In the heat of the high-desert summer in 2014, a crew of wildlife researchers drove the dusty, gravel ranch roads in eastern Oregon, eyes on the sky in search of big broad-winged hawks, like red-tails and Swainson’s, soaring above, scanning the landscape for rodents and rabbits. Spotting a hunting hawk, they hit the gas, racing 1,500 yards or so ahead of the raptor. They tossed out a bal-chatri – a trap consisting of a mesh wire dome festooned with nylon slipknots and a mouse inside for bait. Spying the mouse, the hawk dove, talons extended, expecting to connect with a meal, only to find itself entangled in the knots. Bal-chatris, originally developed by falconers in India, are among the most effective ways of capturing raptors alive.
“Once the trap was out it only took five or ten seconds for the hawk to swoop down and get caught in the slipknots,” recalls Garth Herring, an ecologist with the US Geological Survey’s Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Center in Corvallis, Oregon. Working quickly and efficiently, the researchers drew a blood sample, then released the ruffled but unharmed bird back into the sky. “On some days we caught 14 or 15 hawks,” Herring says.
Herring and his colleagues from the usgs and Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife spent the summer of 2014 out in the field studying the interactions between hawks and other scavenger birds and ground squirrels that had been shot. The group conducted its research at Belding’s ground squirrel colonies in eastern Oregon that are regularly targeted by hunters. Often called “sage rats,” Belding’s ground squirrels are small, social rodents that establish large colonies in open habitats including alpine meadows, grasslands, sagebrush flats, and pastures. Half-a-dozen shooters armed with .17 caliber rifles can kill 500 to 1,000 of them over the course of a day as they pop their heads out of their dens to have a look around.
Shooting these squirrels is a popular sport in many parts of the West, including in the Great Basin desert region, which extends into southeastern Oregon, where hunting outfitters charge clients $400 or more for a day of shooting. Since a colony of ground squirrels will eat large amounts of alfalfa, grown to feed livestock, ranchers and farmers often welcome recreational “sage rat” shooters on their properties. The hunters leave the carcasses in the field where they are scavenged by hawks, vultures, coyotes, and other animals. It’s an easy meal for wild birds and animals, but one with a cost, because those tasty morsels are contaminated with lead, a highly toxic heavy metal.
Herring and his colleagues ended up working on eight ranches with large alfalfa crops. The purpose of their research was threefold: to determine how much lead from spent ammunition remained in the carcasses of the ground squirrels after they had been shot by hunters; to measure lead levels in the bodies of birds that had eaten shot ground squirrels versus those that had captured live prey; and to look at how the presence of large numbers of ground squirrel carcasses affected raptor hunting and scavenging behavior.
“We were upfront with the hunters that we were trying to find out what the effect of lead was on the local wildlife,” Herring explains. “Most of the guys appreciate the local wildlife and were okay with what we were doing.”
The research was part of an ongoing push on the West Coast to reduce the use of lead ammunition by hunters to prevent lead poisoning of wildlife in general, and specifically to protect California condors and pave the way for their potential future return to historical ranges in the Pacific Northwest. Condor recovery efforts in California have revealed that the critically endangered scavenger bird simply cannot be successfully reintroduced in areas where hunters use lead ammunition.
Though conservationists agree about the goal – preventing lead poisoning in wildlife – they are divided over the means: about whether to force hunters’ hands through regulation, or foster voluntary buy-in within a community that considers itself to be conservation-oriented. Right now, that debate is playing out with special urgency in Oregon in anticipation of arrival of California condors.
America’s wildlife has been suffering from lead exposure for decades – the earliest suspicions about lead poisoning in wild birds date back to the late 1870s. Virtually all lead exposure in birds comes directly from ingestion of spent ammunition from rifles and shotguns. Preventing wildlife poisonings from spent ammunition – which particularly impacts scavenging birds like eagles, hawks, and vultures – has been a daunting challenge for advocates. The problem is that when a hunter’s bullet strikes his target, it shatters into hundreds of fragments that scatter and lodge in the animal’s tissue. When scavengers eat the remains of animals shot by hunters, they invariably ingest these lead fragments.
