Back in 2008, when lead ammunition was banned in eight southern California counties, big-game hunters winced but complied, figuring shooting non-toxic bullets was their contribution to bringing back endangered condors. The ban was later enlarged to include coyotes, feral hogs, and small-game species in the defined condor recovery area.
The wincing turned into full-body shudders in 2013, when California’s legislature passed a bill extending the lead ban to the entire state, purportedly to assist condor recovery. The ban, signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, took effect this past July, and this time it’s not just certain rifle hunters who must comply. All hunters, whether pursuing desert bighorn sheep in the Mojave, pigs on the Central Coast, or cinnamon teal in the Klamath Basin, must use only certified non-toxic ammunition.
The statewide non-toxic law has a double whammy. Also taking effect on July 1: draconian ammunition restrictions that require buyers to pass background checks before buying even a single box of rimfire ammo.
While the ammunition-buying restriction will affect every shooter, whether targeting long-range steel, clay pigeons, or ground squirrels, the lead ban has caused a curious sort of conflict among hunters.
“Back in 1991, when the feds mandated non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting, I was one of the first to recognize that hunters have a responsibility to the resource,” said Bay Area waterfowler Joel Adkins. “The science seemed clear. By shooting lead, we were poisoning the ducks and geese we were honor-bound to conserve. This time? I just don’t know that banning lead across the state is going to save the condors. It seems like hunters and shooters are taking a disproportionate share of the burden.”
Avian researchers say the science is just as clear that lead ammunition is poisoning endangered condors. An aggressive captive-breeding program has brought back the condor population from just 22 birds in 1982 to nearly 500 birds spread from Baja California, across the Grand Canyon, and into Utah. Researchers say that elevated lead levels affects about 20 percent of the population. Adult condors with lead poisoning must be trapped and detoxified before being rereleased into the wild. The main culprit, say researchers: lead with the isotope that matches that used in bullets.
By removing lead from the environment, including gut piles of hunter-harvested animals, condors will have one fewer barrier to recovery, says the Center for Biological Diversity, which pushed for the statewide ban.
But the state’s game wardens aren’t as sure.
“California game wardens are on the front line enforcing the ban on lead ammunition for most hunting in con-dor range,” the California Fish & Game Wardens Association testified. “But there is insufficient data to justify such a drastic action across the entire state.”