November 29, 2006 - Condor Advocates File Suit to Replace Toxic Ammo with Safer Alternatives
Presentation on the need for emergency action to remove lead ammunition from the California condor range  
Lead Concentrations in the Blood of Big Sur California Condors - Sorenson and Burnett 2007  
Sources of Lead Exposing California Condors - Powerpoint Presentation by Dr. Michael Fry  

Media Articles

7/04 - LA Times Editorial, Getting the Lead Out


Links to Resources  


“…the risks from lead poisoning remain severe enough that it is unlikely that condors can be successfully reestablished in regions where this threat remains effectively unaddressed.”

—Snyder and Snyder, The California Condor, 2000



It is a “fundamental fact that spent lead-containing ammunition is toxic and that it is finding its way through the food chain into the stomachs of condors. Once there it poisons them and they die…”

—Report from the California Lead Exposure Reduction Steering Committee, May, 2003



In California, all condors in the wild have been tested for lead each year since 1997, and every bird has had detectable lead in blood samples. 62% of the blood samples taken in Southern California have shown higher than background lead exposure… 15 of 87 samples…were clinically affected by lead, and six birds have had…acute toxic exposure requiring emergency veterinary intervention.

—D. Michael Fry, Assessment of Lead Contamination Sources Exposing California Condors, April, 2003



“Because alternative nontoxic ammunitions appear to offer a long-term solution to lead poisoning at low cost, their adoption should become the overriding near-term goal of condor conservation efforts.”

—Meretsky, et al, Demography of the California Condor: Implications for Reestablishment, 2000


Get the Lead Out!

Endangered California Condors Threatened by Lead Poisoning From Lead Ammunition

U.S. Flagship Endangered Species Recovery Program in Peril

The California condor is one of the world’s most endangered species. Condors were so close to extinction in the mid-1980s that the last 22 wild condors were captured and an expensive captive-breeding program was initiated. Remarkably, condors have proven adept at breeding in captivity, and the captive population was healthy enough by the mid-1990s to begin releasing condors back into the wild. There are currently almost 140 condors in the wild, with more being added by the still-active captive breeding program every year, and the first fledging of a wild-hatched condor chick since reintroduction began was recorded in 2003 in Arizona. The goal of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s condor recovery program is to restore at least two self-sustaining wild populations of 150 each.

Yet the condor still hovers on the brink of extinction. The last wild condors were brought into captivity because of the high risks they faced in the wild, particularly due to lead poisoning from scavenging carcasses killed by hunter-shot ammunition. Reintroduced condors face a variety of threats, including habitat loss, oil and gas drilling activities, lead poisoning, shooting, and collisions with power lines.

photo by Noel Snyder

Lead Poisoning: An Unaddressed Threat

Evidence of lead in condors,
USFWS photos

Since 1992, at least 15 condor deaths in California and Arizona are known or suspected to be due to lead poisoning, and have been more than 75 incidents in which poisoned condors required invasive chelation therapy to "de-lead" their blood and save their lives after feeding on lead-tainted carcasses.  Five new scientific studies published in 2006 provide overwhelming evidence that the lead ammunition poisoning condors comes from carcasses and gut piles left behind in the condor range by hunters. If left unaddressed, the lead problem could negate the efforts of the condor reintroduction and recovery program. Since 1997, five condors have died and over 30 others have required emergency blood treatment after ingesting lead. There is overwhelming evidence that the lead poisoning condors is coming from ammunition used in hunting and plinking. Condors scavenge bullet-killed carrion left by hunters, which often contains small fragments of lead. Since condors seek out bone fragments in carrion to obtain calcium, they often mistake bullet fragments for the calcium-rich bones they require. Condors have a high sensitivity to lead since, unlike other birds of prey, they do not tend to regurgitate foreign objects and keep bullet fragments and shot pellets in their system much longer, and they also absorb lead more quickly and excrete it less efficiently.

In 2006 a group of condor recovery experts and toxicologists published a research paper in Environmental Science and Technology titled “Ammunition is the Principal Source of Lead Accumulated by California Condors Re-Introduced to the Wild.”  The researchers found that blood lead levels of condors in the wild were 10-fold higher than captive-raised condors.  They demonstrated that the lead isotope signature of commonly used ammunition sold in the condor range exactly matches the isotope of the lead found in poisoned condors.

The free-flying condors are not exactly “free." Released condors are regularly captured to have their blood lead levels checked, and birds often need to undergo intrusive chemical chelation therapy to reduce dangerously high lead levels. Released condors are regularly fed, with the hopes that they won’t actively forage for carrion that might contain lead. Condors remain completely dependent for their survival on an expensive, intrusive, and unsustainable de-leading program that has admirably saved many condors’ lives but has failed to address the cause of their imperilment. As successful as the recovery efforts have been for the condor, they are being released back into a landscape with the same threats that led to their near-extinction. Without addressing these threats, the nation’s most intensive and costly endangered species recovery effort could quite possibly go to waste. The condor continues to face likely extinction due to lead poisoning, especially if intense human intervention efforts ever cease.

