Program giving free ammo to hunters in Utah aims to help California Condor

The captive breeding program that helped save the California Condor from the brink of extinction has been hampered for years by a simple but persistent problem – poisoning caused by the widespread use of lead bullets.

Today, wildlife officials in Utah and elsewhere say they are working toward an unexpected solution, awarding an unusual program that gives hunters free ammunition.

This fall, for the 11th time in as many years, the Hunters Helping Condors program is providing $50 worth of free unleaded ammunition to hunters who obtain a big game license for any firearm legal in southern Utah.

Officials also hope to lure hunters to check stations to prove they don’t use lead ammunition by offering a chance to win an $800 gift card.

“Voluntary lead reduction programs in Arizona and Utah have been very successful,” said Chris Parish, conservation director of the Peregrine Fund, a group that works with birds that live in a large area around the border between Utah and Arizona. “We want to see these volunteer efforts expanded across North America. We are confident that as this partnership grows, more hunters and organizations will join us.

Only California has explicitly banned the use of lead ammunition for hunting, so wildlife officials have looked for ways to convince hunters to stop using lead themselves. The Hunters Helping Condors plan encourages hunters to swap their lead bullets for copper-based alternatives. For the most part, they seem to have embraced the idea, with an average of about 85% of hunters participating, said Tim Hauck, condor program manager for the Peregrine Fund.

“Hunters voluntarily change their ammunition to help with this conservation cause, which I think is an incredible testament to the conservation ethic of hunting communities in Arizona and Utah,” he said.

lead poisoning

California condors with numbered tags under their wings circle the cliffs of Zion National Park in southwestern Utah.  A conservation effort to revive birds on the brink of extinction has hit a snag in recent years due to lead poisoning, but wildlife officials say efforts to promote lead-free ammunition among hunters helped considerably.

The debate over lead ammunition and its impact on animals like the California condor has long been reduced to partisan wrangling over gun control, public lands and endangered species.

But for people studying North America’s largest flying bird and working to bring it back from the brink of extinction, the way lead ammunition is used addresses a much larger concern about sustaining of a healthy environment and wildlife system.

A reintroduction program started in 1996 with the release of six birds into the wild near Zion National Park in Utah and Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona has seen slow but steady progress over the past 20 years, with the population increasing to 116 birds at the latest. count, according to a report by the Southwest Condor Working Group, a collaborative group trying to establish a healthy population in the region.

The California condor was nearly killed in the 20th century due to lead poisoning, hunting, habitat destruction, and other human causes. After the 1920s, they disappeared from the Grand Canyon.

Now, between the Southwest Task Force and others held in captivity or participating in similar programs in California and Baja, Mexico, there are over 500 condors alive.

But lead poisoning remains a major obstacle to these efforts, accounting for more than half of all condor deaths recorded in the reintroduction program. And despite recent progress with hunters and other shooters to use lead-free alternatives or to remove carcasses shot with lead bullets, lead remains the single largest contributor to condor death and disease.

Only one real adversary

Doug Crispin of the National Park Service and a volunteer teach spectators about the California condor

Researchers have learned a lot about condors and their ability to sustain themselves. They have more than enough food, access to shelter and water, and in the past five years alone more than two dozen chicks have hatched – a significant number considering that condors only reach sexual maturity until at least six years old, and breeding birds lay only one egg every two years.

They also learned more about how lead ammunition affects birds.

Huge birds that can reach a wingspan of 10 feet, condors are scavengers that survive by eating the dead, searching for carrion with keen eyes as they soar above the desert.

Today, they often eat dead animals left behind by humans, including livestock as well as animals slaughtered for sport. When this food has been shot with traditional lead bullets, the acid in the bird’s gut converts the lead fragments into soluble salts which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and pumped into soft tissues, organs, the bones and the brain.

Those who consume enough get sick and can die. Like other animals, including humans, birds see impacts on their motor functions and neural connections. This is why most other forms of lead are federally recognized as a toxic substance and regulated, subject to federal disposal guidelines.

In the controlled sample size of condors, the effects are extreme.

There were 58 deaths recorded during the five-year reporting period before 2021, with another 21 birds missing and presumed dead. Since the program was launched, 55% of recorded deaths for which a cause has been determined have been attributed to lead poisoning, with scientists suspecting that side effects of poisoning could contribute to other deaths, with symptoms such as slowness and emaciation making birds more susceptible to predation and disease.

Caught up in controversy

A California condor spreads its wings.

Such findings have prompted efforts to limit the use of lead ammunition, especially among hunters and other shooters who might leave carrion.

Voluntary lead-free ammunition programs are active in Utah and Arizona, providing hunters with alternatives if they plan to hunt in Condor territory, and program organizers have reported some success, particularly with big game hunters.

In Utah, the Division of Wildlife Resources began offering a $25 rebate on the purchase of lead-free ammunition in 2010, and educational materials were distributed to influential groups to encourage hunters to use bullets with lead-free alternatives like copper and steel. This dollar figure has since been increased to $50.

“We are excited about this partnership and believe that working with stakeholders – on all sides of the lead issue – is necessary to ensure the long-term health of Utah wildlife and its habitats,” said Mike Fowlks, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. . “We recognize the role that stakeholder engagement plays in wildlife management and look forward to working cooperatively with program partners.”

Recently, advocates have begun to push for greater awareness of the problem not only among big game hunters, but also among people who hunt smaller animals and people who use firearms to take down the domestic livestock or shoot predators.

Some are calling for a ban on lead ammunition altogether, and jostling over the rule at the federal level has largely fallen along party lines.

On President Barack Obama’s last day in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new ban on lead bullets on service lands, requiring the use of non-toxic ammunition instead. The move drew heavy criticism from many gun advocates, with the National Rifle Association calling it “an assault on the rights of gun owners and sportsmen.”

A close up of a California condor,

A few months later, the ban was lifted by then-US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on his first day in office after being nominated by President Donald Trump. An avid hunter and angler, Zinke said the move was to “expand access” to hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities.

“It worries me to think that hunting and fishing are becoming activities for the landowning elite,” he said at the time.

Various states have implemented restrictions on the use of lead in bullets and fishing tackle to protect birds and waterways, but only California has passed legislation banning their use for hunters, passing a law in 2013 that plans to replace lead with alternatives like copper or steel by 2019.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, more than 90% of ammunition produced in the United States is made with a lead component, and lead remains a preferred metal for bullets due to its mass and malleability. Some hunters claim that lead-free bullets are more expensive, not as effective, or not available in all calibers.

California condor

One of the largest flying birds in the world, the California Condor can reach 25 pounds, with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet.

Once abundant along the West Coast of the United States, condors have been pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, natural predation, hunting, and environmental contamination. In 1982, there were only 22 living birds left, and scientists began a captive breeding program to save the Condor from extinction.

The captive-bred birds were released as part of a reintroduction program at sites in California, Arizona, and Baja California, with the total population reported at over 500 today.

Since 1997, about half of all plummeting condors have required treatment for lead poisoning, according to a recent study published by toxicologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

David DeMille writes about southwestern Utah for The Spectrum & Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newsroom based in St. George. Follow him on @SpectrumDeMille or contact him at [email protected] To support and sustain this work, please register today.

Ryan H. Bowman