California condor, © USFWS

Toxic Trends: Lead Still The Culprit in AZ Condor Deaths

In Arizona, 4 more highly endangered condors have been killed by lead poisoning, while the toxic fragments continue to build up in the environment.

Courtney Sexton, Communications Associate

When selling or renting a property built prior to 1978 (when lead based paints were commonly used in households), owners and property managers are required by federal law to provide buyers and tenants with a lead disclosure statement and informational pamphlet created by the EPA. This rule has been enacted specifically with the hope that “providing such notification and disclosure will help to reduce the exposure to lead based paint which causes serious lead poisoning especially to children under age 6, who are particularly susceptible to the hazards.” My brother and his wife, both emergency medicine physicians with background in toxicology (they’ve seen some wicked stuff), refuse to even have crystal glassware in their home because it contains traces of lead.

A California condor flies over Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (c)USFWS

A California condor flies over Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (c)USFWS

So if simply inhaling dust particles or sipping from a glass containing only fragments of lead can cause severe brain, skeletal and nervous system damage in humans, imagine what ingesting several grams worth of solid lead can do to a 25-pound bird. Great scavenging birds like the California condor are some of the most important members of the ecosystem, playing a role similar to decomposers in that they feed on carrion, which would otherwise provide breeding grounds for disease. However, when the carcasses that condors feed on come from animals that have been killed and left by hunters using lead ammunition, the birds end up getting more than dinner. Condors may be the largest land birds in North America, but their weight doesn’t add up to much when a mass of lead bullet fragments is leaking toxins from their bellies into the rest of their bodies.

Consider one of the recent cases in Arizona where, this past winter alone, lead poisoning killed four of only 72 condors in the Grand Canyon – Zion National Park range. When field biologists tracking the condors found one of the victims, the normally vibrantly pink, fleshy head of the great bird had turned a pale, sickly yellow and was tucked listlessly beneath her wing feathers. Back at the field station, hopes of administering detox treatment were dashed. Within a few short hours, she lay motionless. A necropsy concluded what the conservation team already knew – the condor had died from lead poisoning, the telltale fragments of bullets found scattered throughout her gut.

For the folks on our conservation team, losses like these are some of the most wrenching because they are so entirely preventable. And, what’s worse, though condors are the most endangered species suffering here, they aren’t the only ones. Our country’s iconic bald eagles, along with golden eagles and other skilled hunters, are frequent victims.

X-ray of lead shot in the digestive tract of a young bald eagle, another species at risk of poisoning. ©USGS

X-ray of lead shot in the digestive tract of a young bald eagle, another species at risk of poisoning. ©USGS

Especially for the condors, a species that continues to struggle in the face of extinction, the number of deaths caused by lead poisoning is devastating. In 2008, California passed a bill requiring the use of non-lead ammunition when hunting big game in the condor habitat region. That was a huge success, but we haven’t stopped there. Defenders has continued the fight to “get the lead out” and, this past April, Defenders supported legislation in California to expand the non-lead ammunition regulations to include all hunting. Unfortunately, while Arizona has put forth efforts to reduce lead in the environment, including offering vouchers for lead-free ammunition, the four recent casualties in that state indicate the condor is still at high risk.

The arguments against lead-free ammunition are weighted by misguided perceptions from many hunters who fear it will spell an end to their freedom in the field. This isn’t the case, as we can see by simple facts like, since the requirement in California to use non-lead ammo in large game hunting in condor range was implemented, hunting tag sales for deer have increased rather than decreased (not to mention nowhere in the bill does language imply a hunting ban). Likewise, any marksman worried about the quality of alternatives need only ask a fellow hunter who has tried them – studies have shown that there is no perceivable difference in accuracy or efficacy between lead and non-lead ammunition, and that some alternatives, like copper, even have advantages over their lead counterparts.

The reality of the situation is that requiring the use of non-lead ammunition for hunting is an easy way to make the environment that much less toxic to wildlife, and to us. If the survival of the condor isn’t enough of a motivating factor for AZ residents to join the movement to “get the lead out,” perhaps the thought of increasing the amount of toxic lead in the human body by 50% by eating lead-laced venison is.