Getting the Lead Out

Trapping and treating condors,
USFWS photos

There is universal agreement that lead must be removed from the condors’ diet. Wildlife biologists, toxicologists, land managers, and fish and game managers agree that lead in bullets and shot is probably the most significant mortality factor that condors face, and that without controlling the presence of lead in bullets and shot in condor habitat the condor faces an extremely difficult road to recovery. This opinion was expressed in a 2003 report of the California Condor Lead Exposure Reduction Steering Committee, a subcommittee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Team and the report Demography of the California Condor: Implications for Reestablishment. The subcommittee is made up of wildlife biologists, conservationists, game managers, and hunting and gun advocates—a strikingly broad coalition of stakeholders. The California Department of Fish and Game commissioned a study, Assessment of Lead Contamination Sources Exposing California Condors by University of California, Davis researchers that came to the same conclusion.

The condor’s attraction to carrion and gut piles, its attraction to the bullets and shot pelletes themselves as possible bone fragments containing calcium, its inability to regurgitate the lead bullets and shot pellets once ingested, its increased susceptibility to lead poisoning, and its slow reproductive rate are all factors that have conspired in the condor’s near-extinction. We cannot control the peculiarities of the biology of the condor, but we can control the presence of the lead ammunition.

Lead ammunition is prevalent throughout condor territory, despite the California Fish and Game Commission’s laudable efforts to encourage hunters to remove it from their gut piles. Unfortunately, voluntary measures have not proved adequate to remove the threat of lead poisoning to condors. The presence of lead ammunition in condor habitat can be effectively controlled only by regulating their use through the issuance of hunting permits and the education that accompanies those permits. Not only will this create a legally enforceable obligation on the hunter to hunt with lead-free ammunition, but will also spur market forces to respond to the increased demand for alternative ammunition, lowering the cost (and thus the only common complaint about lead ammunition alternatives).

Alternatives to Lead Bullets

Requiring non-lead ammunition will not restrict hunting or shooting, as alternative lead-free ammunition is now available. Both the newest copper bullets and TTB bullets perform as well as, if not better than, lead bullets for hunting and are non-toxic. The U.S. Military has initiated its own conversion to lead-free bullets, which promises to lower their price substantially and increase interest in their development. While these developments are promising, the condor cannot wait for the gradual phase-out of lead ammunition: the use of lead-free ammunition must be mandated immediately in condor habitat.

Take Action

The California Fish and Game Commission in February 2005 refused to act to regulate lead contamination in the range of the California condor. The California State Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife also failed to consider legislation introduced in 2005 and 2006 to eliminate lead ammunition from the condor range and eventually statewide.

Because the condor does not have time to wait, in November 2006 a broad coalition including Native American, conservation and health organizations and California hunters filed a lawsuit against the California Fish and Game Commission and Department of Fish and Game for continuing to allow use of toxic lead ammunition. The Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Wishtoyo Foundation, along with representatives from the hunting community, brought suit under the federal Endangered Species Act. Read the press release about the lawsuit.

To keep updated on the Center’s campaign to get the lead out send an e-mail to

Other Condor Protection Actions

The Center has been working to reduce other condor mortality threats and to protect essential condor habitat in southern California.

Tejon Ranch

The Center is working to protect the 270,000 acre Tejon Ranch at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley from proposed massive developments. Tejon Ranch is a vital habitat corridor connecting the southern Sierra to the Transverse Ranges and beyond, and is important foraging habitat for California condors.

The Tejon Ranch Company is currently seeking a blanket "incidental take" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which would allow it to harm, harass, and even kill endangered condors during construction and operation of a proposed series of major developments north of Los Angeles. The condor is so rare and imperiled that the FWS has to this date never granted an "incidental take" permit for the species.

In February 2003, a hunter participating in a Tejon Ranch sponsored event shot and killed an especially biologically important and beloved California condor designated "AC-8." AC-8, one of the last wild condors captured for the captive breeding program, was vital to the efforts to reintroduce the condor throughout its historic range in southern California. The Center called for a state investigation into Tejon Ranch’s role in the death of AC-8 and protested the U.S. Department of Justice's failure to file charges under the Endangered Species Act against the killer of condor AC-8.

Oil and Gas Drilling

The Center is working with a coalition of groups to stop the Forest Service from opening roadless areas in the Los Padres National Forest that are habitat for California condors to harmful oil and gas drilling activities.

Southern California Forests Conservation Alternative

As part of a legal settlement, the Center compelled the U.S. Forest Service to re-write the management plans for all four southern California National Forests. The Center developed and submitted a comprehensive Conservation Alternative to the Forest Service to consider in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the updates of the Land & Resource Management Plans for the four Southern California National Forests. The Conservation Alternative included comprehensive protective measures for California condors and their habitat. In summer 2002 the Forest Service agreed to produce a public service announcement in both English and Spanish on the need to get lead out of bullets for the condor, and to write an op-ed piece in the newspaper on this need.

Preventing Antifreeze Poisoning

The Center compelled the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to stop using toxic antifreeze (a major killer of condors and thousands of other animals each year) in their vehicles in the four southern California National Forests and the California’s BLM desert districts.

Preventing Powerline Electrocutions

The Center also applies pressure to power companies to retrofit power lines to prevent bird electrocution deaths, a particular problem for large adult condors.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
October 23, 2007
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