Once Again, Lead Ban Advocates Only Telling Half The Story

June 26, 2012

It pisses me off. 

Honestly, that’s the only reason I’m even bothering to write this post, and that’s probably a bad reason to do it.  “Keep a level head,” I try to remind myself.  “Reason it out.”

Maybe I will by the time I finish writing this… or maybe not.

But right now, I don’t care about reason or logic.  And why should I, when the anti-lead campaign can apparently promote half-truths and pure speculation as fact in our major media outlets?  Does it matter if I’m doing my damnedest to dig into the issue and learn all I can before I spout off, when apparently the newspapers are perfectly happy to present a one-sided argument to the readers?  Just run with the press release.  Change a few words and add a byline.  What the hell?

The source of this morning’s rant?  This piece of crap article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Condor’s Comeback Imperiled by Lead Poisoning, once again, dumps the plight of the condors on the front steps of the California hunter.  Nowhere in the article does it provide the evidence that supports the writer’s (the Chronicle Science Editor, for god’s sake!) claim that the continued lead poisoning of condors is coming from hunters’ bullets.  There is no examination of the fact that lead ammo has been banned in an area that encompasses not only the condor’s current range, but their HISTORIC range! 

Here’s a little snippet…

Today, recovery efforts by determined conservationists have returned the condor population to more than 400.

Captive breeding programs, hatcheries for eggs gathered from abandoned nests in the wild and many other conservation efforts have been hailed as great successes in saving the condor from extinction.

But the analysis by Finkelstein and her team shows that nearly half the California free-flying condors have suffered from chronic lead poisoning in the past 10 years – many of them poisoned repeatedly during that time. Blood tests show that 20 percent are exposed to lead each year, but few die.

First of all, let me be clear.  I do not deny that there is a link between lead ammo and condor mortality.  I have spent enough time reading documentation, and in conversation with knowledgeable people to have a clear understanding of the potential danger, and the extent of that danger.  It’s also true that the California lead ammo ban has only been in effect since 2008, so in the 10-year period mentioned above, it’s not unlikely that lead ammunition played some part in the lead poisoning statistics.  I would think that’s a point worth pointing out.

Reports from the CA DFG show pretty much 100% compliance by hunters in the field with the lead ban.  Of course, I know (and most of you hunters do too) that compliance isn’t 100%.  Besides poachers, I expect there are plenty of ranchers and landowners down there who will do what they want and the law be damned.  More than once while guiding, I had pig hunters show up with lead ammunition (intentionally or accidentally), and while we always made them switch ammo or use our guns, I don’t doubt that some other operations may not be as careful to check.  The truth is that no one is ever going to be able to bring that kind of thing to a halt.  It’s a fact of life.  So there will probably always be a scattering of lead-killed carrion out there for the birds to eat.  This simply has to be part of the equation when the condor restoration folks are planning their program.

Nevertheless, given the large number of law-abiding hunters who have complied with the ban (and I would argue without statistical proof that this is the vast majority), there should be a dramatic decrease in the rates of lead poisoning.  If that’s not happening (the article isn’t clear on whether there’s an increase or a decrease and no one asked… a shocking lack of curiousity for a “Science Editor”), then the logical thing would be to launch an intensive search to identify the sources.  There are only 400 birds in the state, and the researchers have a very good picture of where they are almost all the time.  It seems to me that if as much effort was put into finding the actual lead sources as there has been to throw out blanket condemnations of hunters and our ammunition, then maybe some progress could be made toward alleviating (not eliminating) the problem. 

And what then?

According to the researcher quoted in the article, Myra Finkelstein, unless all of the sources of lead are eliminated from the condor range, there is no way to develop a self-sustaining, wild population of condors.    And even that may not be enough…

Finkelstein and her colleagues have made a population study of California’s remaining wild condors and found that without continued treatment for lead poisoning, the population will never increase, and probably even decline.

Well that is problematic, isn’t it? 

It seems to me that someone missed a fairly important factor in their plans to reintroduce the condor.  Someone apparently failed to consider that some of the same environmental challenges that brought these birds to the brink of extinction still exist out there.  To get the reintroduction program going to this point, and then suddenly “realize” that lead poisoning will defeat their plans seems like an awfully sophomoric miscalculation. 

That doesn’t change the fact that it’s happened… is happening now… and it’s become the leading edge of a national assault on lead ammunition.  But it also takes me sort of full circle in my thinking about this whole thing.

First of all, if all lead ammunition were miraculously removed from the US tomorrow, would condors be able to return to a self-sustaining, wild population?  Or would one issue simply turn into another?  Today it’s lead ammo, tomorrow it’s microtrash… or powerlines… or vehicle collisions… or contaminants in marine mammals.  According to the research I’ve been reading, lead poisoning is primarily an issue for adult condors.  The nestlings face myriad other challenges, particularly the ingestion of micro-trash (small bits of metal, glass, cloth, fiberglass, etc.) that is actually being fed to them by their parents.  According to documents from the American Ornithologists Union (AOU), without ongoing nest monitoring and intervention, condors will not be able to successfully raise wild broods.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with ammunition (although it’s interesting to note that in several cases of nestling mortality, one of the listed toxicants was copper!).