In examining the carcasses collected at the ground squirrel colonies in Oregon, for instance, the researchers found that the vast majority – some 87 to 93 percent – of the shot squirrels contained lead fragments, averaging about 15 fragments per carcass. They also determined that 20 to 24 percent of the shot ground squirrels contained enough lead fragments to be fatal to raptor nestlings if ingested. Ravens, which scavenge extensively, had a 40 percent greater exposure to lead over the “background” or baseline level. Swainson’s hawks, which scavenge more than other hawk species, had even higher exposure levels.
The Centers for Disease Control has not identified a “safe” level of lead exposure for humans, and that almost certainly holds true for wildlife as well. As in humans, lead contamination can affect virtually every organ system in wild animals, especially the nervous system. At low exposure levels, it damages tissue, organs, and immune and reproductive systems, elevates blood pressure, and causes neurological impairment. Low-level exposure can also cause birds and other wildlife to be tired and lethargic because lead in the bloodstream slows the transport of oxygen. This lethargy makes them more vulnerable to predators and makes it more difficult for them to hunt for food. They can recover from low-level contamination, however, if exposure ends. At higher exposure levels, the implications for scavenging birds include paralysis, emaciation, difficulty standing or flying, and death.
Unfortunately, as the Oregon researchers discovered, intensive hunting activity attracts scavenging birds looking for an easy meal. Raptors at the sites they monitored quickly learned where ground squirrels were being shot and left on the ground. There was a 380 percent increase in the number of hawks visiting the hunted ground squirrel colonies over those colonies that were left alone by hunters. The hawks visiting the hunting grounds spent 240 percent less time stalking prey, and spent 26 percent more time on the ground scavenging. While that had the benefit of enabling the hawks to procure more food with less effort than by catching live prey, it also put them and their chicks at risk of ingesting lead.
It’s not known how many ground squirrels – a category that includes a range of species from Belding’s ground squirrels, to prairie dogs, to marmots – are shot recreationally in the West, but the numbers are undoubtedly tremendous. A 2005 study in South Dakota found that hunters killed more than a million ground squirrels over the course of a single year. And since about half of shot ground squirrels retreat to their dens to die, the actual number killed is probably twice as much as those left – and counted – in the field.
But it’s not just shot ground squirrels that pose a problem. Coyotes, jackrabbits, and badgers are all shot recreationally and often left to contribute to the lead stream. Big game hunting also contributes to lead exposure when hunters field-dress animals and leave behind gut piles – the organs and other remains of a deer or elk discarded after the head, antlers, hide, and meat have been removed. A study done at Pinnacles National Park in California found an average of about 170 lead fragments in the gut piles of deer shot by hunters.
The toll lead poisoning takes on wildlife is difficult to quantify – the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 10 to 20 million animals die each year from lead poisoning in the US alone. The statistics are especially alarming for carnivorous birds. For example, of the 120 or so bald eagles taken in each year by The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota for treatment of injuries or other ailments, 90 percent have elevated lead residues in their blood. As many as 25 percent of those birds have high enough lead levels to be diagnosed with clinical lead poisoning – most of those birds die or are euthanized.
Leland Brown is a hunter. He’s also the Wildlife and Lead Outreach Coordinator for the Oregon Zoo in Portland, and you can often find him staffing booths at sportsmen’s shows and providing hunters with the opportunity to try out nontoxic alternatives to lead ammunition. He also gives talks to hunting groups about how lead ammunition can poison wildlife and what hunters can do to prevent that from happening. Brown’s days in the field, knowledge of firearms, and kinship with those who seek a relationship with nature through hunting lend special credibility to his work.
Though some may be skeptical at first, Brown says most hunters seem genuinely interested and willing to help when they learn about wildlife poisoning. “The vast majority of hunters don’t know that this is a problem,” he says. “They don’t think about where the lead goes after they fire their rounds. But hunters are receptive to the conservation message.”
Key to solving the wildlife lead poisoning issue is to get hunters to move away from lead ammunition to nontoxic counterparts. Nontoxic ammunition is made from tin, copper, tungsten, or bismuth, and unlike lead bullets that shatter and fragment on impact, nontoxic rounds peel back, petal-like, to create a large wound in their target. Nontoxic ammunition is available in at least 35 calibers and 50 rifle cartridge designations, giving hunters an ample variety to chose from for most hunting purposes. It is also priced comparably to better quality lead ammunition and is its equal in accuracy.
