Photograph by Laura Ciapponi, Design Pics/Corbis
Published October 14, 2013
California's namesake condors nearly went extinct in the 1980s, and only intensive management and captive breeding efforts brought the birds back from the brink.
Lead from ammunition remains a major threat to condor recovery, and a new California ban on the toxic ammunition for hunting could help protect the iconic birds, as well as other bird and mammal species.
Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 711 into law on October 11, making California the first U.S. state to ban the use of lead ammunition for all hunting purposes.
"Lead poses a danger to wildlife. This danger has been known for a long time," the governor said in a signing statement. "Since 2007, California has prohibited it in the eight counties within the condor range. In fact, at least thirty other states regulate lead ammunition in some manner."
The California Fish and Game Commission will have until July 1, 2019, to fully implement the new law.
"The regulation is smart, it's a move in the right direction," said Vernon Thomas, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, who has worked on the effects of lead toxicity on wildlife for more than 20 years.
Studies have shown that lead is extremely toxic to birds and mammals, including humans. It's harmful to almost every organ in the human body and is particularly toxic to the nervous system and the brain. (Read about some of lead's toxic effects.)
"Lead's a really bad actor, and we keep finding out that it's worse than we thought," said David Bellinger, an environmental health researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Massachusetts. "There's no safe level."
The heavy metal's many harmful effects have led to its ban from sources such as paint and gasoline. But lead ammunition remains one of the largest unregulated sources of lead in the environment, said Bellinger. "Why not remove another source of lead exposure if we can?"
"Lead is so soft, it fractures and fragments into tiny pieces when it impacts muscle," Bellinger said. As a result, animals and birds that eat carcasses shot with lead bullets risk being exposed to the toxic metal, he said. The risk extends to hunters who eat a lot of meat shot with lead ammunition. (Related: "Rare Condors Being Poisoned by Bullets in Their Food, Study Confirms.")
Based on its toxic effects and the significant risks of lead exposure to humans and wildlife from lead-based ammunition, Bellinger was one of 30 scientists and public health experts who released a consensus statement in March 2013 in support of "reducing and eventually eliminating the introduction of lead into the environment from lead-based ammunition."
The ban in California could encourage other states to pass similar laws, Bellinger said. "If history is a reliable judge, we expect to see a domino effect," he said. (Related: "Zeroing In on Lead in Hunters' Bullets.")
Toxic to Wildlife
Reports of lead poisoning in waterfowl date back to the late 1800s. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a nationwide ban on lead shot for hunting waterfowl. And since then, evidence has mounted that lead ammunition has been poisoning several land-based bird and animal species.
According to the scientists' consensus statement, several studies have found that scavenging species such as golden eagles, bald eagles, ravens, turkey vultures, and pumas have been exposed to and affected by lead. Lead-based ammunition is also the main source of exposure for California condors.
"Their principle source of exposure is from ingesting lead-based ammunition fragments, or in some cases pellets or shot, from carcasses that have been shot with lead-based ammunition," said Myra Finkelstein, a wildlife toxicologist at the University of Santa Cruz. (Related: "Californian condor not extinct yet, but still regularly poisoned by lead.").
Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death in juvenile and free-flying California condors, she added.
That's bad news for a species that almost went extinct. By 1982, only 22 condors remained in the world. Conservation efforts brought their population back to nearly 400 by 2010, with about half of those in the wild.
But Finkelstein's research found that without greatly reducing or eliminating the risk of lead poisoning, condors were unlikely to ever be able to establish a self-sustaining population.
Previous Ban Not Enough
To protect the condor population, California banned the use of lead ammunition in the state's condor range in 2007.
Although condors aren't the only species exposed to lead—lead poisoning also occurs in bald eagles, golden eagles, mountain lions, and bears—condors give researchers a good indication of what is going on.
"It's a very small population, and every single individual is tracked. They're also top-level scavengers and pretty much all of the food they're eating is from carcasses, so they're particularly susceptible," Finkelstein said.
"Any animal that scavenges a carcass with lead fragments will be exposed to lead and potentially lead poisoning," said Christine Johnson, a wildlife health and epidemiology researcher from the University of California, Davis.
