Saving The California Condor
In July 2019, chick #1000 of the California Condor Recovery Project hatched in Zion National Park. Although certainly a celebratory moment in the decades-long battle to rescue the California condor from the brink of extinction, lead poisoning continues to threaten the survival of these endangered, long-lived birds, whose average life span is 60 years.
According to this research study, about 90% of rifle-killed deer carcasses left in the field by hunters contain lead, which in turn supplies the source of poisoning for the scavenger condor. In 2011, the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) gave vouchers for free nonlead ammunition, and asked hunters to remove carcasses containing lead shot from the field. Of course, this was not an “animal advocacy” campaign per se, as the AGFD is a government wildlife management agency, not an advocacy group. Instead, this effort could be seen more as a method of harm reduction, attempting to steer hunters in a direction that will help save a specific, non-target species.
In Arizona, the reintroduction of California condors began near Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in 1996, and by July 2013, there were 139 reintroduced birds with 22 wild-hatched chicks living in the wild. But since their reintroduction, 84 California condors died, and about 54% of the deaths were due to lead, a strong poison destructive to the nervous system. Biologists and veterinarians monitor the health of the wild California condor population closely. During and after deer hunting season, condor blood serum lead levels increase. Since 2005, half of the California condors sampled in Arizona receive treatment every year for lead toxicity. Treatment is not always successful.
The AGFD chose two similar hunting areas (units 9/10 and 12/13) near the Grand Canyon National Park; both were within the California condor range. All deer and elk hunters received a permit tag, educational materials discussing the effect of lead on the California condor, and a letter appeal from AGFD encouraging hunters to use nonlead ammunition. Hunters in unit 12/13 also received a voucher for free nonlead ammunition but hunters in area 9/10 did not. AGFD collected data during the hunting season September through December 2011.
In area 12/13 (vouchers provided), 77% of hunters used nonlead ammunition. In area 9/10 (no vouchers provided), only 49% of hunters used nonlead ammunition. The voluntary compliance rate was a significant 28% higher in the hunters who got the vouchers.
The 49% of hunters in area 9/10 that chose nonlead ammunition (even though they received no free vouchers for it) were satisfied with it; most intended to use it in the future and recommend it to other hunters. When asked why they used it, they said the key factors were the request from AGFD and a desire to help the California condor. Less crucial factors were ballistic performance, a desire to protect animals besides the California condor, and concerns for human health. One respondent wrote, “I don’t want to eat lead.”
The 51% of hunters in area 9/10 that chose not to use nonlead ammunition did so because of the following numerous reasons: difficulty of finding nonlead ammunition in stores, higher expense compared to lead ammunition, concerns over performance, unavailability in desired calibers, not remembering to use it, not convinced that lead is an issue, educational materials came too late, not enough time to resight the rifle to account for the different point of impact, issues with reloading, unfamiliar with the issue of California condors and lead poisoning, and did not think their hunting was a problem since they didn’t hunt where the problem was or that no condors were in the area.
Based on those responses, hunters would choose nonlead ammunition if advocates and agencies improved the following:
- Educational materials. Send materials out earlier in advance of hunting season so that hunters have time to purchase nonlead ammunition, reload and resight their rifles, and evaluate any differences. Supply convincing, scientifically researched materials related to California condors and lead ingestion.
- Ease of purchase. Work with sporting goods retail shops to increase nonlead ammunition stock in the right caliber before hunting season. Make online vendors eligible to redeem free ammunition vouchers. Make the cost equal to similar quality lead ammunition. Employ free nonlead ammunition programs. Make ammunition carry universal labelling or added logos so that hunters can easily distinguish between lead-based and nonlead ammunition.
- Emphasis on equal ballistic performance. There was no statistical or practical difference in harvest success between hunters who did and did not use nonlead ammunition. Share success stories and endorsements from hunters who have used nonlead ammunition successfully.
- Hunter awareness of the consequences of their actions. A subset of hunters felt they did not have to take part in the conservation program because they had never seen a California condor in their hunting area. Educate hunters as to the true range of the condor, the extent of their daily travel, and their ability to detect a meal/dead animal from long distances.
- Outreach to hunters unconvinced by anything. These hunters are fearful that initiatives designed to conserve the California condor are an attempt to gradually restrict gun use and traditional hunting. If anti-hunting groups or anti-gun groups associate with condor conservation, they may need to back away. Separate the social issues around the rights of gun ownership from issues of California condor conservation. Use the wording from the Federal 10(j) rule which assures hunters that the federal government will not regulate hunting or shooting on account of the experimental, nonessential population of California condors.
To reduce lead available to the California condor, AGFD prefers outreach and voluntary programs as opposed to mandatory bans. Hunters are less resistant, civic engagement is higher, and transparency is maintained.
For some animal advocates, the idea of asking hunters to use “better bullets” may be a very tough sell; likewise, it may seem that this type of approach values the lives of condors over the lives of hunted animals. A more nuanced view would hold that, if convincing hunters not to hunt at all is unrealistic, a successful campaign to ask them to use nonlead ammo could promote better environmental welfare and could still help one specific endangered species to thrive. It’s a pragmatic position that asks us to think beyond our initial gut reactions.
End note: Since this study was published, a setback occurred. In 2017, in spite of the hundreds of scientific papers proving the serious toxicity of lead ingestion to humans, animals, and scavenger birds, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, on his first day in office, rescinded the prohibition of the use of lead ammunition on most federal lands. So far, in the United States, California is the only government to ban lead ammunition for hunting wildlife.