This is the first part in our series on wildlife and lead ammunition. Read part two here.
California condors can nest in cliff-side caves or large burnt-out trees. That’s exactly what the coastal bluffs and forests around Redwood National Park offer.
The massive birds once lived around the park just south of the Oregon-California border. They held a place of high esteem for the Yurok Tribe.
“He’s actually considered to be one of these that flies the highest, and so he actually carries our prayers to the heavens,” said tribal member and biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen.
Yurok territory once encompassed the coastal mountains near the Klamath River. The last condor on that land was documented more than 100 years ago, though Williams-Claussen says there are oral accounts of a sighting in the years before World War II.
This has been the story of the condor all over the West.
California condors once filled the skies from Baja to British Columbia. But with European settlement, the population crashed. Condors were victims of poisoning campaigns that targeted large predators like wolves.
Now the tribe wants to bring them back. They see the reintroduction of the California condor in their part of the state as a step in restoring their ceremonies and traditions, which in turn is an expression of their sovereignty as a tribe.
“Not having him here is hard on us,” says Williams-Claussen.
The Yurok, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are currently involved in a federal process to reintroduce condors at Redwood National Park. They intend to start preparing the required environmental documents this spring, with an eye to releasing birds in 2019.
ldquo;We’re trying to get some birds into center of the historical range, which hopefully will lead to getting the birds to expand further into the northern portion of the historical range,” says Yurok wildlife biologist Chris West.
The northern range includes Oregon, Washington and Idaho. These states could be potentially deadly places to be a condor – because of lead.
Dangers of the north
By the early 1980s there were fewer than two dozen California condors left in the world. Through a captive breeding program, the population is now more than 400. But about a quarter of the birds released into the wild don't make it.
The greatest known killer of these highly endangered birds is lead-poisoning related illness.
“[Lead] is introduced into the food supply from lead bullets that fragment when they enter the animals from hunting and varmint removal,” says Nez Perce Tribe ecologist Angela Sondenaa.
Sondenaa is leading another condor reintroduction project targeting Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border.
“Condors see those gut piles and carcasses as food sources and they inadvertently ingest small particles of lead, which then poison the bird and can lead to death,” she says.
The link between lead bullet ingestion and condor lead toxicity is well-supported by the research.
“The condor work… is really impeccably done, and really effective science,” says Collin Eagles-Smith, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Corvallis.
The effect of lead on waterfowl has been well-established for decades. Water birds will ingest spent lead shot in the environment, mistaking it for grit. Hunting waterfowl with lead shot has been banned nationwide since 1991.
But Eagles-Smith says the connection isn’t as well established for other scavenging birds.
“Especially in Oregon, in the Northwest, there’s not a lot of information out there about how widespread lead exposure is, and if that lead exposure is tied to ammunition,” he says.
Eagles-Smith just published a paper looking at lead bullet fragments in small mammals (specifically ground squirrels), and says he is finishing up a three-year project looking at lead exposure in turkey vultures, common ravens and golden eagles in the Pacific Northwest.
State by state
The regulations on lead ammunition vary from state to state.
Idaho doesn’t have any restrictions aside from the federal ban on lead shot. Washington requires non-toxic shot for bird hunting in certain heavily hunted-areas. Violators can be fined and lose hunting privileges.
Oregon, because of geographic proximity to the proposed Redwood National Park release site, would be more immediately affected by condor reintroduction than others.
Yet the state has little in the way of lead ammunition restrictions in place. Lead shot isn’t allowed in some state wildlife areas, but lead bullets are fair game.
But there is a sense that this could be changing in the in the not-so-distant future. A statement on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website says:
“There are no proposals by ODFW or the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to ban or restrict the use of lead ammunition for hunting in Oregon. However, ODFW anticipates that events outside the state, like the restoration of condors in northern California, litigation, legislation or a ballot initiative could affect the use of ammunition, hunting and wildlife management in Oregon.”
In an email message, the department said the state will continue to partner with federal, state and tribal entities on condor reintroduction, and the “there will be discussions of how the issue of lead ammunition will be addressed in a meaningful way.”
The hunter question
Foreseeing a time when condors could be reintroduced into their historic range in Oregon, ODFW commissioned a statewide survey of both hunters and non-hunters about attitudes towards lead and non-toxic ammunition.
The survey was about getting some basic information about hunter opinions, knowledge and practices.
“That’s important because any sort of change in ammunition regulation do pose quite a challenge to folks who have different types of firearms with which they hunt, different ages of firearms,” says Oregon State University’s Dana Sanchez.
Sanchez is a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife. She says hunters worry about cost and availability of non-lead ammunition. And because non-lead ammunition is a relatively new development, confidence in its performance is not as high as traditional lead rounds.
“Addressing those concerns and potential supply issues is a big part of asking anybody to make that kind of change,” she says.
The survey found that about 15 percent of Oregon’s big game hunters had already transitioned to non-lead bullets. But more than double that percentage said they would never give up their lead.
“Lead ammunition’s been used a couple centuries here in Oregon now,” says Duane Dungannon, state coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association. “So it’s deeply rooted and ingrained in the shooting sports tradition.”
Dungannon says he just bought his first box of copper bullets and is eager to try them out. He says that decision was influenced by concerns over human health.
“No one needs to be ingesting lead fragments. And these bullets do fly apart,” he says.
The main concern, Dungannon says, is that hunters don’t get blindsided by sudden regulations.
Another prevalent idea is that regulations aren’t the best way to go at all.
“I cringe when I hear the California side of it,” says OHA Conservation Director Jim Akensen.
California passed a law to ban all lead ammo by 2019 – largely because of condors.
The “no-regulation” sentiment isn’t only shared by hunters, but by many lead-free advocates working on the issue.
Akensen says education, incentives and voluntary compliance would be a much better way to bring hunters along. This tactic has been reasonably successful in Arizona – another state where condors have been released. More than 90 percent of that state’s hunters were either using non-lead ammunition or removing tasty-to-condor gut piles from the field.
“I think that there is not a high level of understanding of that association that could occur between scavenging birds and… pieces of bullet fragment in carcasses,” Akensen says.
Up the ladder
About half of U.S. states have restrictions in place on lead shot that exceed federal requirements. But few outside of California and Arizona have any policies on lead bullets.
But there is movement on the federal end to ratchet down on toxic ammunition. On his final day in office, Dan Ashe, Obama's director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, issued an order banning the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on all National Wildlife Refuges within 5 years. The order also expands the nationwide ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting to include several other widely hunted birds.
Many think the order won’t survive under the Trump Administration. The new USFWS director could issue another order overturning it or the agency could just not act. If USFWS doesn’t adopt the changes in official policy, then the ban sunsets in 2018.
Even so, the order could help keep the lead-ammunition discussion moving forward, says Leland Brown, the Non-Lead Hunting Coordinator at the Oregon Zoo.
“My impression of that is it’s really a way to ensure research continues and is really targeted on this issue… so that in the future we can make decisions based on… good, quality science,” Brown says.
Expanding the range of condors would not necessarily compel states to change how they regulate lead ammunition. But if the past is any indication, reintroduction of the impressive birds in the Pacific Northwest will be the harbinger of change.