Birds, Unleaded

Audubon groups in Maine and California wage a battle against deadly lead.

The war against lead is advancing on two fronts. In Maine, after a new report labeled small lead fishing tackle as the biggest cause of death for common loons, Audubon introduced legislation to halt its sale. And in California, Audubon is pushing for a statewide ban on lead hunting ammunition, which still threatens endangered condors and other protected species. “It is not reasonable to discharge large amounts of lead in the environment when [lead-free] alternatives exist,” says Dan Taylor, Audubon California’s public policy director.

Habitat destruction and flooded nests already put the loons at risk, explains Mark Pokras, a veterinarian who participated in Maine Audubon’s research. “This goes back to the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If lead was the only threat, I wouldn’t be so worried.” Adds Susan Gallo, director of Maine Audubon’s Loon Project, who helped lead the research: “If you look at what we can do something about, lead is huge.” Using data from the study of 450 dead loons, Maine Audubon is trying to expand current state fishing tackle restrictions to include both the sale and use of sinkers up to one ounce and lead-headed jigs up to two-and-a-half inches long.

Likewise, Audubon California is ramping up efforts to outlaw lead, but in bullets. Endangered condors have become poster birds for the metal’s harmful effects: As flock feeders that gather around gut piles that hunters discard, “one contaminated carcass can poison multiple birds,” Taylor explains. Add to that the threat to people who eat game and the fight has real legs, he notes. “Linking the human aspect with the wildlife aspect has significantly changed the debate.”

In both cases, the groups opposing the restrictions—gun advocates and hunters in the West, anglers in the East—dispute its effects. Fishermen argue that lead isn’t depleting the loon population. But in Maine in the past 30 years, chick hatches haven’t increased in proportion to adult numbers. Furthermore, we may be seeing “just a sample of what’s dying out there [from lead],” says Danielle D’Auria, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist.

In the eight California counties that have already outlawed lead ammunition, lead levels in animals have declined, Taylor says. “We’re seeing it in turkey vultures, in golden eagles, and in condors.” But the lead still out there continues to pose a threat.

At press time, Maine Audubon was awaiting a decision about further restrictions on sinkers and jigs. California Audubon expects an Assembly decision on the bullet bill by late June.

Update: Since publication, Maine Audubon’s bill to ban lead sinkers and jigs was approved by the state Senate and became law. The first restrictions take effect this fall, and the phase-in will be complete by September of 2017. Meanwhile, Audubon California’s statewide ban on lead ammunition passed the California State Assembly. The bill is currently in the State Senate, and Taylor expects the bill to go to the Senate floor for a full vote in early September.

This story ran in the July-August issue as “Heavy Metal.”