Lead Ban Chronicles – Scavenger Hunt, A Documentary Review

April 17, 2013

Lead Ban ChroncilesA few weeks ago, I got a press release from the Peregrine Fund about a new documentary film coming out on DVD.  Scavenger Hunt, An Unlikely Union is about the plight of the California Condor, and goes through the story of the condor recovery efforts and the challenges to those efforts.

OK, to be more clear, the story isn’t so much about all the challenges to the recovery of the condor, but focuses pretty directly on the use of lead ammunition and (to some extent) the role of hunters in determining the success or failure of the restoration program. 

But any film needs to focus on a goal, and the discussion of lead ammo is key to this one.  This goal is explicitly stated on the film’s website:


This project began with one simple goal: to convince hunters to switch to non-lead ammunition to prevent condors and other scavengers from being poisoned. While we were shooting video, what had started as a small local issue exploded into a national political debate when it became clear that lead particles were being consumed, not just by scavengers, but by hunters and their families. As the details of this debate played out, it became clear that the voices of the biologists who were most directly involved were grossly under-represented. Organizations that had little to no involvement in biological research and management were arguing back and forth over the issue of a nationwide ban on lead-based ammunition. Meanwhile, this small group of hunters and biologists in Northern Arizona had quietly convinced 90% of hunters in the region to use non-lead ammunition voluntarily.

Our goal with this film is not to say that a voluntary effort is the best or only solution to the problem. Instead, we hope that this film will allow hunters to get the credit that they deserve for the effort that they have put forth to protect one of the world’s most endangered bird species. We hope to show that despite the ever present rhetoric from gun rights organizations like the NRA and the NSSF, hunters truly are America’s greatest conservationists.

I asked for a copy of the DVD for review, and they had it in my mailbox within a couple of days.  Unfortunately, until last night, I hadn’t really had a good opportunity to sit down and watch it.  But now I have.

California CondorI’ll preface my review by admitting to a certain defensive attitude from the outset.  While I appreciate that the Peregrine Fund is not openly advocating for lead ammo bans, I also know that there’s a lot of pressure to get lead out of the field and that resistance to that pressure never looks good for hunters.  With this in mind, I was quick and ready to jump on inconsistencies, misrepresentations, or blame-casting.  I wasn’t expecting an outright vilification of sport hunters, but I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t be shown in the most complementary light either. 

The film wasn’t perfect, but when it was done and I had a moment to digest, I realized that it did a pretty good job of putting the story out there with a reasonable amount of context.   A couple of things really stood out for the better, which is great, and the bad wasn’t as bad as I thought it could have been… which is a sort of relief. 

I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of the folks who are involved with the condor recovery program, and I can say without hesitation that they are extremely passionate and committed to seeing these birds return to the wild as a viable and self-sustaining population.  This comes across very clearly in the film.  What you see, by and large, is not a group of rabid anti-hunters or self-righteous environmentalists, but some people who are working extremely hard to see condors succeed, and they are sometimes frustrated by setbacks to that goal. 

The film is beautifully shot and edited.  Most of it is set in and around the Grand Canyon, and the scenery is outstanding.  You really get the feeling of space and grandeur, along with the understanding that this is what these birds represent to a lot of people.  The condor is a creature of the wide open spaces, and its near demise reflects the demise of the Great American West.  I can’t help the feeling that part of the impetus for restoration is a dreamer’s resistance to the end of this ideal.  If the condor can be saved, maybe there’s hope that we can save the the wild places and the freedom that they represent. 

Or maybe I’m just reaching a little…

So what about hunters and lead ammo?  How do they play into this film, and what are the viewers supposed to take away from it? 

To anyone who has been involved in the discussions and has done their research, there’s not a lot of new information presented in the film.  But it does put the issue in context, and ties a few disparate concepts into a manageable package for the viewer who may not know a lot about the lead ammo issue, particularly as it pertains to the condor.  For example, I think a lot of hunters still don’t understand how much a lead bullet fragments on impact with an animal, or that even when the bullet passes all the way through it tends to leave a significant number of fragments behind.  Likewise, many don’t understand how a single gut pile or carcass can potentially  distribute lead fragments to a whole group of birds. 

I also found it interesting that while the film broaches the subject of lead fragments in the meat that hunters eat (and feed to our families), it didn’t go far down that road.  My guess is that this is because the road doesn’t really go anywhere.  There’s an open possibility that consuming these lead fragments may contribute to subtle health issues, but there’s no evidence anywhere to clearly confirm the possibility.  Without that, there’s little more a responsible person can do than to recommend caution.  I think this is fair, and as I’ve said before, I won’t blame anyone for taking precautions to protect their loved ones.  A vague risk is still a risk, and that’s too much for some folks to accept… especially when they can mitigate or even eliminate that risk by changing their ammunition. 

While the film does a great job of keeping the focus on the condor, it also manages to illustrate the reality that lead fragments are also dangerous to other scavengers, from blue jays to golden eagles.  This is a point that seems to escape a lot of people in the discussion about lead ammo, at the same time that other folks are playing it up as some sort of environmental disaster.  The film itself pulls no punches in showing the horrible fate of birds that are poisoned by lead, but it stops short of advocating for lead bans… particularly on a national level.

On the topic of lead bans, I found one area where Scavenger Hunt fell short. 

In the fim maker’s goals statement, he talks about the organizations that have turned the lead ammo discussion into a political issue, allowing agendas to overwhelm the voices of the biologists themselves.  I liked that point, and I agree with it.  I think this issue would be much closer to a positive resolution without the politics, and the distrust that has arisen from them.  I would have hoped that the film would make that point as well, but it didn’t come across.

