Lead shot in animal carcasses has a deadly impact on condors and other wildlife. Now a promising campaign is seeking to enlighten hunters about the problem. But is it enough to save the condors?
Jane Braxton Little
On a good day, Anthony Prieto can bag five wild pigs. Crouched on a hillside of dried brome, in fading amber light, he sends a chorus of snorts across a patch of scented sage. When a startled pig streaks out of the cover, it makes an easy target on the open slope.
Prieto loves bacon and the sport of shooting, but it is his passion
for California condors that drives him to hunt. With every pig he kills,
he figures, he is reducing the risk of lead poisoning for the condors.
The enormous, ancient birds have long fed on animal carcasses in these
Coast Range foothills in southern California, but they've also been
swallowing lead from bullet fragments. That pushed them so close to
extinction that in 1987, biologists took the remaining handful into
captivity (see "Day of the Condor," January-February 2000).
Today27 years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mounted
a $40 million recovery program with a handful of private organizationscondors
are breeding successfully in captivity but faring no better than before
when they are released in the wild. Lead, their old enemy, is still
Since the early 1980s scientists have confirmed the deaths of seven
California condors from lead poisoning, four of them in the past five
years. Thirteen others would have died without medical treatment. It's
an alarming rate of affliction for a species with just 204 individuals
in the world.
"If we don't solve the lead problem, the rest of our work will
be of little consequence," says Bruce Palmer, California Condor
Recovery Program coordinator.
Prieto believes sportsmen can help rescue the endangered condors. He
and a growing number of hunters are dedicated to leaving no lead in
the field. Some use non-lead bullets. Others remove lead slugs and fastidiously
bury the game parts they discard to prevent condors and other scavengers
from ingesting any poisonous fragments. "I'm just trying to keep
them alive, to keep them wild," Prieto says. "There's so many
of us and so few of them."
Condors could hardly have a less likely champion. Prieto has been hunting
for most of his 40 years, and elk, boar, and deer heads hang from the
walls of his living room. The floor is lined with skulls, mostly of
wild pigs.Energetic and engaging, Prieto grew up rebellious, roaming
the streets of Santa Barbara, looking for trouble. Throughout his unruly
childhood and what he calls his "lightweight gang phase,"
his grandfather was a consistent, steadying force. "When he spoke,
we listened," Prieto says. And his grandfather often spoke of condors.
He had lived most of his life in Fillmore, near a critical condor nesting
area. His awe for the birds and his intuitive sense of their impending
demise inspired young Anthony, who dreamed repeatedly about birds with
orange heads and nine-foot wingspans soaring in a blue sky.
One day Prieto ditched school and went to the Los Angeles Zoo to see
Topa Topa, a condor that was captured as a fledgling in 1967 and that,
for the next 15 years, was the only condor in captivity. "It took
my breath away," he says. Then and there Prieto resolved that he
would see condors flying in the wild and somehow make them a part of
Today Prieto is a single parent of two boys, aged 12 and 14. He works
with at-risk teenagers, sings professionally with his own band, and
is a devoted condor volunteer. He helps trap and monitor birds. The
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery program uses his artwork on
Lead is an environmental issue, not just a wildlife issue. It's everywherein
paint, pipes, cooking pots, soil, ammunition. It gradually poisons anything
that eats or drinks it, attacking the nervous and gastrointestinal systems
and causing anemia, abdominal pain, dizziness, and paralysis. Some historians
blame lead in water-distribution pipes for the fall of the Roman Empire
and for the late-life eccentricities and death of Ludwig van Beethoven.
In the United States lead has been prohibited in everything from water
systems to household paints.
For many bird species, lead poisoning has been more deadly than hunting.
Bald eagles, golden eagles, loons, sea eagles, trumpeter and mute swans,
sandhill cranes, warblersall have been sickened or killed by lead
bullets left in the water they drink or the animals they eat. No one
has even seriously studied lead's effects on hawks and owls. Massive
die-offs of ducks and other waterbirds drove the Fish and Wildlife Service
to ban lead shot for hunting waterfowl in 1991. Six years later researchers
examining thousands of birds in the Mississippi Flyway estimated that
the ban had prevented the deaths of some 1.4 million ducks and had benefited
nearly 30 other species, including bald eagles.
But lead ammunition for big game remains legal, and it continues to
assault creatures beyond its intended targets. More than a third of
the golden eagles examined for a study published in Condor, a
scientific journal, showed exposure to lead; 3 percent of the birds
had lead at acute or chronic levels. At the University of Minnesota,
Patrick Redig, a professor of veterinary sciences and director of the
raptor center, treats more than 100 bald eagles a year for lead poisoning.
The data he has kept on sick birds since 1980 show a big jump in lead
poisonings from the second week of November into Decemberdeer-hunting
season in Minnesota.
