Lead is an extremely toxic element that we’ve sensibly removed from water pipes, gasoline, paint and other sources dangerous to people. Yet toxic lead is still entering the food chain through widespread use of lead hunting ammunition and fishing tackle, poisoning wildlife and even threatening human health. At least 75 wild bird species in the United States are poisoned by spent lead ammunition, including bald eagles, golden eagles, ravens and endangered California condors. Thousands of cranes, ducks, swans, loons, geese and other waterfowl ingest spent lead shot or lead fishing sinkers lost in lakes and rivers each year, often with deadly consequences.
That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity’s Get the Lead Out campaign in March 2012 organized more than 150 groups to petition the Environmental Protection Agency to take toxic lead out of hunting ammunition. Our coalition, calling for a transition to nontoxic bullets and shot, included groups from 38 states representing conservationists, birders, hunters, scientists, veterinarians, American Indians and public employees. In April 2012, the EPA denied our request — but in June, the Center and six other groups filed suit against the agency for refusing to address the problem of toxic lead in hunting ammunition that frequently poisons and kills our wildlife.
Animals that scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead bullet fragments, or wading birds that ingest spent lead-shot pellets or lost fishing weights mistaking them for food or grit, can die a painful death from lead poisoning, while others suffer for years from its debilitating effects. In the United States, an estimated 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunting every year, another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fishing lures and sinkers — while as many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from subsequent lead poisoning.
The iconic California condor, one of the world’s most endangered species, was so near extinction in the mid-1980s that the last nine wild birds were captured for an expensive captive-breeding program. By the mid-1990s, the captive population was healthy enough to begin the bird’s reintroduction to the wild, and condor recovery has come a long way since, with 205 birds in the wild in 2011. But this majestic species is far from safe: Every year, new captive-reared condors are released only to find themselves dining on lead. Condors are poisoned — often fatally — when they scavenge on remains of game animals shot with lead ammunition. Scientific studies provide overwhelming evidence that lead poisoning in condors comes from ammunition fragments in carcasses and gut piles hunters leave behind in the condor range. Since 1992, at least 30 reintroduced condors in California and Arizona are known or suspected to have died from lead poisoning, and many more must periodically receive emergency, life-saving treatment. Experts agree that as long as lead ammunition contaminates the condor’s food, recovery of the species is unlikely. In May 2012, the Center and other conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service for its failure to protect endangered California condors in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest from toxic lead ammunition left behind from hunting activities.
Lead ammunition also poses health risks to people. Lead bullets explode and fragment into minute particles in shot game and can spread throughout meat that humans eat. Studies using radiographs show that numerous, imperceptible, dust-sized particles of lead can infect meat up to a foot and a half away from the bullet wound, causing a greater health risk to humans who consume lead-shot game than previously thought. State health agencies have had to recall venison donated to feed the hungry because of lead contamination from lead bullet fragments. Nearly 10 million hunters, their families and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations may be at risk.
In December 2004, the Center led a coalition in petitioning the California Fish and Game Commission to change California hunting regulations to require the use of nonlead ammunition in condor habitat. In November 2006, after the Commission had failed to act, we filed a lawsuit to force a response to our petition. Less than a year later, California legislators and the governor approved the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, a historic bill requiring nonlead ammunition to be used for all big-game hunting within central and Southern California’s condor range. A settlement agreement with the California Fish and Game Commission led to additional regulations requiring nonlead ammo hunting of nongame birds and mammals and depredation hunting in the condor range.
The Center is promoting similar condor protections in Arizona, where condor lead poisonings are perhaps most severe. There, at least 15 reintroduced condors have died of lead poisoning since 1992, and hundreds of condor lead-poisoning incidents have required emergency treatment. In September 2012, the Center and allies sued the U.S. Forest Service over its failure to protect California condors in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest from toxic lead ammunition left behind from hunting activities.
In 2006, an appalling 95 percent of all Arizona condors had lead exposure, and 70 percent had to be chelated. To remedy this, in July 2007 the Center and a coalition of conservation groups requested that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission take immediate action to prevent further condor lead poisonings by requiring Arizona hunters to use nonlead ammunition. In 2009 the Center filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect condors from toxic lead ammunition in crafting management plans for public lands near the Grand Canyon known as the Arizona Strip.