X-ray of a deer shot with lead ammunition demonstrates the scatter of the lead core of the bullet which killed it. These bullets are typically made of a lead "sabot" with a copper jacket. On impact the copper jacket peels away much like a banana while the lead core fractures and scatters throughout the body. The lead scatter is often distributed throughout the organ cavities and the viscera which are undesirable tissues that hunters leave in the environment after field dressing their kill. These tissues are then consumed by scavenging birds and animals.
This X-ray of a bald eagle demonstrates the accumulation of ingested lead fragments which, in this bird, caused death due to bowel obstruction. If the obstruction hadn't killed the eagle then surely the lead toxicosis would have.
Biologists and field volunteers monitor the health and wellness of condors in the wild by luring them to baited cages where the bird can be caught and examined. In the field, a simple blood test for lead values can be run, and a determination can be made regarding treatment. This is a never ending cycle.

Recent years have seen a push by hunters and biologists bring the problems associated with lead ammunition into the public sphere. Not only has lead ammunition been demonstrated conclusively to have a negative impact on ecosystems and wildlife but studies have shown that non-lead ammunition as hunting loads are as or more effective than lead based ammo. The trick is to persuade hunters and shooters to do the right thing. In 2007 the Ridley-Tree Condor Conservation Act (AB-821) was passed by the California Legislature, the purpose being to ban the use of lead centerfire hunting ammunition for rifles and pistols. A similar bill required non-lead shot for bird hunters. In 2011 (AB-711) was passed in California, making it the first US state to ban all lead based hunting ammunition. Slated for full implementation in 2019, AB-711 would ban lead ammo for hunting purposes only and shooters will still be able to purchase lead ammunition for non-hunting activities such as target shooting. The cost of alternative ammo to hunters is expected to be negligible, and it should be noted that excise taxes on guns and ammunition pay for conservation work nationwide.

In my teens I shot small-bore rifle at competition level. I have put many thousands of pieces of lead downrange. I stick mostly to pistols nowadays and all my ammo has been copper for at least the last decade. Though I have never had a taste for hunting I do not have anything against hunters who do so legally. In fact, I appreciate the conservation efforts of organizations like Ducks Unlimited. Nobody likes a poacher. With the level of knowledge surrounding the negatives of lead ammunition I don't see that there is any benefit in keeping it on the shelves, and while the industry is openly strategizing ways to torpedo the legislation, per Field&Stream magazine the National Rifle Association largely steered clear of this issue, focusing most of their attention on California gun rights proposals. It's time to get the lead out of shooting. 

A flier from This is a nonprofit web page created by hunters for hunters.

One problem with AB-711 is that it only bans lead in centerfire ammo used while hunting. Centerfire cartridges are standard in large caliber rifle, shotgun, and pistol ammunition, but smaller calibers such as .17, .22, and .25 caliber bullets can only be found in rimfire loads and those guns have a completely different firing pin mechanism than centerfire guns. AB-711 bans lead in the centerfire bullets but doesn't address the lead in these smaller rimfire bullets. These smaller calibers are considered "varmint" loads, and varmint hunting describes a class of wildlife too small for larger bullets (jackrabbits, squirrels, etc...) and is, with some exceptions, legal year round without a license. The classification of "varmint" includes "nuisance"  or "pest" animals which includes coyotes and bobcats*. Most rimfire bullets are made of lead, and most of the animals killed with that ammo are left to the scavengers. Though this law is a very good step in the right direction, AB-711 doesn't expressly prohibit the use of all lead ammunition.
Michael Clark, the LA Zoo's condor whisperer, with Condor #400.
#400 was a breeding age female who was frequently treated for lead toxicity including having surgery four years ago. At the time of her death in April 2014 her lead values were 700mcg/dl. Biologists treat these birds with heavy metals chelation therapy when lead values in their blood exceed 25micrograms/deciliter. The CDC's value for safe lead levels in humans is 0.0mcg/dl.
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  1. Great post David!
    I am not one for over-regulation, but I don't think that is the case here. I don't think they went far enough. I have no idea why rim-fire bullets weren't included in the ban, but they should have been. I understand the advantage of lead bullets, but sometimes we have to make adjustments to our lives for good reasons. It is interesting that the NRA has pretty much been mute on the subject (unless I've missed something).

  2. As a shooter I think CA has done the right thing. All states should follow. As for rim fire.....on the fence. Nice blog glad I found it.

  3. Anon,
    Thanks for the comment, and for checking out my stuff.