When the film does introduce the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), there is no clear separation of their arguments from the narrative of the film.   I was left with the impression that the film maker was basically aligning with the CBD argument that lead ammo should be banned nationally, while the NSSF counter-arguments included in the film were largely irrelevant to the condor issue.  Now maybe that was simply a failure to provide proper context for the selected clips, or maybe it was intentional.  As I said earlier, I viewed the film from a defensive position, so this really hit me wrong. 

At the same time, the film does spend quite a bit of time with Chris Parish, one of the condor project biologists, and also an avid hunter.  Parish, with the assistance of AZ Fish and Game’s Kathy Sullivan, make the case for education and voluntary adoption of lead-free ammo.  The example of AZ’s program on the Kaibab Plateau still stands out as a successful cooperative effort between condor advocates, hunters, and State officials.  The model is currently under consideration by Utah as the condor population begins to move north out of the Grand Canyon area.  There is also a brief, but telling, comparison of the success of the AZ voluntary program with the relative failure of California’s lead ammo ban.

One thing that I would have liked to see would be some conversations with those of us who are sort of in the middle on the whole thing.  I think there are some valuable perspectives from folks outside of the biological or political arenas who have voluntarily switched but do not necessarily agree with the idea of banning lead ammo outright.  If one goal of the film was to give credit to hunters as conservationists, then I think it would have been valid to discuss some of the reasons that hunters aren’t switching (beyond the “expense” argument which was dismissed a little too summarily for my tastes).  If the argument to switch is so strong, then why is there resistance? 

Finally, I think it would have been valuable to spend a little more time talking about other mitigation tactics that hunters can employ in lieu of switching to lead-free ammo.  For example, part of the program in AZ involves encouraging hunters who use lead to bag and remove the gut piles of their deer.  In another case, one of the biologists disposes of a deer cartridge in a thicket of scrub oak to keep the condors from finding and eating it (condors hunt by sight, not by smell).  Going lead free is not the only thing hunters can do to keep lead away from scavenger birds. 

After the film was over, I flipped through the DVD menu.  There are “outtakes” and “deleted scenes” on the DVD, as well as some extra clips.  I watched all of these as well, and found some of it interesting (Jim Petterson’s comparison tests of lead bullets vs. lead free was particularly good), and some of it a little dogmatic, but overall, the DVD package presents a lot of information that I think is valuable to anyone who is trying to learn more about the condor/lead issue. 

Overall, I do recommend this film.  I think it offers a good perspective on the issue of lead ammo and condors, especially in terms of understanding who the real condor advocates are (as opposed to the political organizations who have taken up the lead ban flag).  I also believe that, if some hunters can put aside their political prejudices, it might help a few more folks consider voluntarily switching to lead-free ammo.  I’d love to see it played as part of the Hunter Education program, at least in the condor states (CA, AZ, UT).  That might be too much to ask, but it would definitely be an asset, if only for the conversations it would generate.



11 Responses to “Lead Ban Chronicles – Scavenger Hunt, A Documentary Review”

  1. JAC on April 18th, 2013 14:08

    I, for one, will buy that DVD. I’m going to hit the submit button and buy it right now. Thank you for making me hip to this project.

  2. JAC on April 18th, 2013 14:15

    Bought it.

  3. Phillip on April 18th, 2013 18:36

    I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  4. J.R. Young on April 19th, 2013 10:06

    Does the film address the fact that condors are consumers on a lot of anthropogenic waste? I think it would be a valid point to raise as well.

    CA will most likely pass the statewide ban, I wish they would approach it like AZ. It makes no difference to me, but you noted very well that because this is so political there is a lot of distrust.

  5. Phillip on April 19th, 2013 13:13

    JR, I think this was a weak spot in the film. There are several significant threats to condor survival besides lead (despite the argument that lead is the most significant). The film really didn’t delve into any of these to any appreciable extent. The topic of eating trash makes a brief appearance, but there’s no focus on it at all. I tried to keep in mind that the point of the film was the role of hunters, and not a comprehensive documentary on condor recovery, but I feel like some perspective re: other causes of condor mortality would have been worthwhile.

    As far as the politics and distrust, it’s a big problem. There’s an interesting parallel in the current battle over firearms. These diametric oppositions seem to be getting more and more pronounced in this era of social networking and “Facebook Activism”. Really makes you start to wonder where it ends.

  6. Alex Hoover on April 19th, 2013 12:57

    I like the guys at the Peregrine Fund. When I dug in this issue a while back (, I ended up characterizing them as “a bunch of elk-hunting eco-rednecks who happen to have a thing for conserving birds of prey.” I’ll have to check out the video.

  7. Phillip on April 19th, 2013 13:15

    Interesting characterization, Alex. I like it.

    If you do check out the video, let me know. I am really curious about how other hunters see it, and what they take away.

  8. Joseph Brandt on April 25th, 2013 23:24

    You might also take a look at The Condor’ Shadow. Another recently made condor documentary that focuses on the flock in southern CA. We would love your opinion of this film as well.

  9. Phillip on April 27th, 2013 10:29

    Joseph, I’d love to take a look. I have heard of it, but didn’t get a chance to see it. Would you know whom to contact in order to get a copy? I’m not a well-funded publication, so unless someone sends me a copy to review (or unless I see it on TV), I don’t usually get to it.

  10. Joseph Brandt on May 7th, 2013 10:33

    I will see what I can do to get you a copy.

  11. Phillip on May 8th, 2013 09:21

    Thanks, Joseph. That would be great!