August 15, 2008
California Condor
California Condor
In this space two years ago August I suggested a birding trip to Arizona's iconic national park, The Grand Canyon, for the opportunity to see one of the icon's of the wildlife conservation movement, the California condor.  Though the reintroduction of the condors at the canyon is a success story, it comes with qualifications.  Most of the condors have been recaptured multiple times, primarily to be detoxified of lead ingested from gutpiles left by deer hunters.

Long time readers of this column will remember that although I am not a hunter I am not anti-hunting.  Let me once again throw light, without any heat, on common ground birders share with hunters, and broach a subject which has predictably stirred extremists on both sides of the gun issue.  In an example of the law of unintended consequences, the meticulous micromanagement of Arizona's condors has brought attention to the previously unrecognized possibility of lead poisoning in human consumers of venison.

When the Peregrine Fund, the organization in charge of condor reintroduction, began to suspect that bullet fragments might be the cause of condor lead poisoning, they did x-ray studies on deer shot with lead bullets.  Lead bullet fragmentation was confirmed, and a paper was published in 2006 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.  Subsequently, a North Dakota doctor did CT scans of donated venison and discovered traces of lead.

Lead bullets, whether or not they hit bone, fragment into hundreds of microscopic pieces too small to detect by sight, feel, or chewing.  Lead, even ingested at levels below that which would cause any noticeable symptoms, migrates from bloodstream to bone and becomes a neurotoxin.  Small children and fetuses are susceptible to developmental problems and lowered IQs.  As of July 1, California banned lead bullets from areas frequented by reintroduced condors there, and several states throughout the country are considering statewide bans.

There will be no ban, however, in Arizona because Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), in cooperation with Arizona's hunters, has successfully implemented a voluntary program in which every hunter who draws an elk or deer permit in Hunt Units 12A, 12B, and 13 (Arizona's condor country) receives a free coupon for lead free bullets in the caliber of their choice (100% copper bullets produced by Barnes Bullets of Utah).

This voluntary program is important for three reasons:  a ban would have legislated away the carcasses and gutpiles the condors need to survive; hunters have shown a willingness to embrace conservation causes; hunters may learn that copper ammunition is the answer to human safety issues as well as that of the condors.  Here's what the President of the Arizona Hunting Club had to say about ingested lead--"Why would they recall several billion toys from China?  If it's poisonous to anything that eats it, it's poisonous to me and you."

Kathy Sullivan, AZGFD Condor Project Coordinator, says the voluntary program is working and will be even more successful as more hunters hear about it.  I hope hunters reading this column switch to copper.  I hope birders reading this column understand that hunters want the same things we want--protection of the resource.  Grand Canyon condor studies have proven the environment is us.