Johnson's research found that lead exposure in golden eagles and turkey vultures declined significantly after the 2007 ban.
But while lead levels in condors also seemed to decline immediately after the 2007 ban, more recent monitoring has found that they are still being exposed, Johnson said. "The data is overwhelming that lead is an important cause of mortality in condors, and as long as there's lead in the landscape, condors are going to be exposed to it," she said.
The current bill—Assembly Bill 711—has its opponents. And they used many of the arguments brought forth for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's lead ammunition ban in 1991, said the University of Guelph's Thomas.
"This is history repeated. The same arguments are brought out: 'the science is lousy, it's going to destroy our guns,'" he said. "[But] all of these fears have yet to be realized."
Non-lead ammunition is just as effective, if not better, than lead ammunition, Thomas said. "If a gun can handle a lead cartridge safely, it can also safely handle the equivalent non-toxic shot, and if a hunter knows how to place a shot cleanly, these bullets can do the rest."
"But slogans such as 'better dead, than a life without lead' continue to have a sentimental appeal to certain groups of hunters," Thomas said.
Some of this appeal may have to do with the long history of lead ammunition, which dates back to the 14th century. "Traditionally our ammunition has all been lead-based, and we are very, very, slow to change traditions and habits," said Christopher Parish, condor project director for the Peregrine Fund, a non-profit dedicated to conserving birds of prey.
Hunters tend to rely on the traditions that brought them success in previous hunts, Parish said. "You don't change the way you practice for Saturday's football game on Wednesday. You can try, but usually you stick with tradition," he said.
Another common criticism has been that non-lead bullets are more expensive and harder to buy. But in a recent study, Thomas found that lead-free bullets were available at the same retail cost as leaded ammunition for most popular calibers.
In The Market
The ban would establish a guaranteed market for lead-free ammunition, which could encourage manufacturers to make more lead-free ammunition, said Thomas. "California's a large state, it's a large market."
The fact that the ban could create a market for non-lead ammunition is an advantage over some of the non-legislative approaches used in other states, such as Arizona's program to get hunters to voluntarily use non-lead ammunition, Thomas explained.
Since 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish department has provided free non-lead ammunition to big game hunters in certain regions, said Parish.
If hunters still prefer to use lead ammunition, they are offered incentives to haul shot animals and gut piles out of the field so as to remove the source of lead, he said.
"Rates of participation rose to above 80 percent and have been greater than 80 percent for the past six years," Parish said. "We've had tremendous success locally, and we've built a model that I believe can be applied to other areas."
Regulations banning lead ammunition could make it harder to garner the support of hunters and shooters for such voluntary programs, Parish said. In the long run, a voluntary approach that appeals to a hunter's conservation ethic may be more effective than legislation, he said.
Leading The Way
Since California's ban wouldn't be implemented fully until 2019, experts stress the importance of monitoring condor and other wildlife populations until it takes effect.
"There needs to be a dedicated long-term effort," said UC Davis' Johnson. "Ideally, we would start examining the birds before the law goes into effect, and follow them for many years. For condors, we're already doing that."
Finkelstein of UC Santa Cruz said the statewide ban was another important step in reducing the amount of lead in the environment. "The thing about lead is that there's an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence demonstrating its harmful effects to humans and wildlife," she said.
"Moving forward and reducing lead exposure is only going to benefit human and animal health, and hopefully, California can lead the way," Finkelstein said.
Fork the condors. This is just an excuse for a back-door gun grab. Do you know how much ammo already costs? Lead is used in ammo for a reason! It is heavy and stable, and doesn't eat barrels.
Copper mining probably does more harm to this earth. than hunters shooting lead bullets . Copper is the legal option for bullet material in CA. We owe it to the animals we hunt to use the most accurate projectiles we can, with minimal adverse environmental impacts. . .Hunting and law enforcement/military are worlds apart when it comes to guns and shooting . Lets face it , our leaders don't always know what's best. There is no magic answer .
Britain banned lead fishing weights about 25 years ago and the effects have been dramatic. Prior to the ban many species of fish and birds were dying in very large numbers from ingesting lead weights that had been lost or discarded by anglers. Weights are now made from non-toxic metals and fish and bird species have rebounded.
