Condors in a Coal Mine

California's lead bullet ban protects condors and other wildlife, but its biggest beneficiaries may be humans

Condors can soar 150 miles in a day on their giant wings. The birds often fly for hours at a time with hardly a flap of their wings (C. Parish / The Peregrine Fund)

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Advocates for banning lead bullets point out that alternatives such as solid copper bullets are considered some of the best ammunition available. A simple switch to other ammunition would stop the dispersal of thousands of tons of lead across our landscape each year. At the same time, it would preserve the sport of hunting, which provides a significant food source for condors.

Some gun groups—including the National Rifle Association—have lobbied against any restrictions on lead ammunition. They object to the higher cost of alternative ammunition and say the research linking poisoned condors to lead bullet fragments is not definitive. Many opponents view attempts to regulate lead ammunition as an attack on their right to hunt. For more than two decades, their fierce opposition prevented the enactment of legislation to curtail the use of toxic lead bullets.

Last year, in one of the most significant developments in condor conservation history, California legislators passed a bill restricting lead bullets. Despite intense lobbying by gun organizations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that requires the use of nonlead ammunition for big game hunting in much of California. The ban went into effect in July.

"The lead bullet ban is a huge step forward and gives the condor a real chance for recovery," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society. "But there are only a few game wardens to enforce this law. Its success will depend on hunters understanding that lead is deadly."

California's new lead bullet ban was designed to protect condors and other wildlife. But while the ban was being debated, intriguing new research was emerging to suggest that the biggest beneficiaries may be humans.

In 2007, the condor's lead-poisoning problems caught the attention of William Cornatzer, a physician in Bismarck, North Dakota, who had joined the board of directors of the Peregrine Fund, a group that manages condor releases near the Grand Canyon.

An avid hunter, Cornatzer was intrigued by studies demonstrating what happens to a lead bullet when it hits a game animal. Condor biologists had shown that the bullet shatters into dozens and sometimes hundreds of tiny fragments that scatter widely from the wound site, leaving behind a deadly "snowstorm" of toxic lead that poisons condors and other scavengers such as ravens and bald eagles. Audubon California, an environmental conservation group, has identified 48 birds and other animals that are harmed by spent ammunition. Cornatzer wondered if humans might also be at risk.

Early in 2008, Cornatzer contacted the North Dakota Department of Health and arranged to collect 100 one-pound packages of ground venison donated by hunters to North Dakota food pantries. A radiologist helped Cornatzer run CT scans on the packages. They were stunned to discover that 59 of them contained metal fragments.

"The scans just lit up with tiny bits of metal," Cornatzer said. "I almost fell over. I could not believe how much metal was in the meat."

The North Dakota Department of Health ran additional scans that showed the metal fragments tested strongly for lead. Concerned about the potential risks for humans, North Dakota officials recommended the destruction of tons of venison still in storage at food pantries.


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