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Condors and Lead: It’s time to find out where the lead really originates (and quit blaming hunters f


For nearly two years now, the scientists involved in the recovery of the endangered California condor have known that lead ammunition used by hunters is not – repeat NOT – the primary source of lead the big birds pick up while feeding.

For over a decade, these same scientists were certain hunter lead was the primary hindrance to the recovery of the big vultures. It was the only possible source, they said. Even though a lot of us familiar with hunting had our doubts, the circumstantial evidence was compelling. Since 2008, the use of lead hunting ammunition within the range of the California condor has been banned. And hunters complied with the ban in astounding numbers. The Department of Fish and Wildlife warden checks showed a 99 percent compliance rate the first year of the ban. We were doing our part: Buying and shooting the more expensive ammunition to help protect the condors.

But then the data started to trickle in.

Since the big birds are routinely captured and blood samples taken, the scientists expected to see downturns in the blood lead levels immediately. But it wasn’t happening. The five-year data summary showed no statistical difference in the condor blood lead levels before and after ban. This was even more perplexing, when studies on other scavenging birds in condor range – golden eagles and turkey vultures, showed dramatic declines in those birds’ blood lead levels. In fact, golden eagles in condor range were as lead-free as California gasoline.

But the lead ammunition ban has done zip, nada, nothing, been a big zero for condors.

(This was known when all lead ammunition for hunting was banned statewide by the legislature in 2013, and the hoopla around the passage was that it would help protect California condors. That was, of course, a lie, but it helped pass the legislation that will be phased in by 2019.)

The scientists’ response to the news that the lead ban isn’t helping condors has been painfully absent. In fact, the silence reeks of embarrassment. These scientists have been selling the idea that hunter lead was the biggest threat to the restoration of the species for so long and so loudly that the data showing otherwise is obviously baffling. They had put all their eggs in one basket only to discover the basket was empty.

There is no question that hunter lead has been a factor in the death of condors in rare, isolated incidents, but the science is proving it is not the chronic source of lead in condors. Hunter lead is a secondary source of lead in condors, a source that may be an insignificant factor in their recovery when compared to other types of lead and other mortality issues.

The assumption that hunter lead was the only culprit was simply wrong. This has been a cause for great embarrassment within the condor recovery team – and it should be.

Since early in the lead ban process, some of us in the hunting community have been asking for the supportive science that would suggest lead in wounded and lost game or gut piles were indeed the source of condor lead. It turns out that most of the supportive evidence was speculation, not science. There were puffs of smoke, but not the raging fire they huffed and puffed up into a lead ban. The scientists all bought in because it “made sense” to them. It seemed logical. So they never really looked for other sources of lead.

We could have found out where they lead was coming from once and for all, but we didn’t. Even more amazingly, we still aren’t trying to find the answer now that the “hunter lead is the only problem” theory has been disproven.

With all the money that has been spent on California condors, one basic study has never been done. It is a study that seems essential when you are hanging your hat on recovery based on the idea that something they eat is killing them. There has never been a food/foraging study done on condors. The only “science” on where, how, and what condors eat is based solely on “anecdotal” observations over the decades.

I had thought that it was just a few hunters and conservationists outside the condor program who were dumbfounded this had never been done, but recently I discovered the current writing of Sanford Wilbur, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife service scientist who was the California condor research leader from 1969 through 1980. He saw their numbers plummet to about 25 birds in the wild and paved the way for the capture of all remaining condors and a captive breeding program that has assured the species would not go extinct.

Since the five-year, post lead-ban data came to light in late 2013, Wilbur has been trying to get the condor recovery program staff to recognize they have been howling along a trail that is cold. He has suggested a simple, two-track effort to discover the chronic source of lead in condors and its real impact on their physiology. This would allow real recovery of the species to be implemented.

“My only interest in this particular discussion is that the condor recovery effort is given the best chance to succeed. I think there are some real holes in the ‘science’ required to make that a reality,” wrote Wilbur to me in an e-mail.

The following is from Wilbur’s “Condor Tales” website’s “California Condors: Past, Present, Future” section ( where he lays out a science-based plan to really help the species’ recovery:

“1. If not already known (and there is no evidence in the literature that it is known), find out what the current crop of condors is eating. As noted in the cover memo to the 2010-2012 report [on the status of the condor], ‘virtually all condors are equipped with VHF telemetry units,’ and ‘some condors are equipped with telemetry units.’ With that kind of technology, it would seem to me that feeding habits and foraging patterns should be detectable. Considering the amount of money being spent to monitor lead levels without knowing the source of the lead, a study specifically geared to find the source of lead (if the source is indeed in condor food) would seem like a relatively inexpensive investment.

“2. In addition to being extremely expensive and staff-intensive, the capturing of all condors and subjecting them to chemical chelation exposes them to considerable stress, potential adverse reactions to the treatment, and the potential for injury. The assumption that a certain level of lead in condor blood is lethal is not a valid one, and it may be that many condors with moderate lead levels would ‘clean themselves up’ without laboratory help. The current standard used as a ‘point of no return’ is the same used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend chelation in lead-poisoned human children. While the 19th and early 20th century naturalists have been proven wrong in believing that vultures can eat anything without harm (supposedly because of their ability to purge harmful substances), clearly there are elements of the digestive systems of carrion-dependent birds that work quite differently than is typical of most birds or mammals. The CDC standard for a human child is likely meaningless for a condor.