When National Geographic just parrots the left wing garbage spewed by the California politicians we are in trouble. From the beginning to the end the article is flawed, a picture of a duck hunter (lead has been banned at a federal level since 2002) we now assume is breaking the law, to junk science about the cause of condor death. What about wind turbines and ddt? We have to ask what other lies are being printed?
Time to send all my old copies of Nat Geo to the dump. A sad demise of a once great publication.
Lead is very toxic for the hunted, too, especially when fired from a gun.
Firstly, there should be a ban on hunting and killing that which you aren't going to take home and/or eat. Secondly there should be a total ban on all guns not held by the military and law enforcement.
It is my concern that so many citizens find the Beautiful Condor an obstacle to their Bill of Rights, namely the 2nd Amendment. These people, some hunters, but mostly those who fear "Socialist Tyranny", have organized against Condor preservation as a 'Enemy-to-Freedom'.
They have currently made it their mission to eradicate the Condor as a lesser evil to an "Oppressive Government". It seems the 'phony' lead argument will be the assured demise of the Condor.
The logic is simple, If there are no Condor to protect, there will be no reason to eliminate the miniscule amounts of lead, which is, of course, a Non-Issue in the other 49 other States.
The little White Lie regarding lead, has only served to Target the Condor for Extinction.
We must reverse this non-lead bullet nonsense, before we lose our Condors. We cannot win this one, if we truly care about the Condors.
We Cannot have our cake and eat it, too.
we really need to ban human intervention- like messing with their nesting and eggs as well as molesting young birds for "science"
Get a clue and leave them alone.. and that includes the do goods that trek to photo them.. Make nesting sites a no human protected area. Blaming hunters for all our intervention is also just finger pointing.. A not me attitude
I even hate the photo-
1. Waterfowlers cannot use lead shot for hunting.
Point 2. Condors are highland carrion eaters and would drown if they landed in water.
3. There are no marshes in the mountains where Condors live.. The photo is So wrong.
California is OK with banning lead ammo that has no direct link to the degradation of the condor population but is fine with giving wind farms exemption from being prosecuted when they kill condors. These turbines have been directly linked to killing these birds.This article is incorrect and anyone who believes this biased article should do their own research.
Explain how lead contamination in turkeys declined after a ban ONLY in Condor areas??
Condors eat DEER,CATTLE and SHEEP in those areas..How many are left dead when a hunter shoots them(None)
The condor that died of "lead Poisoning was #318 and this dude was SHOT. Sure lead was used but not systemic ingestion accumulation.
Rifle and pistol shot does not contribute to wildlife lead poisoning. Period.
California is not on the ball- eliminate housing and human intervention in condor feeding areas..We are the problem, not a bullet.
Lead is toxic--period. It has no business being allowed in any food source, whether it's consumed by humans or wildlife. It's known to hamper mental capacities and cause health issues. Saying it's OK in small amounts is like saying Mercury is OK in small amounts--the cumulative effects can kill. Worse is when thrill killers give their lead-laden meat to homeless shelters and other unsuspecting charities (and take a tax write off for their expenses). Consumption of lead dust poisons those poor souls as well. How many mammals are wounded with all the lead intact, run elsewhere to die, and all the lead is consumed? California did the right thing.
A 2012 study of California condor mortality since their reestablishment in the wild in 1992 found lead toxicosis to be a leading cause of death for the species. Bullets and bullet fragments in the carrion the birds eat have been cited specifically.
"But while lead levels in condors also seemed to decline immediately after the 2007 ban, more recent monitoring has found that they are still being exposed, "
Exactly - in spite of 99% compliance with the law, the lead exposure CONTINUED. Instead of considering other sources (such as the LEAD PAINT condors have been observed eating), the anti-hunting crowd continues to blame hunters..... What will they do after a statewide ban does nothing?
As far as humans being exposed to lead by eating game shot with lead ammunition, there is ZERO SCIENCE supporting this idea. When lead levels of South Dakota farm families that eat a lot of venison harvested with lead ammo were tested. their lead levels were LOWER than the control group.