California condors, which are on the endangered-species list, are particularly
susceptible to lead, and not just because their population is so marginal.
Unlike most scavengers, they rarely regurgitate feathers, bones, and
other indigestible items, so the lead they swallow stays in their digestive
tract. And because they crave calcium, condors actually search for the
small, hard fragments, mistaking them for bits of calcium-bearing bone.
This vulnerability to lead is threatening a recovery program hailed
as one of the great triumphs of endangered-species protection. Biologists
and federal officials are justly proud of their condor-breeding record.
The number of chicks raised in captivity240is nine times
more than the total population of the species in 1988, when the captive-breeding
program began. Three chicks were born in the wild this spring, the first
since 1984. (In October all three chicks, just days from fledging, were
found dead. The cause of death is being investigated.) But the more
birds that biologists release into the wild to forage for themselves,
the more they find stricken with lead poisoning. Nearly half the condors
flying free register some level of lead in their systems, says Palmer.
Though it's generally not enough to kill them, the presence of the toxin
prompts biologists to put these condors in pens and watch them closely.
That is not successful recovery, says Noel Snyder, a former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who managed the condor program from 1980 to 1986. "They're dying out there in the wild. The game is not to endlessly put birds out. The game is to sustain them."
Seventy-five California condors are living in the wild today, half
of them ranging in the sun-dried hills from Big Sur south to Hopper
Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, on the southern edge of the Sespe
Condor Sanctuary. Mike Barth, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, checks on them daily, negotiating hairpin turns above heart-stopping
drop-offs on a dirt road winding through the Los Padres National Forest,
about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. He pauses on a flat-topped knoll
to do a routine scan for birds. Every condor released into the wild
carries a radio transmitter with a unique frequency.
Barth holds a three-foot-wide antenna aloft and is rewarded by a faint
click-click-click coming his way. Bird 100, a speck on the horizon
halfway to the Pacific Ocean, grows quickly as he approaches. Soon he
is joined by his mate, Bird 111, the female who last year produced one
of the first condor eggs laid in the wild since 1986. The condors soar
closer with majestic nonchalance until they are 10 yards overheadclose
enough for Barth to hear the hiss of wind through the birds' feathers
and see gaps in 111's plumage, left by molting. Their white wing linings
are backlit to an ivory luminescence as they circle for five magical
minutes, sometimes craning their yellow necks to study Barth, sometimes
gazing into the distance.
The Hopper Mountain field team's task for the day is to check the lead
levels of Bird 206, a young individual they trapped because of his odd
habit of roosting on the ground, where he is vulnerable to bears, coyotes,
and other predators. Bird 206 is in a 20-foot holding pen built in a
narrow drainage on Hopper Mountain. Barth and three assistants approach
quietly, whispering when they say anything at all. They throw a gigantic
net over 206. It takes all of them to carry the huge bird to a makeshift
laboratory, where Barth draws a vial of blood. The young condor is remarkably
calm, almost offering his leg and tolerating the entire procedure with
regal dignity. Although Barth says the bird needs to gain weight, his
lead level is low. Barth is clearly relieved that this condor does not
require treatment for lead poisoning.
Condors have been released to the wild at three sites in California,
two in Arizona, and, most recently, one in Baja California, Mexico.
But it is here in southern California that they face the greatest threat
from lead. The open grasslands below Hopper Mountain have been their
foraging grounds for millennia. Today this area is a hot spot for hunters
like Prieto, who roam the federal lands and private ranches for deer,
bear, wild pigs, quail, and other game. The pigs, a domestic population
gone wild, are a recent favorite. Game officials and ranchers alike
consider the fast-breeding animals varmints that cause crop damage and
erosion. They allow hunters to shoot them year-round and to take as
many as they like. The annual pig kill tops 5,000, says Jim Matthews,
editor of California Hog Hunter.
The carcasses and gutpiles left by hunters are crucial food sources
for condors weaning themselves from the stillborn calves provided by
the recovery team. Too often, however, this food packs a lethal wallop.
Lead has poisoned 17 of the 144 birds released to the wild since 1992.
Four of them died. The others were trapped and detoxified, a complicated
process that involves drug injections over several days or weeks. No
one knows how this process will affect the lead-poisoned survivors over
time. One recently produced a nonviable egg, an indication that the
effects of lead exposure could go far beyond direct mortalities.
Within the condor scientific community, a majority agree that lead
ammunition is the biggest threat to the recovery program. But how to
deal with it is a controversy that rages at conventions, in scientific
papers, and in face-to-face conversations. Solutions run from banning
all hunting in condor range to recapturing all of the birds and keeping
them in captivity until lead is eliminated entirely. Fish and Wildlife
Service officials are pursuing a middle-of-the-road plan to educate
hunters about the danger lead poses to condors and other wildlife.