Secondly, is it worth it?  I know, that’s a politically incorrect question to ask, but I’m really beyond political correctness right now.  According to some old documentation (2009 or 2010), the condor program is going on at the cost of about $5 million per year.  While much of that comes from private organizations, a good chunk comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Other agencies on the state level are also on the hook for associated costs.  Those costs have likely increased, and will certainly go up as the population grows. 

At the same time the costs are going up, a contingent of the condor recovery advocates are pushing for a national ban on the sale and manufacture of lead ammunition.  This is something that will impact an entire industry, the participants in all shooting sports (not just hunters), and law enforcement agencies across the country.  It is no small thing, despite constant, misleading comparisons to the bans on lead shot for waterfowl.  Their argument is that lead will continue to be a problem for condors as long as it is available anywhere in the country.  And in some ways, maybe they’re right.  With the poachers, scofflaws, and hardheads out there, as long as there’s lead ammo, someone will probably be using it… and one fragmented, 150 grain bullet can (theoretically) poison an entire flock of condors.  There is simply no way to completely enforce a ban on the use of lead ammo, so the obvious alternative is to make it disappear.  (Of course this is just as flawed as the argument that outlawing guns will put an end to gun-related crime.  I wonder as well, how long would it take, post ban, for all of the existing lead ammunition to be used up?)

And all for what?  What do we get in return?  A really cool carrion-eating bird who has outlived its ecological niche?  We get to “save” a creature from extinction?  Maybe.  Because it’s entirely possible that the bird won’t survive even if lead ammunition suddenly ceased to exist.  So what we really get for all the expense and drastic change to the shooting and hunting industry is a big, fat, MAYBE. 

I don’t want to make light of it.  Extinction is a kind of serious thing.  But honestly, it’s been going on forever, way before humans ever appeared on the scene.  And I grok it… if it weren’t for humans, maybe this bird and several other creatures would still be doing fine.  But that’s a ridiculous argument because there is no “if it weren’t for humans”.  We’re here.  Reality doesn’t move that way.

Then again, I don’t think letting the condor go extinct is necessarily the answer either.  It doesn’t have to be that way, obviously, because the restoration folks have already proven that they can bring the birds back in some form.  I do, however, think it’s time to reevaluate the strategy and long-term goals of the condor program. 

In the AOU’s report on the condors, one recurrent theme really stuck with me.  The gist of it is that, unless something can be done to remove all toxic lead and all microtrash from the condors’ habitat, the whole program will be dependent on continued monitoring, health care, and management.  The West will, to all effects, become a giant aviary for these birds. 

So maybe that’s the answer right there.  $5 million a year isn’t all that bad, relative to the costs of some other programs.  Hell, how much has been spent on the lead ammo ban campaign by people and organizations that have nothing to do with the condor?  How much has been spent fighting it?  In the meantime, continue to educate hunters about lead ammo and potential effects on non-target species, and continue to encourage alternatives and mitigation behaviors (burying carcasses, removing gut piles from the field, etc.).  And in the long run, work toward equilibrium.

Maybe, over time, the lead ammo issue will become less politicized.  The distrust between hunters and condor advocates will diminish as there is less of a perceived threat to the shooting sports.  The hangers-on, such as HSUS who are just using the condor as a means to advance their larger agenda, will drop off and find other rallying flags.  The ammo industry has already made huge strides in providing lead-free alternatives, but there is still a very long ways to go before this stuff is truly “readily available” for all hunters and shooters.  And truthfully, there’s probably no real reason that all hunters and shooters should switch anyway. 

Yeah, maybe we’ll never see truly wild condors plying the western skies from Mexico to Oregon, or across the western deserts in Utah and Arizona.  But we’ll see condors that are, to all intents and purposes, wild enough.  Those who pay careful attention might notice that there are teams of dedicated people on the ground, checking nests, providing medical care, and tracking the movements of each bird.  Does that diminish the bird, or the quality of seeing a group circling high on the thermals? 

I’ll stop now, before I break into a John Denver song or something…


9 Responses to “Once Again, Lead Ban Advocates Only Telling Half The Story”

  1. Dann on June 27th, 2012 08:12

    Amen Brother!

    I recall the one time that CA hunters trotted out their own expert, a renowned metallurgist. He did a presentation at the Fish and Game Commission meeting and promptly discredited the lead isotope marker-lead ammo link, so proudly touted by the environmental groups.

    His contention was that the lead isotopes that were supposedly exclusive to lead ammo were actually found in a wide variety of applications that could easily find its way into the wild.

    You could have heard a pin drop in that room when the game commission realized that they’d been lied too.