As far as comparing lead bullets with lead shot used to harvest waterfowl, this is comparing apples to oranges. Lead shot from both hits and misses was falling into shallow water where waterfowl would pick it up in the same way they picked up gravel off the bottom. When an animal is shot with a lead bullet it does not enter to environment in significant amounts.
Then there is the problem of non-lead ammo:
1) It can be banned by the feds as armor piecing - it PENETRATES
2) It is much less accurate than lead ammo - unless hand-loaded for a specific rifle. This will result in more wounded game instead of clean and quick kills.
3) These bullets expand reliably over a much narrower range of velocities. Hunters using non-magnum rifles are going to get zero expansion in many cases. They will effectively be hunting with Full Metal Jacket ammo - which would otherwise be illegal - because it results in more wounded game instead of clean kills.
Finally, there are other ways to address this issue - such as requiring hunters to remove the entire animal, or to bury the gut pile. Arizona has made this a compliance option. Hunters have very high compliance with game laws and could be trusted to do this as much as they can be trusted to use lead ammo. This option addresses the concerns about other wildlife consuming lead, without the disadvantages of non-lead ammo.
Question to Finkelstein- Why won't you release ALL of your data and methods to independent researchers?
Small game hunters that use many more shots hunting, will be greatly effected price wise.
Kudos to California Governor Jerry Brown for signing this commonsense, long-overdue legislation. It's worth noting that only ONE Republican voted for AB 711 on either the Assembly or Senate floor. Shouldn't environmental protection be a bipartisan issue? Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold must be whirling in their graves. NRA paranoia notwithstanding, AB 711 is NOT an "anti-hunting" bill.
Here's hoping that other states will soon copy California's new law. We need a nationwide ban on the use of lead for ALL hunting. And for fishing tackle, too. Untold numbers of waterbirds annually sicken and die after ingesting lost lead fishing weights ("sinkers"), birds such as swans, loons, cormorants, diving ducks, et al.
Some thank-you's are in order to Gov. Jerry Brown and Assemblymember Anthony Rendon. The Governor and all state legislators may be written c/o The State Capitol, Sacramento, CA 95814.
Cool photograph, but the caption reads "California is the first state to ban lead ammunition—used by hunters like this one—which could help the state's wildlife population."
The hunter is clearly a duck hunter. Then the article goes on to state, "In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a nationwide ban on lead shot for hunting waterfowl."
So the duck hunter depicted is using lead in violation of federal law? Someone call the cops.
Such carelessness undermines the article's credibility.
I was given the gift of subscription to National Geographic as a just a kid in 1982. I maintained my membership and kept every issue. Having grown up with Grandparents that had hardbound editions from the early 20th century thru the post World War II years, I came to really enjoy the amazing photos and articles. Unfortunately something changed a while back, and as a result my collection no longer became worth the hassle of boxing up when having to move. Eventually decades worth of magazines were just given away for an art project. The hardbound issues are kept as a family keepsakes more than anything. Now I even question that. This is story is a microcosm as to why.
Goodness, I thought lead was prohibited years ago, by federal regulaltions. It was known, years before that, to be deadly to animals and birds which ate other wildlife that had been shot with lead bullets/pellets. It was also proibited to use lead weights in fishing, for the same reason.
By the way, Desmond, do you think Condors only fly over there so called, wildlife area? Do you think fish only swim in the same area, and never travel down rivers, to other areas or even states? Fish eat other fish, birds eat fish, other animals eat fish, and eventually even humans eat fish or other animals which have ingested lead. As a fisherman,hunter, I know there are people who resist every scientific finding announced. They hunt in non-hunting areas, off season, killing or catching animals in the midst of their breeding season, all in the name of "freedom". Apparently, all this time, claiming to be a "defender of wildlife". Yeah, defender if it suits them, but not at times they want to do their own thing.
Nonsense. There is simply not enough lead added to the environment through hunting to require such legislation. And with the constant assault on the 2nd Amendment in California over the past 10 years, hunting has decreased by half, state-wide. Liberal, anti-gun nonsense.
