Lead ammunition continues to take a deadly toll on endangered California condors that live in and around the Grand Canyon. Seven of the 80 wild condors in Arizona and Utah have died since December; three of those deaths have been definitively linked to lead poisoning from ingesting spent lead ammunition fragments in carrion and lead poisoning is suspected in the other four deaths.
"The continuous deaths of Grand Canyon condors from lead poisoning is preventable if we finally treat toxic lead ammunition as we did lead paint and leaded gasoline," said Jeff Miller at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's clear that voluntary efforts to reduce lead ammunition use around the Grand Canyon aren't getting the job done. Given the wide availability, lowered cost and high performance of lead-free ammo, these states should admit it's time to switch and require nontoxic rounds for hunting."
California condors, the biggest land birds in North America, are also the most endangered. Of the 166 condors reintroduced into Utah and Arizona since 1996, 81 have died or disappeared. When the cause of death could be determined, more than half were due to poisoning from ingesting lead ammunition fragments left in gut piles or carcasses of shot game. At least 38 condors have been killed by lead poisoning in Arizona and Utah, with more deaths suspected to be linked to lead. Lead poisoning recently killed the female of Utah's only breeding pair of condors. Each year, up to half of the wild Grand Canyon condors must be given life-saving, emergency blood treatment for lead poisoning.
"Lead is dangerous to people and wildlife, even at very low levels, which is why it is critical that we take mandatory actions to remove it from ammunition and require less toxic alternatives," said Sandy Bahr with the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. "Requiring nonlead ammunition for hunting on public land would be an important step in limiting lead exposure for condors and other wildlife."
The Arizona Game and Fish Department conducts a voluntary lead-reduction program, distributing free, nonlead ammunition to hunters in the condor range and educating them about the hazards of lead. Though most eligible hunters use the free copper ammunition, continued use of toxic rounds by a small number of hunters and ongoing condor poisonings show that voluntary efforts are not enough to remove the lead threat.
Since 2008 California has required nonlead ammunition for all hunting within the condors' range in central and Southern California. Hunters in these areas have transitioned to nonlead bullets, with no decrease in game tags or hunting since the regulations went into effect. The California state legislature is currently considering a bill that would extend the ban on lead in hunting ammunition throughout the state.
Last month, 30 leading scientists, doctors and public-health experts from Harvard, Cornell, Rutgers and other major universities released a statement that lead hunting ammunition poses a serious danger to people and wildlife and ought to be phased out.
Lead is an extremely toxic substance that is dangerous to people and wildlife even at low levels. Lead exposure can cause a range of health effects, from acute poisoning and death to long-term problems such as reduced reproduction, inhibition of growth, and damage to neurological development.
Over the past 50 years, environmental lead has been significantly reduced or eliminated from other sources, such as gasoline and paint. Lead ammunition is likely the biggest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States. Millions of nontarget birds and other wildlife are poisoned each year from scavenging carcasses containing lead-bullet fragments or from ingesting spent lead-shot pellets, mistaking them for food or grit.
Spent ammunition causes lead poisoning in 130 species of birds and animals. Nearly 500 scientific papers document the dangers to wildlife from this lead exposure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculates that, despite the federal ban in 1991 on lead shot for waterfowl hunting, more than 14,000 tons of toxic lead shot continue to be deposited in the environment each year in the United States by upland bird hunting alone.
Studies using radiographs show that lead ammunition leaves fragments and numerous imperceptible, dust-sized particles that contaminate game meat far from a bullet track, causing significant health risks to people eating wild game. Some state health agencies have had to recall venison donated to feed the hungry because of dangerous lead contamination from bullet fragments.
Lead poisoning of condors, eagles and other wildlife is avoidable since reliable nonlead bullets are available in all calibers used for big-game hunting, with superior ballistics, accuracy and safety. A recent study debunks claims that price and availability of nonlead ammunition could preclude switching to nonlead rounds for hunting. Researchers found no major difference in the retail price of equivalent lead-free and lead-core ammunition for most popular calibers.
A recent national poll found that 57 percent of Americans support requiring the use of nontoxic bullets for hunting. The poll also found that more Americans support a ban on lead ammunition than oppose it and that a majority of voters think Republicans in Congress should work with Democrats to ban lead in ammunition. A coalition of 268 organizations from 40 states has called on the Environmental Protection Agency for nationwide regulations ending the use of toxic lead ammunition.
Read more about the Center for Biological Diversity's Get the Lead Out campaign.
Explore further: California condors dying of lead poisoning