    The AOU report of 2008 is pretty damning. I recall a phrase about the recovery program describing it “as little more than an outdoor petting zoo”. If you crunch the expense numbers, it cost $74,000 in 2008 money, per bird per year.

    They even have to teach them not to fly into power lines…..

  2. Phillip on June 27th, 2012 09:37

    I hear ya, Dan.

    That’s the biggest thing that gets me about all of this… the use of misinformation, half-baked data, and occasional outright lies to push the CA ban, not to mention the extension of that to push a national ban. There’s so much distrust out there right now that it’s pretty much impossible to find the truth or ferret out all the hidden agendas.

    As far as the AOU report, it did pretty much slam the current (at the time) program, both the initial report in 2007, and the follow up in 2009/10. However, even that report doesn’t do us (hunters) many favors. Buried in the recommendations is the suggestion that tying lead ammo to human health risks could be “an effective strategy” to win public support for a lead ammo ban. More lies.

    The only semi-positive note was the reminder that human hunters are a critical source of carrion for condors, and without hunters there would be an increased and continued reliance on feeding stations… yet another way that the “wild” population of condors will never truly be wild or self-sufficient.

    Bottom line, though, as I mentioned to Greg, is that if these reports are correct that only a 100% removal of lead from the habitat will allow the birds to survive and thrive, then it’s a highly unrealistic scenario…especially if solid evidence does come up that the lead isn’t just coming from bullets and shot. Likewise, the reports are consistent in the statements that nesting success will only be achieved if microtrash is REMOVED from the habitat… that’s a tall order, when you consider just the number of roadsides, parking lots, and old junkyards throughout the condor range. To me, if this is the requirement for a wild, free-ranging, and self-sufficient condor population, then no amount of legislation, ammo bans, or park closures will ever get us there. It’s a pipe dream.

  3. Greg C on June 27th, 2012 08:39

    We like your rants Phillip! You tell it like it is. Am I evil to say that California Condors are kinda ugly anyways?

  4. Phillip on June 27th, 2012 09:14

    They are ugly up close, but I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing them circle up on the thermals. They’re a cool bird, and I think it’s a shame they’re struggling to survive… but if their survival hinges on 100% removal of lead and microtrash from their environment, then I think the reintroduction folks need to back up and find a realistic plan that takes these threats into account. If that means continued monitoring and treatment, then I would think that should be factored into the long-term plan rather than some pollyanna idea that they’re going to change an entire industry (shooting sports) as well as the habits of a largely ignorant and apathetic public.

  5. Holly Heyser on June 27th, 2012 09:44

    Sadly, the SF Chronicle and the LA Times can always be counted on to blame or vilify hunting and hunters. David Perlman’s been around forever and should know better than to publish a one-sided story. That’s Journalism 1A.

  6. Phillip on June 27th, 2012 10:50

    Holly, of course you’re right and it wasn’t so much a surprise to read what I did…mostly just overload. Every once in a while, you have to vent the steam.

    By the way, the LA Times actually did offer a little more information re: the fact that the lead ban has been in effect and hunters are reportedly complying. That’s something, even though the final story still pretty much echoed the press release.

    Perlman’s choice (or failure to choose) of which detail to include and which to exclude irked me though (obviously). Of course, at something like 93 years old, what the hell does he have to worry about? Not that a younger reported would necessarily have done different… there’s no age barrier to laziness (unwilling to dig a little and make the story your own) or to choosing the facts that support a bias for a story.

  7. Holly Heyser on July 2nd, 2012 10:27

    Catching up on my Google alerts and I found my friend Paul at the San Jose Mercury News quoted hunting interests, unlike Perlman. Now if I could just get Paul to stop portraying hunting debates as “hunters v. environmentalists.” HSUS is not an environmental group, and hunters aren’t anti-environment.

  8. Holly Heyser on July 2nd, 2012 10:27
  9. Ben on July 3rd, 2012 15:18

    I think one of the most important parts of the conversation that gets left out is that hunting with non-lead bullets actually HELPS Condors and all other scavengers (a lot) by providing them food. Without hunters and doing their part (providing lead free gut piles) the future of condors would be a different story. Condors need hunters.

    The reason that lead ammo became such a big deal is that it is the last bottleneck that holds them back. Before lead, it was DDT, museum collection, egg collection and intentional shooting. For the most part, those don’t kill many condors anymore. Lead bullets are the leading cause of death now.

    Lead affects them so much because they are long lived and don’t reproduce until they are 5-8 years old. Then, they average 1 egg every 2 years. If they die at age 10 they likely haven’t replaced themselves yet.

    They lived from BC to Mexico when the areas were explored. They had a large population (but admittedly we don’t know how big). They died back because a number of reasons, and lead bullets are the biggest thing still holding them back.

    So… if hunters switch to non-lead, they will be the amongst people who are responsible for bringing them back.