Despite this, there are still problems with getting widespread acceptance from hunters, says Clark Blanchard, assistant deputy director for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. One is the market. Because nontoxic ammunition is not yet commonly used, it may be hard for hunters to find the calibers they need at their local sporting goods store, if the store carries nontoxic ammunition at all. In addition to simple resistance to change, hunters may also be suspicious that there is an anti-hunting agenda embedded in the campaign for non-lead alternatives.
Preventing wildlife poisonings from spent ammunition has been a daunting challenge for advocates.
Then there are partisan politics and corporate interests. The lead ammunition industry has skin in the game. And proposed lead ammunition bans have, in the past, become entangled in hunting and gun rights issues. As a result, politically powerful groups like the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation, as well as many hunting organizations, have effectively opposed previous efforts to move towards nontoxic ammunition.
It’s not as if there’s been no progress on this front. In 1991 – following a US Fish and Wildlife Service study showing widespread lead poisoning in waterfowl – lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned nationwide. Hunters had to switch to steel shot. Many complained about the change, contending that steel shot was inferior (although studies at the time showed little actual difference). Today, nontoxic shot for waterfowl hunting is largely accepted.
But steep challenges remain. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved to expand the waterfowl lead ammunition ban to include any use of lead ammunition on lands under the agency’s jurisdiction. On January 19, 2017, outgoing usfws Director Dan Ashe signed Order 219 that would “require the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to the fullest extent practicable on all Service lands waters and facilities by January 2022.” Forty-two days later, Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s new Department of the Interior Secretary, rescinded the order.
Given the lack of far-reaching action at the federal level, California legislatures have adopted a mandatory lead ban approach, primarily driven by the program to reintroduce California condors to the wild in the state.
California condors were found throughout much of North America until about 12,000 years ago, and more recently ranged throughout the Southwest and north into the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. In 1979 there were only 25 to 35 condors left in the wild. By 1987, the last 27 living California condors had been captured and put into a captive breeding program as a last-ditch effort to save the species. Releases back into the wild began in 1992, and in 2016 the wild California condor population was 276, with birds flying free in central and southern California, and parts of Arizona, Utah, and Baja, Mexico. There are another 170 in captivity, including at the Oregon Zoo-run Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation that has been breeding California condors since 2003. (Forty-seven of the condors that have been released back into the wild were born at the center.) That’s the entire world population of California condors.
While condors have suffered from shootings, poisoning, and thin eggshells from pesticide contamination, the ongoing threat of lead poisoning is the biggest barrier to the species’ successful recovery in the wild. At California’s Pinnacles National Park, where captive-born condors were first released in 2003, most of the free-flying birds have blood lead levels that are considered high enough to put a human child at risk. Some have lead levels high enough to be potentially fatal to adults. By the time California condors in the park and surrounding region reach seven years old, which is breeding age, virtually all of them have had emergency treatment for lead poisoning at least once. Between 2012 and 2013, nearly 67 percent of known wild condor deaths were from lead poisoning.
To address this issue, the California Assembly passed a law in 2008 requiring the use of non-lead ammunition for big game hunting in “California condor zones” in western and central California where the birds had been reintroduced. There was pushback.
“Some people said it was going to kill hunting and that it was not based on science and that no one was going to hunt anymore,” says Blanchard. But after the law went into effect, California wildlife officials actually saw a slight increase in statewide hunting license sales.
On the other side of the debate were wildlife advocates who said the law didn’t go far enough. “A few years later it came up again that it was time to ban lead statewide since it isn’t just about condors, but also golden eagles, raptors, coyotes, and everything that eats dead animals,” Blanchard says. In 2013, California legislators passed Senate Bill 711, which will ban lead ammunition for hunting throughout the state by July 1, 2019. The ban is being implemented in three phases, in part to allow nontoxic ammunition manufacturers to respond to this new market. Though a number of states have banned use of lead ammunition on certain public lands, or for hunting of certain species, so far, California is the only state to pass a complete ban.
