(CN) – Activists have renewed their campaign against lead bullets, which cause lead poisoning in scavenger birds like the endangered California condor, despite warnings that confrontation may spook hunters away from voluntarily giving up lead.
The Center for Biological Diversity and other opponents of lead-based bullets want the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Though the EPA denied a petition to enact such regulation last year, and a Washington federal judge dismissed the ensuing lawsuit, more than 100 groups and scientists filed a new petition in March.
“The widespread poisoning of many species of wildlife requires a response from the EPA to regulate lead ammunition,” the filing states. “This petition presents strong evidence that lead shot and bullets pose an unreasonable risk to health and the environment and that this risk cannot be prevented through action under other federal laws.”
The groups argue that the EPA does have the authority to regulate ammunition, which could include a “nationwide ban on the use of bullets and shot containing lead.”
Though the groups want a nationwide ban on lead-based bullets, with exceptions for military and law enforcement, they say the government has plenty of options.
Both sides have identified preventable lead poisoning animals as the cause of massive fatalities among animals that feed on carcasses and gut piles filled with lead fragments after hunters leave them behind. But some wildlife officials and anti-lead advocates remain deeply ambivalent about a nationwide ban.
“More than 130 species of wildlife are affected by lead from these sources, and in some species thousands or tens of thousands of individuals die from lead ingestion every year in North America,” according to the petition. “For most species there has been no assessment of the effect of lead-caused mortality on population levels. However, population level effects have been shown in well-studied species such as the California condor, bald eagle, trumpeter swan, sandhill crane and spectacled eider.”
The problem is particularly acute on Arizona’s vast Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon, where the California condor rebounded from the brink of extinction and would be thriving but for the lead problem.
North America’s largest flying land bird, the California condor can live up to 70 years under ideal conditions. Along with raptors such as the golden and bald eagle, the scavenging condor has been at the center of the lead-bullet issue for years.
“Since 2011, nearly half of the roughly 130 condors released since 1996 along the Arizona-Utah border have died or vanished, with lead poisoning being the leading cause of death,” according to the petition.
Some parts of California have banned the use of lead bullets over concern for the condor, but hunter and anti-lead advocate Anthony Prieto said the ban has logged mixed results.
Prieto has been trying for years to convince his fellow hunters to switch to copper bullets, which don’t fragment as much as lead bullets do, or to bury or pack out the “gut pile” removed from a kill in the field. Prieto calls a nationwide ban on lead ammunition a “drastic measure.”
Despite the ongoing ban in California’s condor habitat, “birds are still getting lead because not everybody follows the law,” he told Courthouse News in an interview.
“It’s funny with human nature – you can educate people and give them evidence and let them make the choice, but some hunters are completely against it,” Prieto said. “They think it’s an underlying thing to ban all hunting.”
Faced with these concerns, and the unrelenting opposition to regulation by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, wildlife officials in Arizona worry that an all-out ban could do more harm than good.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department’s California Condor Project says many hunters on the Kaibab Plateau have voluntarily shifted to copper bullets.
“On the Kaibab Plateau, successful hunters are at 90 percent participation – either using non-lead ammunition or packing out their gut pile,” said Kathy Sullivan, coordinator of the condor project in Flagstaff, Ariz.
“Through this voluntary program, we have been able to avoid the conflict,” Sullivan said in an interview with Courthouse News. “The hunters are part of the solution. A ban just immediately puts people on the defensive.”
Much of the success can be attributed to a free ammunition program funded in Arizona by lottery and Indian-gaming money. Since 2005, every hunter that has drawn a tag to hunt on the Kaibab Plateau, and on the remote Arizona Strip near the Utah border, has been given a free box of solid copper bullets. Sullivan said that voluntary participation by hunters has increased from 50 percent in 2005 to 90 percent this year. The number of tag-holders varies from year to year, but generally falls somewhere between 1,400 and 2,400, she said.
However, while more hunters are using copper bullets in Arizona’s condor country, that doesn’t mean that lead poisoning in the area is no longer a problem. In fact, the deaths continue because birds don’t recognize state borders, and Utah has yet to implement a free-bullet program similar to Arizona’s.
“We are working with them, hoping they will implement the free ammo program this year,” Sullivan said. “The birds go back and forth daily. We can’t pinpoint it, but we suspect [lead poisoning] is coming from Utah rather than Arizona.”
She said that the issue is best dealt with by the states “on a species by species basis.”
“We hope it [lead ammunition] will be phased out, but it isn’t an emergency for most species,” Sullivan said. “Just putting a law on the books didn’t solve the problem in California.”
Few know this issue more intimately than documentary filmmaker Matthew Podolsky, who spent two years in the wilds of Arizona working with California condors and cataloguing their plight. Podolsky’s film, “Scavenger Hunt: An Unlikely Union,” debuted last week at Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival in Ithaca, N.Y. It highlights the voluntary effort by Arizona hunters to use copper bullets instead of lead.
“Our goal with this film is not to say that a voluntary effort is the best or only solution to the problem,” Podolsky said statement. “Instead, we hope that this film will allow hunters to get the credit that they deserve for the effort that they have put forth to protect one of the world’s most endangered bird species. We hope to show that despite the ever-present rhetoric from gun rights organizations like the NRA and the NSSF, hunters truly are America’s greatest conservationists.”
The NRA’s legislative arm did not respond to a request for comment. In a recent report, the NSSF, which represents the gun industry, argued that regulation would increase hunters’ costs and hurt the economy.
“Limiting the choice of ammunition to alternative ammunition can increase costs, on average, up to 190 percent more than the equivalent traditional ammunition and decrease the ability for citizens to participate in recreational activities,” the report says.
Podolsky told Courthouse News that a middle road – one that veers away from the anti-regulation propaganda and the call for a nationwide ban – is possible when confronting hunters one-on-one.
“My experience has been that the vast majority of hunters, when they are made aware of the significance of this issue, they are very willing to make the change,” he said in an interview. “I do think that, eventually, a ban on lead-based ammunition is inevitable. But if you try to restrict or ban before the hunters are aware of why it’s being restricted, you are going to have a problem.”
One way to get hunters on board is to stress the potential danger of lead fragments to human health, he said.
“Showing a hunter an x-ray of a deer shot with lead-based ammunition, and showing them the extent of fragmentation, how far from the wound the bullet fragments, goes a long way,” Podolsky said. “Most hunters think they can cut out the shot, but they can’t. This research on condors has illuminated this potential issue to human health.”
Podolsky said he ultimately seeks to remind hunters that they are intimately tied to their prey, and that their role in nature has real consequences.
“These condors are relying on hunters for a food source,” he said. “The hunters are doing a good thing by leaving that gut pile, but they just have to use a different kind of ammunition.”