@Philip Cox DDT has been banned for over 10 years now
People like you are why hunters are sometimes skeptical of laws "regulating" hunting. Sometimes it's actually good for game species; sometimes it's just an end-around to achieve gun-control goals which can't be obtained through the ballot box.
If you don't want to hunt, that's your business. Enjoy your massed produced, hormone injected, inhumanely killed animals, and feel superior to those of us who would prefer to eat the ultimate in "free-range" wildlife.
By the way, how can I hunt for food (a purpose you have graciously blessed) if I can't own a firearm?
@may k. Condors are not the only bird population threatened by lead.
Research copper poisoning in Condors, tungsten poisoning in groundwater, plastic ingestion in all bird species.
@Ernie Jay Hey Ernie.. where do you think Lead and Mercury comes from? Lead laden meat? Your not a hunter that's for sure. Tax write off- NOT..it is illegal to take monetary benefit from wildlife. A bullet cannot cause systemic contamination.
@Austin Drews Link to study...??
I read that research- the lead was from human TRASH injestion by juveniles - not bullets.. causing the toxic accumulation but inbreeding is the leading problem along with human intrusion.
A few died from bullet fragments because they were SHOT- go figure.
Yet that study has not been released to independent peer review.
Among other things, it claims fragments found can be traced to bullets based on isotopic fingerprints. The fact that lead sources for bullets come from many new mining sources as well as the recycled lead from solder, plumbing pipe, batteries, wheel weights, linotype and other sources that will all have varied isotopes. This shows the study method from the outset is flawed.
When a kid wants to shoot a couple of jackrabbits for dinner, she shouldn't have to pay $4 bucks a shot for ammo.
It IS anti-hunting.
Do something real for the wildlife and promote more people getting out in the wild, in all the ways they can, More people in the field equals more support for wildlife habitat.
@reva madison Reva, Thanks for the education. You seem angry and very mean. I am sure there are some illegal hunters out poaching but the majority of legal hunters do not poach, no need to bash in the name of freedom? If the condors are leaving the Sespe Wilderness than lead will be one of their last worry's. Remember not long ago they were drinking anti-freeze? What's next?
@reva madison Nice post. However, lead shot has never been prohibited until recently, and then only in a few states. In regards to fishing weights, I know of no state that dissallows their use, but could be wrong. I too hunt and fish and spend much of my time afield, with and without my dogs. During off-season (non-hunting), when I'm out in the wilds checking game trails and such, I carry a satellite phone to report exactly what you're talking about in re poachers and illegal hunters. Please have a fine day.
Not true, it isn't that it is added to the environment, it is lead left in the critters that the raptors, eagles included, eat. There is no rule that says projectile weapons require lead to kill.
@Desmond Johanson @reva madison I didnt say anything abut the majority of hunters. Just a few spoil it for the rest. Yes- I guess I could be considered angry, when such people completely disobey the law, just because THEY want to. Everyone else should be angry about it too. Yes, anti freeze was, and still is a problem. I continue to read about dogs and cats who seem to love the taste, being poisoned because of either leaks, or people draining their autos in their own driveways. Mean, well I don't know about that. I was a NRA hunter safety instructor, and a rifle instructor, as far back as 1960s, and even those programs have been watered down, wherein the local instructors no longer even talk about half the things we taught then. The hunter safety courses are almost a laugh. The students do not even shoot one shot during the whole course. Without handling a loaded weapon, one never learns the correct handling without touching.
Lead shot has been prohibited for waterfowl hunting for 22 years - since 1991 - by federal law. The fact that this article and your post is filled with false information As far as upland bird and small game hunting, where is the evidence that this causes any problems? There is none..... this ban, and this article is nothing but false information and propaganda.
Sorry, James is right. Hunters are not shooting and leaving enough lead in "critters" to detect. How many deer are shot in the stomach then gutted and the guts left on the ground for another animal to eat and get lead poisoning? Impossible to record and there would not be very many. And the Condor habitat is in designated Wilderness area that is illegal to hunt in. Bogus study with probably no hard facts.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest Photos Galleries
A family traces the trailblazers in the 1950s using original records