Other states have taken a different, incentive-driven approach. In Arizona, the Department of Fish and Game hands out free non-lead ammunition in condor zones and enters hunters who remove their gut piles from the field into a raffle drawing. Utah similarly offers a raffle program for hunters who use non-lead ammunition or remove gut piles from the field. According to research by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, these programs have resulted in an estimated 50 percent of hunters using non-lead ammunition in Utah and up to 90 percent of Arizona hunters switching to nontoxic ammunition or hauling out their gut piles.
Right now, the usfws, National Park Service, and Yurok Tribe are working on a plan to release California condors into Redwood National Park in Northern California. A decision on whether to move ahead with the reintroduction program is expected in October 2017.
If that plan is implemented, which is likely, it would be the northernmost reintroduction of the species to date. And it would only be a matter of time before wild condors began dispersing into Oregon. The only problem is that lead ammunition is still widely used by Oregon hunters – so lead poisoning would stop any condor recovery in its tracks. If California condors are to reestablish themselves in their former range along the Pacific Coast, perhaps even into British Columbia, they need to make it in Oregon first.
In anticipation of the eventual arrival of California condors, Oregon wildlife officials have been discussing how best to respond. In 2014, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a statewide survey of hunters to get input on switching over to nontoxic ammunition. Among other things, the survey showed that 40 percent of Oregon hunters would voluntarily switch to nontoxic ammunition if they were assured it performed as well as lead ammunition. More than 35 percent, however, said they would never switch to non-lead ammunition when hunting non-protected animals like ground squirrels.
As Oregon and other states begin to take the threat of lead poising in wildlife more seriously, they must decide whether to ban lead through laws and regulations, as California has done, or follow the path of Arizona and Utah and adopt an incentives-based strategy.
The Oregon Zoo’s Brown would like to see implementation of the voluntary approach. He believes it would garner better compliance by hunters. “These are people with a long interest and involvement in conservation,” Brown says. “Rolling over hunters is not the best way to solve this issue.”
Others like Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, which has launched an effort to establish a ban on lead ammunition in Oregon, are skeptical of the voluntary model. Sallinger believes it would take far more resources – including educational materials, frequent outreach, and field staff – than is practical over the long-term. He’s also doubtful of some incentives-based advocates’ sincerity.
“Some of the groups calling for a voluntary approach, like the nra, are also pushing back on the science saying that secondary poisoning of wildlife is not due to lead,” says Sallinger, a dedicated champion of raptors, who once drove for hours through the night from his home in Portland far into the eastern Oregon desert to pick up an injured falcon rescued by a rancher. “Hunting should be done ethically and that’s what we are talking about here,” he continues. “There is no reason that secondary poisoning of wildlife should be allowed. It’s something that should have been addressed long ago.”
In Oregon, Sallinger says, lead ammunition could be banned at the administrative level by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, through the legislature, or by voter referendum. Legal means have also been used to advance lead bans elsewhere. In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity and the American Bird Conservancy petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the manufacture, sale, and use of all lead ammunition in the US under the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, since the ban would have affected all uses of lead ammunition – including military and police use, and recreational shooting – the petition was denied.
A more targeted legal effort is ongoing in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest where the Earthrise Law Center at Lewis and Clark College in Portland is suing the US Forest Service for allowing California condors to be exposed to lead poisoning from spent lead ammunition by big game hunters.
While the lawsuit is specific to the Kaibab National Forest, a win by the law center could result in a ban that might be applied to other national forests. The National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, and National Shooting Sports Foundation have joined the suit as intervenors on the side of the Forest Service.
Back on the West Coast, the momentum behind the California condors reintroduction effort and the possibility of condors recolonizing former habitat farther north may become the galvanizing forces needed to eventually end hunting with lead ammunition in all the Pacific states, whether by voluntary cooperation or force of law. And that’s exactly what Audubon’s Bob Sallinger says is needed. “If you are looking to make a change in the next five to ten years, it has to be along the entire West Coast,” he says. “You have to do it on that scale to be effective.”
Jim Yuskavitch is a Sisters, Oregon-based freelance writer and photographer, specializing in conservation. He is also editor of The Osprey, a salmon and steelhead conservation journal.
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