>Endangered Species

Photographs by Misha Gravenor

Project Gutpile

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?

By 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). Today—27 years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mounted a $40 million recovery program with a handful of private organizations—condors are breeding successfully in captivity but faring no better than before when they are released in the wild. Lead, their old enemy, is still killing them.

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 his life.

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
T-shirts and signs. But it is as a hunter that Prieto makes perhaps his most significant contribution. He has embarked on a self-styled, bilingual program to educate sportsmen about lead and its effect on wildlife, especially condors. Naturally garrulous, Prieto talks to individuals and groups of hunters in gun stores, on the street, in the field—anywhere he can get their attention. "The public has no clue," he says. "Somebody's got to get them thinking about it."

Lead is an environmental issue, not just a wildlife issue. It's everywhere—in 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, warblers—all 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 December—deer-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 captivity—240—is 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 overhead—close 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 hunters—who 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 decade—plenty 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 over—got to feel the wind and see something so big, so long-lived—that 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.


The print version of this story includes photographs by Misha Gravenor.

© 2002  NASI

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Learn the issues. To find out more about Project Gut Pile or about lead-safe hunting in condor country, or to buy one of his condor T-shirts, e-mail Anthony Prieto at Aprieto@ci.santa-barbara.ca.us. All proceeds from T-shirt sales go to education and condor field programs. Promote condor recovery. Urge federal officials to ban the use of lead ammunition in condor country. Contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (202-208-5634; contact@fws.gov), the U.S. Senate (www.senate.gov), and the U.S. House of Representatives (www.house.gov). If you hunt, use lead-free bullets. Let ammunition makers and local stores know you want bullets that have no toxins, particularly lead. For information about current lead-free alternatives, contact Winchester Ammunition, Product Services, 427 North Shamrock Street, East Alton IL 62024 (www.winchester.com) or Barnes Bullets (888-227-6379; email@barnesbullets.com). Volunteer your time. If you want to help protect condors, you have a number of options. You can volunteer to monitor the birds at the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge (you'll need extensive training). If you want to get really active, you can apply for a "rugged" six-month internship at the refuge. For information, call 805-644-5185 or go to http://pacific.fws.gov/condor/default.htm. Other condor groups that use volunteers include the Peregrine Fund (208-362-3716; www.peregrinefund.org; tpf@peregrinefund.org) and the Ventana Wilderness Society (831-455-9514; www.ventana.org), which also uses interns. To apply, send a résumé to P.O. Box 894, Carmel Valley, CA 93924.