It’s an “Epidemic”: Hunters Inadvertently Bag Condors with Spent Ammo

Tuesday, June 26, 2012
(photo: Michael Quinn, National Park Service)


Although California outlawed lead shot in key areas inhabited by condors in 2008, a new study has found an epidemic of lead poisoning among the few remaining endangered birds.

“By any measure, the lead poisoning rates in condors are of epidemic proportions,” says Myra Finkelstein, a toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the research.

The giant birds with up to 9-foot wingspans are scavengers that regularly eat the meat of animals killed by hunters, ingesting bullet fragments that produce lethal lead poisoning. Their population had dwindled nationwide to 22 in 1982, but a desperate program to breed them in captivity and release them into protected areas boosted their numbers in California to 386. But researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz found that a review of blood samples taken from 1,154 condors between 1997 and 2010 showed that 48% of them had lead poisoning which would have killed them without medical attention.     

Twenty percent of condors captured every year have deadly levels of lead. Scientists said they were surprised at the high numbers, but a condor eats between 75 and 150 dead animals a year and one lead fragment is enough to kill it.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit earlier this month seeking federal regulation of lead in bullets, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denies it has the authority to do that. The Center for Biological Diversity and six other groups disagreed and said exposure could be limited using the Toxic Substances Control Act. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation preventing the EPA from regulating lead-based bullets and the Senate introduced similar legislation this month. Environmentalists say millions of birds, including bald eagles, are threatened by lead, which is in 95% of all ammunition.

The National Rifle Association regards any attempts to limit the use of lead in ammunition—for instance, using substitutes like copper—as an anti-gun move to infringe on gun owners’ constitutional rights.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Condors Face “Epidemic” Lead Poisoning, Finds Study (by Stephanie Powers, Christian Science Monitor)

Lead Poisoning and the Deceptive Recovery of the Critically Endangered California Condor (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Bullet Fragments Killing Condors (by Ker Than, Live Science)

New Study: Lead Poisoning of Condors at “Epidemic Proportions” (by Paul Rogers, Mercury News)

EPA Sued over Wildlife Exposure to Spent Ammo Lead (by Laura Zuckerman, Reuters)

California Condors Face Lead Menace (by Meera Subramanian, Nature) 

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