Dubbed Project Gut Pile, the lead-awareness campaign, which is still
taking shape, includes fliers, videos, and presentations by speakers
such as Prieto asking hunters to use non-lead bullets or to bury the
discarded portions of their game to discourage scavengers. The agency
has provided lead-free bullets for hunting on several private ranches
in condor range. The goal is to give hunters the opportunity to solve
the lead problem on their own, without regulations.
If hunterswho often like to call themselves "the original
conservationists"are certain that lead bullets poison wildlife,
most will switch to nontoxic ammunition, says Matthews. The challenge
is helping believers like himself and Prieto to convince their fellow
shooters before some other solution is forced on them. If hunters think
the program is a ruse for antihunting restrictions, says Matthews, a
small minority might take out their anger on the very wildlife they
would otherwise campaign to protect. Condor shootings are almost inevitable
under any kind of government ban, he warns. "Don't piss off the
sportsman. We've got extreme idiots on each end of this debate."
Hunters are still fuming over the 1991 nationwide ban on using lead
shot to hunt waterfowl. The data then was irrefutable, but the regulations
went into effect before ammunition manufacturers had produced a viable
alternative to lead shot. Today waterfowl hunters have a choice of seven
different nontoxic shot types, but developing them took nearly a decadeplenty
of time for hunters' resentment to fester: against the government, which
implemented the ban, and against environmentalists, who supported it.
Some hunters are so skeptical of the link between lead bullets and wildlife
mortality that they suspect lead has been planted in carcasses to place
the blame for condor poisoning on hunters. The National Rifle Association
supports a hunter-education program but is still waiting for conclusive
evidence that hunters are the culprits, says Susan Lamson, the NRA's
director of conservation. She says that even those convinced of the
connection fear that lead ammunition will be taken away from them before
there is an appropriate replacement.
Some scientists hope to avoid a repeat of the 1991 waterfowl debacle
through alternatives to lead bullets for big game. Two are already on
the market: Winchester's Failsafe, which has a lead core completely
encapsulated in a copper jacket, and the Barnes X-bullet, an all-copper
projectile. Neither is perfect. Both cost more than standard ammunition,
sometimes twice as much. Some condor activists dismiss the Failsafe
bullet because it contains lead. And because both bullets use copper,
neither is truly nontoxic. A condor died two years ago with extremely
high levels of copper in its body, although the source was not a bullet.
Nontoxic alternatives are in the development pipeline, but with no current
demand, they have not yet reached the commercial market.
That puts the hunter-education project in a bind: The condor-recovery
team can't push a product hunters can't buy, yet hunters are apt to
lose their enthusiasm for the entire program while they await a nontoxic
choice. The standoff has pushed some condor champions to openly advocate
a lead-bullet ban.
But Fish and Wildlife Service officials are tiptoeing around the controversy
to avoid a hunter backlash. At the national level they have ignored
pleas from the condor-recovery team for a more aggressive stance. That's
frustrating to Palmer, the recovery-team coordinator, who blames the
lack of attention on "bigger fish to fry in D.C." It leaves
the program dependent on hunters like Prieto and Matthews to spread
the word about the dangers of lead, hoping that a demand for nontoxic
ammunition will generate a commercial supply.
If wildlife officials cannot find the political will to face the lead-bullet
issue, long-term condor recovery may be doomed. A program requiring
constant supplemental feeding, constant monitoring, and frequent medical
treatment is counterproductive, says Jesse Grantham, an Audubon biologist
who worked in the condor program for six years. It cuts the biological
and philosophical thread that links condors to their 10,000-year wild
heritage. "Are we trying to save animals as blood and guts and
feathers that look like condors," asks Grantham, "or are we
trying to save something much bigger?"
Using hunters to convince other hunters of the dangers of lead bullets will take time, perhaps a generation. Condors may not survive the wait. They are picking up lead poison almost as fast as they leave the government chow line. Prieto calls the birds their own best advocates. He is willing to tell hunters about the perils of lead, to teach them to bury their gutpiles and dig into carcasses for bullets that don't exit their game. But the surest way to make believers of hunters, he says, is for them to feel the power and the presence of condors. "If a hunter ever saw a condor fly overgot to feel the wind and see something so big, so long-livedthat would do it. That would save them."
Of all the friends and fellow sportsmen Prieto has taken to experience wild condors, it may be his younger son, Mychal, who has been touched most deeply. "Dad's been working with condors, and I want to do what he is doing," he says. Standing on a bald mountaintop beside his father, he watches the birds soar overhead with familiar wide-eyed fascination, a big smile on his face. When he grows up, Mychal Prieto says, he wants to be a wildlife biologist.
Jane Braxton Little profiled military watchdog Grace Potorti in
the December 2000 issue. She lives in Plumas County, California, where
the closest kin to condors are turkey vultures.
version of this story includes photographs by Misha Gravenor.