Bill Would Keep Lead Ammunition Out Of Condors' Diet

California condor conservationists are among those pushing for a statewide ban on lead ammunition in California. Some of the critically endangered birds are dying of lead poisoning. The Los Angeles Zoo has been breeding condors in captivity for decades to restore the species' population. Now a major part of their job is treating birds who've dined on lead-tainted animal remains in the wild. They — along with a bill making its way through the Legislature — identify lead bullets as the top condor threat. But hunters and shooters question lead's environmental impact. And they say a ban would leave them with few affordable, convenient options.

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A bill that would ban hunting with lead ammunition in California is stirring debate. Advocates for the endangered California condor say the ban is the only way to keep the struggling species going. Some hunters question the environmental impact of lead ammunition and they say a ban would leave them with few convenient options. Here's reporter Aaron Schrank.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: Inside a diagnostics room at the Los Angeles Zoo, the condor recovery team is taking an X-ray.

A five-year-old California condor is on the exam table brought in from the wild with high levels of lead in his blood. Condor-keeper Mike Clark holds the giant bird very gently.

MIKE CLARK: We want to keep that anxiety to a bare minimum, just in case we have a really sick bird and we don't know it. The lead numbers come in, like, so high you can't believe it. It should be dead.

SCHRANK: Clark and others like him have helped the species grow from just 22 birds to more than 400 in the past few decades. They breed the condors in captivity and use transmitters to track those released into the wild. They want these birds to be self-sustaining and Clark says they're almost there.

CLARK: Now they're flourishing in the wild other than one thing, lead.

SCHRANK: Clark says lead poisoning is one of the leading causes of death for condors. And these scavengers get some of that toxic lead from bullet fragments in carcasses or gut piles left behind by hunters. After treatment, Clark puts the condor in what looks like a holding cell with a few others. This place is meant to be a breeding facility but it's become more of a triage center for lead-poisoned birds.

CLARK: We've run into a brick wall now. We can't mitigate this by ourselves. This has to be some kind of a program or a legislation or a regulation and this is not an anti-hunting thing. This is a conservation thing.

SCHRANK: A lead ammo ban is not a new idea. States from Arizona to Massachusetts have considered similar bans. Right now, California has a partial ban on lead ammo. Hunters are barred from using lead to take down large mammals in the stretch of land between L.A. and San Jose, where condors are known to fly. That ban has been around since 2008.

But this new ban would go much further, expanding these restrictions to the whole state and to all kinds of wildlife. Some hunters are worried.

CHRIS HURT: Deep breath in, slow gentle press, press, press, press, press, press, press, press. Excellent. Nice hit. Did you feel stable?

SCHRANK: Chris Hurt(ph) is teaching a hunter education class on his property, the Longshot Ranch, as he calls it, in the Los Padres National Forest north of L.A. This area is subject to the existing lead ammo ban.

HURT: And while I've never seen a condor anywhere near my house, I believe that I'm in condor range if I'm told so.

SCHRANK: And he sees no reason to take it further, especially when the current ban hasn't even proven effective. In fact, there has been no measurable drop in condo or lead toxicity or death since the partial ban went into effect five years ago.

HURT: I think that everybody wants condors to be healthy. But if decreasing the amount of lead use in hunting ammunition isn't having any benefit for that species, right, then maybe we just need to look at this some more and get to the bottom of what's really going on.

SCHRANK: Hurt says many of the guys he hunts with do see the proposed ban as anti-hunting, as does the National Rifle Association, which is challenging much of the scientific research that connects lead ammo to condor deaths.

HURT: I think that's really everyone's biggest concern, just simply because our sport has been attacked through the use of subterfuge in the past.

SCHRANK: But some hunters are all for non-lead ammo, like Santa Barbara local Anthony Prieto(ph).

ANTHONY PRIETO: I've never had a problem with copper. But again, it's all about placement. So they both kill equally well.

SCHRANK: For years, Prieto has been shooting copper bullets, the main alternative to lead. And if there were any doubts about his proficiency with copper, they're cleared up by the display of taxidermy wild pig and deer heads that line his living room walls.

PRIETO: Boom, that whitetail that I shot, that thing ran about 20 yards, died. And that one dropped dead in its tracks. This is all with copper.

SCHRANK: Prieto volunteers with the condor program and he even has a tattoo of the California condor on his left arm. With that, plus his copper preference, you'd think he'd be pretty gung-ho for the ban, but he's not. He does want hunters to stop using lead, but he doesn't want to force them.

PRIETO: We want hunters to take the lead. We want hunters to say, you know what, we want to shoot non-lead ammunition because it does work better. That's what we're trying to get them to do.

ALBERTO RAYA: We disagree on copper bullets. He's a fan of one. I'm not.

SCHRANK: That's Prieto's good friend and fellow hunter, Alberto Raya(ph). He says the shots he takes with copper ammo are less lethal than those with lead and animals sometimes escape with injuries. And then, there's the price.

RAYA: I used to buy ammo for, what, 35, 40 bucks. Now it's anywhere from 70 and up. That's crazy. That's just insane.

SCHRANK: Critics of the lead ammo ban say it will price out hunters like Raya. A decline in hunting numbers would be bad news for everyone. Hunting licenses in California bring in millions of dollars a year for programs that protect wildlife, including the condor. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank.

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