“The long-term effects of high lead levels on condors in the wild could be easily tested by setting up a control group among the released birds, those birds not captured and handled as often as the others, and not chelated when lead levels in blood reached the danger (to human children) level. Some condors might die from such an experiment, but more condors are being produced now than can be used in ongoing release programs – and it seems unlikely that new releases in other desirable areas (like Oregon) will be permitted until the ‘lead issue’ is resolved. The potential sacrifice of some condors now could clarify how much we really should be worrying about lead, and might make it possible to have a successful condor reestablishment program without the exorbitant costs of the current ones. (There may be socio-political considerations when planning to potentially allow the death of endangered species, but the Federal endangered species legislation provides for ‘take’ in ‘experimental’ populations.),” wrote Wilbur.

Wilbur suggests fundamental science that has never been conducted in the effort to restore the species – science that seems essential before other decisions are made. Wilbur makes it clear that his only concern is the restoration of the California condor population. He’s not for or against hunting, he’s simply for condor restoration based on sound science.

Yet, hunters have been called crackpots for suggesting the same science be conducted or questioning some of the “conclusions” reached based on “speculative” science. I have been asking why a food study hasn’t been done both privately and publically for several years. After the first two years of data came in after the 2008 lead ban in the condor range, I started asking then if there could be other sources of lead exposure for condors. It was amazing to me no other source of lead was even seriously considered.

Wilbur’s long experience with condors made him question the idea that hunter lead was an issue. This is because the anecdotal evidence on condors feeding on deer as a primary food source was simply wrong. Deer were well below other food sources in the anecdotal data, with cattle number one. While I know many (if not most) of the biologists working on condors don’t have an agenda against hunting, it is still a little troubling to me they all bought in on solving the problem by banning hunter lead.

There have been a number of other inexpensive studies/remediations suggested that could have added far more knowledge about condor mortality due to lead. All have been rejected out of hand by the condor recovery program leaders, perhaps because they were so sure that hunter lead was the problem, perhaps because the ideas weren’t theirs.

One of the best and simplest studies would have been to check/police nest and roost ledges for micro trash to make sure lead-based trash wasn’t used over and over to poison generations of condors. There is at least one story of a single hunk of lead (either a bullet or lead wheel weight) that was discovered in one roost site that had obviously passed through the digestive tracts of a number of condors, perhaps for a number of generations. (The birds are curious and often bring all sorts of trash back to their nest/roost sites and “play” with it repeatedly. This trash is often eaten and passed through the system or regurgitated.)

It is time – no, it’s way past time – for a food study to be done once and for all. Let’s base decisions on real data, on real science, instead of wild speculation. Let’s do this for the condor.

Unfortunately, the condor has become a political pawn in the “lead” issue. Bans are being pushed by well-meaning scientists, anti-hunting groups, and politicians who despise private gun ownership. They all say they want to ban lead to help condors when there are other agendas at the forefront.

Outside of the condor, the hunting and shooting community stands the most to gain by a condor food study, and they should offer to help pay for it. There is a general feeling within the scientific community that “all lead is bad.” Even scientists like Wilber candidly say “there’s too much lead in the environment.” They say that without the supportive science it is bad across the board. Lead is pretty inert, especially as a solid, and occurs naturally in the environment. It may or may not be bad in most situations, but only good science will answer that question.

People concerned about condors or other wildlife need to make sure they avoid the animal rights/anti-gun argument: “If it could save even just one animal, we should ban....” That is the fool’s argument, and we all need to understand and point that out.

If we used that rationale, we would ban all alcoholic beverages, automobiles, and most youth sports because “if we could save just one human life....” That argument sounds logical only when it’s not your wine, your car, your kid’s soccer program, or your hunting ammunition that is being banned. Hunters especially need to point out the fallacy of that argument.

Hunters in other parts of the country should only accept lead bans when the science proves our lead could be detrimental to a species’ long-term health or survival. It has been proven that doves will die from eating lead shot in and around heavily shot over feeding areas. But those numbers are insignificant to the population, so a lead ban is unnecessary. It has been documented that even an occasional chukar has picked up lead shot, but it’s clearly not impacting their numbers. If we ban lead based on that science, we would also need to ban wind farms and solar power plants because of the far more birds are being chopped to pieces by spinning blades or burned to a crisp in the solar array. We would need to ban driving over 15 miles per hour so deer and squirrels don’t get hit on roadways.

Don’t be sucked in by the “if we could save just one….” argument. It will come back to bite you.

The one thing we should all be able to agree upon and support is that a condor food study should be priority number one right for the condor recovery program.

Cachuma, Casitas finally

approved for trout plants

Cachuma and Casitas lakes have been approved to receive trout plants again, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both waters had their trout planting programs shut down over concerns the hatchery rainbows might hybridize or compete with remnant populations of endangered southern steelhead that might exist in the watersheds below both reservoirs.

Stafford Lehr, chief of the fisheries branch for the DFW, said this week that Lake Casitas was approved on Feb. 25 and Lake Cachuma was approved March 3. All of the trout planted in Cachuma will carry tags so the agency can determine, during surveys in the Santa Ynez River below the lake, if any trout actually end up below the dam in the river where they might mix with steelhead.

While there is a possibility one or both waters will receive DFW rainbows this year, this is normally the time of year when plants are ended at both waters because water temperatures are warming. The DFW is also facing about a 50 percent cutback in the number of trout being produced for 2015, so fish may not be available.

Anglers should keep an eye on the DFW trout plants website page at to see if either water will be added to the weekly plant list for this winter-spring stocking season.


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