Getting the lead out<br>
A com-parison between lead (left) and copper (right) ammu-nition.
Arizona Game and Fish Department, California Condor Project Coordinator Andi Rogers said condor recovery might depend on hunter education and cooperation to make the switch to using 100 percent copper bullets for their large game hunts.
“Copper performance is equal if not better than lead,” said Rogers.
Some hunters may be under the impression that a solid all-copper bullet is illegal in Arizona – Game and Fish says this is not true. Solid copper ammunition is not only legal; it is encouraged for big game. Many hunters agree that the copper bullet, especially the Barnes-X, does perform quite well.
“I use them (Barnes-X) exclusively for big game hunting. They stay together and mushroom quite well,” said Jason Pollack from PCW Guns in Payson.
Colleen Reeder at the Pistol Parlor in Flagstaff also said the Barnes-X performs well.
“I have heard a lot of good things about them from hunters,” she said.
Characteristics that make the Barnes-X a top performer are its ability to enlarge on impact and stay intact. This is more lethal to the target hunt, reducing the probability that the animal may escape to die a slow and painful death, eventually possibly ending up as poisonous meal for a condor.
Nearly all, or about 95 percent, of condors have background levels of lead in their blood. This contamination could be from a variety of sources. Lead pollution was found in the soil along the roads in Yosemite, coming from automobile exhaust – particularly diesel. The Grand Canyon has more visitors than Yosemite each year; this coupled with power plant exhaust from Page, Ariz., and the lead associated with uranium mines around the Canyon – presents a potential risk to wildlife.
“What is not really known, is how significant these sources are…what we do know is that the use of lead ammunition poses a serious risk to condors,” Olsen said.
Since the condor program started in Arizona in 1996, X-ray evidence found lead fragments in the stomachs of four of the six condors that have died so far from lead poisoning. Forty-seven condors currently live in this region and 21 of them have lead levels so high, they needed to undergo treatment.
Condors are a scavenging species of bird that eat mostly the carcass of anything larger than a coyote. They are attracted to activity of other animals because that is how they usually find food. When ravens, eagles, coyotes or vultures zero-in on a carcass, the condors easily spot this with their powerful eyesight. Their range is hundreds of miles in each direction of the South Rim and they can cover these distances in less than a day.
When a hunter using lead wounds a target animal that escapes, or leaves a gut-pile behind, it become a meal for scavengers, one with tiny fragments of toxic metal hidden inside. Lead bullets, when shot into game, fragment into particles ranging from microscopic to tiny visible pieces. These fragments stay in the flesh and bone and then can be easily devoured by a scavenger species.
“If a condor eats a couple of shotgun pellet size pieces of lead, that would be enough to kill it,” Olsen said.
Condors are not the only species harmed by lead contamination. Other endangered raptors like golden and bald eagles are sensitive to lead as well.
Even low levels of lead or non-fatal amounts can have an impact on the birds in the long-term, Olsen said – potentially affecting crucial patterns of reproduction and or neurological function.
Rogers says, those hunters who still use lead bullets can help by removing shot animals from the field and hiding the carcasses or gut piles under bushes or rocks. Remove the bullets and flesh around the wound when leaving the remains behind.
“Condors can benefit tremendously if there is no or even less lead ammunition used by hunters,” Olsen said.
Arizona Game and Fish has begun working with biologists and hunters to begin their campaign to reciprocate each others’ interests in helping the condor through the hunting of big game.
“This program can be used as a conservation tool and for the education of an endangered species for more understanding and acceptance of the Endangered Species Act and what that law represents,” Rogers said.