Despite decades of intensive conservation efforts, the endangered California condor still hovers on the brink of extinction. Why? Lead ammunition.
With a current lead bullet ban only in parts of California, a recent scientific study explains: (1) California condors remain chronically exposed to harmful levels of lead; (2) lead-based ammunition is the principle source of lead poisoning in condors; and (3) lead poisoning is preventing the recovery for the California condor population. What’s worse, the damage caused by lead ammunition goes well beyond the local condor population. Bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, loons, cranes, condors, herons, doves and other larger wildlife species are also needlessly poisoned by spent lead ammunition. Just last week, a lead-poisoned bald eagle died at UC Davis’ California Raptor Center.
The vast majority of U.S. hunters use lead ammunition. Typically, when a lead bullet hits an animal, it shatters into hundreds of tiny fragments throughout the animal’s body. Lead-containing “gut piles” are often left behind after field dressing to be eaten by scavenging animals, including condors. A single feast on lead-contaminated remains can send a condor’s blood levels dangerously high. Treating lead-poisoned condors is difficult and costly. Many who are not treated in time die excruciating deaths.
Lead-free ammunition is widely available. One might then wonder why condors, North America's largest soaring birds, are still dying. In the battle for its life, the condor seems, at least in part, to be losing to money and rhetoric. Frequently, when calling for a more widespread ban on lead ammunition, conservation groups face vocal opposition from the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting industries and powerful pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. These opponents view lead-ammunition bans as a risk to their profits and vehemently label them as attacks on Second Amendment rights.
Like many, the San Francisco SPCA finds neither of these arguments to be a compelling reason to use toxic lead materials for hunting. For one, as previously noted, lead-free ammunition is easily accessible (and would be even more common in the marketplace if it were the only legal option). Prohibit the sale of lead ammunition, and hunters can (and will) still choose from countless comparable alternates, even if those alternatives are marginally more expensive. Second, equating the prohibition of lead ammunition with an outright assault on gun rights is disingenuous at best. The right to “keep and bear arms” does not, of course, include the right to riddle the environment with toxic lead. This rings particularly true since affordable, effective and widespread ammunition alternatives exist. Environmental and animal welfare groups are not asking hunters to give up all bullets, and they certainly are not demanding that hunters hand over their guns.
A humane California knows better, and we can do better. After all, the solution to help the California condor is clear and simple – change the type of bullets that hunters use, and we can help the recovery of this truly remarkable endangered species.