A Bill to Ban Lead Ammunition Could Protect California Condors

California outlaws lead ammo to safeguard an iconic bird.

UPDATE: California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 711 into law on October 11. The California State Senate approved it on Monday, September 9, by a vote of 23 to 15. On September 10, the amended bill was confirmed by the State Assembly.

The toxicity of lead and the dangers it poses to humans and wildlife alike are a given. After all, it was banned from house paints and phased out of gasoline in the 1970s after the long-term neurological damage it could cause in young children became clear. And birds, especially waterfowl, were known to suffer from lead poisoning as far back as the 1890s. George Bird Grinnell, who founded the first iteration of the National Audubon Society, wrote in 1894 about “the destruction of ducks, geese, and swans by lead-poisoning.” Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, lead-based ammunition is still widely used by hunters for other types of birds and game animals.

A bill signed into law on October 11 by Governor Jerry Brown aims to stop that. But it has sparked a fiery debate among environmentalists, hunters, and legislators across the state and the country. The bill, AB 711, bans the use of lead from all hunting ammunition in California; non-lead ammo is to be phased in by 2019. The bill was passed in the State Assembly in May, and the California Senate approved it on September 9.

The bill expands regulations that were passed in 2007 to protect the California condor from ingesting lead-based ammunition from the carcasses of animals killed by hunters.  Despite those regulations, which were in effect only in the embattled birds’ range, condors are still turning up with lead poisoning. Audubon California, which is spearheading the effort to pass the bill, believes that the only way to stop the continued lead poisoning of condors is to require nonlead hunting ammunition throughout the state.

There are currently only 224 California condors in the wild, spread across Arizona and Mexico as well as California. (Almost half the population lives in California). The birds are North America’s largest land birds, with wingspans reaching nine feet or more. Their much-celebrated comeback—they were down to 22 birds in 1982 before a captive-breeding program boosted their numbers—belies their tenuous status.

Garrison Frost, Audubon California’s director of marketing and communication, suspects that lead poisoning from hunting ammo contributed to the original decline of the condor. “People who look back now, a lot of them think that the reason the bird was dying off so quickly back then was because of lead ammunition,” he says. Frost attributes stubbornly high lead levels in condors to their exceptional scavenging abilities.

Even if only one percent of carcasses contain lead, “in a year there’s a 50/50 chance that a condor will encounter a carcass with lead, because they find them so well, so quickly and easily,” Frost says. The big difference between condors and such scavengers as golden eagles and turkey vultures, whose lead levels have dropped, is that those birds “will kind of stay in [their] neighborhood[s],” unlike the condor, which “will range hundreds and hundreds of miles in a day.” In addition, he believes that many hunters are still using lead-based ammo in the restricted areas, and that this new bill is the only option left. “When you make that requirement statewide, then you’re not going to see people buying it; you’re going to have to buy the nonlead alternatives,” he says.

Kim Delfino is a program director for Defenders of Wildlife, which is also sponsoring the bill. “Lead is a very toxic material that affects a lot of animals, particularly condors and raptors,” she says. She hopes that California “will lead the way” in switching to non-lead ammo: “Once California goes, the rest of the country will follow.”

Jennifer Fearing, senior state director of the Humane Society (another backer of the bill), agrees that now is the time to pass this legislation. “The Humane Society is drawn to solving those kinds of problems – the ones where the right solution is the best for the animals, the best for the people, and the best for the environment,” she says.

Thirty-five states already require the use of nonlead ammo in certain areas when hunting particular types of game. California’s bill would result in the country’s first statewide ban. 

Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has drawn a line in the sand. On its website against the bill, HuntForTruth.org, the NRA points to the lack of change in condors’ lead levels since 2007 as evidence that “hunters’ ammunition is not the cause of lead exposure and toxicity in condors and alternative sources of lead are to blame.” Among these purported alternative sources are “microtrash,” such as nuts, bolts, coins, mining waste, and leaded paint. A 2012 study found that the lead isotope ratio (used for determining sources of lead) in the blood of five condors did indeed match the ratio found in leaded paint; at the same time, the study also found that the isotope ratios in the majority of condors tested matched the ratio found in lead ammunition.

The current rift between hunting and environmental groups marks something of a departure, since they have collaborated on such efforts as deer population control. To make things more complicated, some conservation groups oppose the bill as well. For example, Ducks Unlimited, along with several other groups, wrote in a letter that the new bill “would be devastating to the thousands of Californians that participate in hunting and recreational shooting, the firearms and ammunition industries, as well as the vital conservation programs they fund.” Many in this camp regard the bill as veiled attempt to limit hunting, a direct attack on hunters, or an issue of “sav[ing] California’s hunting heritage.”

Most of their complaints center on the supposed higher price of nonlead hunting ammunition, and ignore a recent study concluding that the price of copper-based ammunition (the common nonlead alternative) is generally comparable to the price of lead-based ammo. And for good measure, AB 711 even calls for establishing “a process that will provide hunters with nonlead ammunition at no or reduced charge.”

Frost insists this bill is not about limiting hunting itself. “That’s not our goal. We’re not trying to outlaw hunting,” he says. “We’re trying to find something that’s good enough to help the birds but doesn’t impact these hunting groups and other folks who don’t want to make a more radical change.”

*This story has been updated to reflect that the legislation was signed into law.