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California condor deaths are rising due to lead poisoning — again

Stacy Spensley/Flickr
A California condor at the San Diego Zoo.

The California condor, one of the state’s most iconic birds, went extinct in the wild in the 1980’s — but it’s since been reintroduced into areas like the Central Coast.

However, lead poisoning deaths have been rising among wild condors in the last few years, once again threatening this critically endangered species.

There are only a little more than 300 California condors in the wild — and that number is declining. In 2019, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s California Condor Recovery Programcounted 337 of the birds in the wild. In 2020’s report, that number declined to 329.

And for most of those deaths, lead is the culprit. Condors eat animal carcasses that have been shot with lead bullets — often by ranchers and property owners for pest control, and also by hunters.

“Lead poisoning still remains the greatest threat to self-sustainability in California condors,” said Mike Stake, a wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society. That’s an organization heavily involved in condor conservation.

Ventana Wildlife Society has been documenting deaths in the Central California flock. So far this year, they’ve confirmed 13 deaths among Central California condors, nine of which were determined to be lead poisoning.

Credit Jim Bahn/Flickr

“We intensely monitor and manage this species, and so we’re monitoring birds with radio-telemetry, we’re monitoring them with satellite GPS, and so we’re able to recover birds when they die," Stake said. "And we get them to a necropsy, and the process of the necropsy identifies the cause of death. And more often than not, that cause of death has been lead toxicosis.”

According to the Department of the Interior, from 1992 through 2020 there were 107 deaths from lead poisoning in the free-flying population.

That means lead poisoning is responsible for 50% of condor deaths with a known cause.

To try to address this problem, the state banned the use of lead ammunition in hunting, which took full effect in 2019.

But the law does permit the sale and purchase of lead ammunition, because it’s still legal to use in target ranges where wildlife is not the target. Combine that with pandemic-related shortages of the alternative to lead — copper bullets — and that leads to more people hunting with lead.

“You can easily buy lead, and it's not that easy to buy copper ammunition at the moment," said Stake. "And so that availability, I think, is influencing a lot of people to say, ‘Well, I can't get the copper ammunition, what am I going to use? Well, I have this stock that I've invested in at home of lead ammunition. Why don't I just use that up on my private property?’ What we have is a law but the mechanism to follow the law right now is broken.”

Chad Thomas is the non-lead outreach coordinator at the Institute for Wildlife Studies. He’s also a hunter himself, and said the switch to non-lead has been an adjustment from decades-old practices.

“For example, my grandfather used a particular bullet, my father used that bullet, and I use that bullet. So we put a lot of faith in tools that have a long history of being effective and gotten proficient with that," said Thomas. "So when we're told that we have to change a particular tool in our toolbox, it makes us apprehensive.”

But as the non-lead liaison for hunters, Thomas said it’s important to make that change anyway. He said hunters need to be educated about what lead bullets are doing to this critically endangered species.

“So it's important that we, as a community, go and talk with them and encourage them to use non-lead and engage with them in a manner and a setting that they feel comfortable with and they can ask questions with and we can relay that information in terms that they can understand” Thomas said.

Thomas said most hunters see themselves as conservationists — and if someone explains to them that their lead bullets are killing condors, they would stop using them.

“If somebody sat down with me and offered that information in a pragmatic approach, of course I would switch over — because that matches my conservation ethic. And the ethics shared by my hunting community,” Thomas said.

Credit Charles Barilleaux/Flickr

Mike Stake agrees. He said hunters and ranchers aren’t an enemy to condors. In fact, he said, they’re the birds’ best hope.

“The attitude of supporting hunters and ranchers as the solution rather than the problem here. Because hunters and ranchers are making a difference," Stake said. "The ranchers are providing habitat for condors. This is land that's being protected from development. They're providing food and water sources for condors; it's just the lead ammunition that's harming them.”

Stake says it's been a challenge for hunters and ranchers in California to convert from lead to copper ammunition. However, he says, "They're doing it, but it's a process that takes some time.”

If you’re interested in learning more about condor conservation, you can visit ventanaws.org. There’s also a condor cam right here on the Central Coast in San Simeon, where you can observe the birds for yourself.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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