Two condors watched their chick emerge from its egg on March 23 at Pinnacles National Monument in central California -- the park’s first condor hatching in more than 100 years.
The joy, shared in the following days by hundreds of human gawkers, was soon clouded by an insidious menace.
On May 13, the park announced that the baby bird and its parents had extremely high levels of lead in their blood. They were evacuated to the Los Angeles Zoo to be treated by a team of veterinarians and condor biologists.
When I visited the park in late August, the young condor was still on the mend in Los Angeles, but its parents were thriving again at Pinnacles.
Wildlife biologist Daniel George told me how the birds got so sick.
“We feel pretty certain with the data we have that the vast majority of exposures are coming from ammunition,” George said.
Lead enters the food chain when hunters shoot game and leave entrails or “gut piles” in the field, where carrion- feeders such as condors consume it -- or feed it to their offspring.
“This is unique, this nestling getting such a high lead exposure at that age,” he says. “I can’t say it is the only case, but it’s certainly the only one we’ve dealt with here, so we’re charting new terrain.”
Brink of Extinction
It is not easy being a California condor. Brought to the brink of extinction by the pesticide DDT, electrocution on power lines and other lethal threats, the bird was among the first creatures listed “Endangered” by the federal government in 1967.
By 1987, only 22 birds remained.
Since then, a vigorous federal program in coordination with volunteer support has revived the population. At the moment there are 383 California condors, including 188 in the wild. A few hundred more and they could be designated as merely “Threatened.”
Pinnacles has been involved with condor recovery since 2003. Biologists tag each of the park’s 26 birds with transmitters to track them and ensure they have safe roosting sites and ample food. They even train the birds to avoid electrocution using aversion therapy, giving them a gentle electric shock on perches that resemble utility poles.
In 2008, the use of lead ammo was banned within protected condor areas in central and southern California, but of course the birds are not aware of borders.
Dozens of bird species --from bald eagles to common ducks and geese -- are also vulnerable to lead in the food chain. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 10 million to 20 million birds and other animals still die from lead poisoning every year in the U.S. even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead ammo for waterfowl hunting in 1991.
These birds and others ingest spent lead pellets when they are feeding, and lead lasts a long time in an ecosystem.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the ban on lead ammo for waterfowl has curtailed introduction of new lead into wetlands, but there are still periodic die-offs in areas where tons of lead were once sprayed incontinently at ducks and their feeding grounds.
National Park Service biologists are counting on the cooperation of responsible hunters to help keep the condor population aloft.
“Hunters are not the enemy of the condor,” said George. “The condor is happy to have hunters on the landscape because there are gut piles and carcasses being generated. One thing that I would say people can do to help condors and other scavengers is to keep hunting.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency botched an opportunity this summer to ban lead ammo outright, perhaps succumbing to pressure from the National Rifle Association, which regards such a ban as tantamount to gun control.
“There is no legitimate scientific evidence that establishes a definitive link between condor mortality and traditional ammunition,” said NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons in an e-mail statement.
Hunter Anthony Prieto, co-founder of an online resource for lead-free hunting called Project Gutpile, scoffs at the suggestion that lead-free ammo is a slippery slope to gun control.
“We don’t have lead pipes for water anymore, or lead-based paint. And when we stopped putting lead in gasoline, nobody said it was part of an agenda to stop people from driving.”
No Toxic Food
Prieto, who hunts wild pigs, deer and elk for food, sees this as both a conservation and health issue. “I just want to leave as little environmental impact as I can when I feed my family. You don’t want your food toxic.”
Prieto and Project Gutpile are making a documentary on lead-free hunting, to be pitched at hunting shows and film festivals, such as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January 2011. The squeamish be warned: Prieto has filmed a wild pig shot with lead, then used radiography to show the extent of lead in the animal’s flesh, compared with a lead-free pig.
Not great news for wild pigs, but much needed for condors and other birds. If you’re a hunter you needn’t wait for legislation to start using lead-free ammo now. The American Bird Conservancy has compiled a handy list of lead-free ammunition manufacturers and retailers.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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