Lead From Carrion Killing Off Calif. Condors

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- When the dairy farmers around Bakersfield, Calif., see the white Dodge pickup truck with the brown logo of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the door, they know it's time to bring out their dead.

The biologists come by every couple of weeks to collect the bodies of stillborn calves and haul them to walk-in freezers strategically positioned around the state. Then, in the dark of night, they drag the bovine corpses into clearings visible at dawn from the heights flown by California condors, a species that has battled back from the brink of extinction but is not yet trusted to feed itself.

The massive birds now fly, nest and reproduce reliably outside zoos. But left to plan their own meals, they will swoop down on the carcasses of animals killed by hunters and, in gobbling the carrion feast, ingest chunks of the bullets that scientists now call the most persistent threat to the reestablishment of California condors in the wild: secondhand lead.

In the belly of a 25-pound bird, a .308-caliber round leaches lead into the bloodstream far more efficiently than any toy coated with lead paint. Scientists have seen a condor drop out of the sky dead from lead poisoning, and they have recorded blood lead concentrations in sick birds 40 times the level considered toxic in humans. The evidence, including striking increases in those lead readings during deer-hunting season, stirred the California legislature this summer to pass a bill that would ban lead ammunition in condor habitat.

The measure awaits the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who hasn't indicated whether he will sign it. Schwarzenegger put a picture of the condor on new quarters that symbolize California. But he also fired a member of the state Fish and Game Commission who irked the gun lobby by appearing to promote the ban.

"The science is irrefutable. There isn't a shadow of a doubt that lead from ammunition is the leading cause of death and illness in the California condor," said R. Judd Hanna, the fired commissioner. He added: "Lead was already identified as a problem in 1987 when the last of the wild condors were captured. It should have been outlawed then, but with the birds out of the wild they had stopped dying."

But the condors are dying again. Worldwide, the total population of condors has risen from just 22 a quarter-century ago to 306 today, about half in zoos. But of the 135 released into the wild in California over the past two decades, 51 have died there. Last year it was two steps forward and one step back: Fourteen condors were released; seven perished.

Scientists cannot determine precisely how many of the deaths resulted directly from lead, but the mounting evidence -- a recent study indicated that 90 percent of condors in Arizona tested positive for lead during this year's hunting season -- motivates a relatively simple government intervention aimed at scaling back a remarkably elaborate one. In the 40 years since the condor was included on the first official list of endangered species, the effort to revive it has soaked up more than $30 million while making literal the term "nanny state." In the 1990s, condor chicks were nurtured by zookeepers wearing hand puppets designed to resemble adult birds.

Today, biologists monitor condors in the wild by radio and Global Positioning System transmitters punched into the skin of their wing. But the most elaborate effort remains the feeding program of dead calves, sometimes leavened with a few rabbits or an occasional sheep.

"We can't get them off the subsidy, so to speak, until there's clean food out there for them," said Cynthia Stringfield, former chief veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo, where sick condors are treated for lead at "levels that would kill a golden eagle."

"These birds are tough," she said. "They've been around since the Pleistocene, and they hang around for a reason."

The National Rifle Association is mobilizing members against the bill, calling the link to lead ammo unproved and the alternatives more expensive for hunters.

"Hunting should not be a sport for the rich and famous, as it was during feudal times," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. State Rep. Pedro Nava (D), who sponsored the bill, noted that the NRA supports "Project Gutpile," a hunting movement formed to "get the lead out," and that it awarded a "Golden Bullseye" this year to a maker of copper bullets. His bill aims to make those rounds more affordable through a voucher system funded by private donors.

"Vouchers would be a great idea for a hunter, but as a store owner, there's no way," said Joe Schraff, a sales representative at Second Amendment Sports in Bakersfield, which stocks few copper rounds. "As an employee, I've got a family. I've got a house. Now my whole job's at risk. So this affects the whole food chain now."

In 1991, the federal government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting, prompting objections that were similar, but even angrier, than those that California's proposal has faced. Stringfield said that the wrath that met the federal ban has caused advocates of the California measure to proceed with caution, making a forensic case to justify restrictions on behalf of the condors.

Indeed, the Aug. 27 state game commission meeting had the feel of a trial. Witnesses testified about seeing condors, "their crops full," feeding on a pig shot by a hunter on June 25. A professor of environmental toxicology said that the following day, two of the birds -- numbers 306 and 318 -- were trapped and sampled. Isotope readings on the lead in their stomachs matched readings on ammunition sold nearby.

Robert Riseborough, who chairs an expert committee advising the commission, said the danger from eating the same meat was greater than the danger from lead paint on any recalled toys.

"Lead has been recognized as hazard to people since Roman times," he said. "This is no more an anti-hunting move than the ending of wine goblets made of lead was an anti-drinking measure."

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