Exposure of California Condors to Lead From Spent Ammunition



ABSTRACT  The scientific evidence that California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are frequently sickened and killed by lead poisoning from spent ammunition supports the conclusion that current levels of lead exposure are too high to allow reintroduced condors to develop self-sustaining populations in the wild in Arizona and, by inference, in California. The evidence for lead poisoning and its source comes from the following sorts of data: 1) 18 clinical necropsies revealing high levels of lead in body tissues and (or) presence of lead shotgun pellets and bullet fragments in digestive tracts; 2) moribund condors showing crop paralysis and impending starvation with toxic levels of lead in their blood; 3) widespread lead exposure among free-flying condors, many with clinically exposed or acute levels; 4) temporal and spatial correlations between big game hunting seasons and elevated lead levels in condors; and 5) lead isotope ratios from exposed condors showing close similarity to isotope ratios of ammunition lead but isotope ratios in less exposed condors being similar to environmental background sources, which are different from ammunition lead. Simple population models reveal harmful demographic impacts of unnatural mortality from lead on population trajectories of reintroduced condors. Recent innovations in the manufacture of nonlead shotgun pellets and bullets with superior ballistics now provide for a simple solution to the problem of lead ingestion by condors, many other species of wildlife, and human beings: substitute nontoxic forms of ammunition for traditional lead-based ammunition. The substitution of nontoxic ammunition would be highly efficacious for hunting, economically feasible, and the right thing to do.