Get the lead out, please

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If you’ve ever seen a veterinarian giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a condor, you have some idea of the dedication researchers have for restoring a viable population to the wild.

The California condor recovery program, valued at $40 million and counting, began its captive breeding program when the native population fell to 22 in 1982. With notable success-numbers now approach 300 in zoos and in the wild-the program has also known heartbreaking failures. Bird 134, discovered by radio telemetry near death in the Grand Canyon, and his mate, are recovering from near fatal lead poisoning, the most common agent of death for condors, bald eagles and other birds that ingest bullet fragments from animal carcasses.

It’s been illegal to hunt ducks and other waterfowl with lead shot since 1991. But lead bullets are still preferred by many hunters of deer and game birds.

Well, for a long time they didn’t understand about lead paint sickening children in old buildings and animals poisoned by tailpipe emissions in roadside vegetation. If we can get the lead out of paint and gasoline, why not bullets? Old habits die hard, I guess.

California may be leading the way. Pressured by wildlife advocates, the state Fish and Game Department has proposed a ban on hunting with lead ammo, but only in condor country. Arizona is taking a softer tack, offering coupons for unleaded shells and promoting education on incidental killing of nontarget species. That’s a start.

Lead bullets often explode on impact, scattering as many as 500 tiny fragments through the victim. Raptors and other scavengers feeding on carcasses and the gut piles from field-dressed deer and elk are sickened when they ingest the tiny shards. Condors seem particularly vulnerable because they’re less likely to spit out lead bullets.

When we first moved to the mountains in 1961, we would occasionally see one of the wild condors from the sanctuary at Lake Piru (in Ventura County) soaring overhead. Over the years there were fewer sightings until, finally, there were none. Then they started releasing juvenile birds from the captive breeding program into the Los Padres National Forest, our neighbor to the west. For a little while they stayed fairly close to their release site, nesting around Pine Mountain Club, where they became a nuisance to homeowners. They perched on deck railings and roofs and even trashed one woman’s house while she was away for a weekend. Silly woman had been feeding them.

Then we heard that some were lost in collisions with power lines and that a proposed wind farm would be an additional danger. It seemed to me that a 20-pound bird should be smart enough to avoid such impediments. Scientists, however, now believe that the birds’ brains are compromised by lead poisoning, disorienting them and leaving them vulnerable. The treatment of choice is chelation therapy, injections of a chemical that binds to lead and carries it out of the body.

Lead has poisoned at least 59 types of nonaquatic birds, including hawks and eagles, which pluck bullet fragments from carrion. Quail, grouse and other ground birds also swallow lead pellets when they pick up grit for their gizzards, explains Mitch Tobin in a recent article for High Country News.

Tejon Ranch, our neighbor to the east, recently announced that licensed hunters who pay to hunt on their property would not be allowed to use lead ammo. Whether or not this is part of an agreement with environmental organizations to protect condors in return for signing off on Tejon’s vast development plans is a matter of speculation. But whatever the motivation, if the ban can be adequately monitored, it will help all wildlife, including deer that are shot but not mortally wounded. These animals often escape the hunter only to die later, not from the wound, but from lead poisoning.

So while state regulators debate a limited ban on lead bullets in “condor country,” NRA lobbyists most likely will pressure them to kill it. What a shame. Unleaded rifle bullets are now just a click away on the Internet, but they aren’t available for some older guns.

My son and his father were responsible hunters and reloaded their own shells. The technology has existed for more than two decades to make clean bullets that are fast, accurate and have all the killing power of lead bullets without the unintended poisoning.

Arizona’s voluntary program of coupons for lead-free bullets with hunting licenses in certain areas where condors feed has been well received by hunters. In 2005, about two thirds of 2,393 licensed hunters redeemed their coupons and 89 percent said they would use the bullets again if they were free, according to Tobin. That’s a good return on a small investment and an indication that traditional hunters may be ready to change.

There will always be those who say any new program will be hard to enforce and, if applied only to limited areas, will have little effect. That may be true. It could be that the federal government eventually will have to ban the manufacture of lead bullets. That may be a stretch. But if we can get the lead out of paint and gasoline, why not out of bullets?

It’s worth a try.