State may ban lead for big game
Deer, pig hunters would have to switch bullets to protect condors
By KEVIN HOWE
Herald Staff Writer
Citing the diminishing condor population, the state Fish and Game Commission decided Friday to consider banning or limiting lead bullets for big game hunting in California when it meets March 2 in Arcata.
The commission, meeting in Monterey on Friday, unanimously voted in favor of serving notice of its intent to amend hunting regulations for 2007-2010 with an aim to eliminating lead bullets in the California Condor range.
Department of Fish and Game officials offered the commission three alternatives related to regulating leaded bullets: ban the ammunition in specific deer-hunting areas, ban it statewide, or offer hunters incentives to voluntarily use nonleaded ammunition while hunting deer, elk, wild pigs and other large animals.
The specific hunting areas include most of those west of the Sierra Nevada -- areas A, D9, D10 and D11 on Fish and Game maps.
Those are areas whose boundaries are already well-known to deer hunters, said Eric Loft, chief wildlife biologist for DFG, and bullet restrictions within them would apply to all big-game hunting.
The alternatives, he said, would be to ban lead bullets statewide or set up an incentive program to encourage hunters to use the more expensive nonleaded ammunition, which is already on the market.
Last November a consortium of environmental activists, including the Wishtoyo Foundation, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking a ban on the use of lead bullets by hunters in the state's condor ranges.
The plaintiffs cited studies showing that lead from bullets left in carcasses or gut piles from game animals is a major source of lead poisoning in the rare and endangered condors.
The assertion that lead bullets and fragments in carcasses eaten by condors are a major source of lead poisoning for the endangered birds was confirmed in August by scientists at the University of California-Santa Cruz. They published a study online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that examined and analyzed lead from rifle bullets and shotgun pellets.
The UC-Santa Cruz researchers used a "fingerprinting" technique based on the unique isotope ratios found in different sources of lead. The technique enabled them to match the lead in blood samples from condors to the lead in ammunition.
The California condor was declared endangered by the federal government in 1967 and by the state in 1971. In 1987, the last 22 wild condors were trapped and taken to zoos for a captive breeding program that has raised the condor population to just less than 300.
"We will never have a self-sustaining condor population without addressing the lead issue," said Jesse Grantham, California condor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Walt Mansell of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, along with other hunters, voiced support for a voluntary program of unleaded bullet use, and questioned assertions that the ammo is widely available.
"It doesn't exist in .22 (caliber) rimfire," Mansell said, a cartridge popular among small-game hunters and for pest eradication, and is most readily available to those who reload their own ammunition, rather than from sporting goods stores.
An area or statewide ban on the bullets, he added, would be difficult and expensive to enforce, given the thinly stretched staff of the Fish and Game Department trying to cover "a vast area with thousands of hunters."
"We're killing condors by not banning lead bullets," said commission president Bob Hattoy, who, with commissioner Richard Rogers contended that lead bullet fragments in game meat also pose a human health problem for the hunters and their families that consume them.