Following the transmitter’s signal, it didn’t take me long to find the body of the three-year-old California condor, lying sprawled in the grass beneath a giant pine snag, its nine-and-a-half foot wings half-opened from its body.
The date was March 22, 1984 and the foothills of southern Tulare County were spectacular with lush green fields covered with native California wildflowers, blooming buckhorn, redbud, and big leaf maples. It was a heart-wrenching sight to see one of these great birds, at such a young age, dead beneath a favored roost. It brought home the calamity we were facing if we couldn’t soon determine the causes of mortality and rescue the condor before the last few birds were lost.
My day had started in Glennville, a small town in northern Kern County, tracking the remaining few condors that had been fitted with radio transmitters which allowed biologists with the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to follow North America’s largest land bird throughout its range. The technology gave us incredible new insights into one of the world’s most endangered species: where it roosted, what it ate, where it nested – and on this fateful day, what was killing it.
Back then, the Service had a small Cessna 180 that followed the birds on an almost daily basis, relaying information to field biologists. Pilot Larry Riopelle was flying Tulare County that day, and radioed me that IC-1, this young condor first tagged in 1982, hadn’t moved from a roost in several days. I immediately headed out to try and locate the bird.
The following day a radiograph taken at the San Diego Zoo determined that the bird had a lead bullet fragment in its digestive tract. The bird had not been shot, it had ingested the fragment from an animal carcass it had fed upon. Pathology confirmed the cause of death as lead poisoning. This was our first definitive case of a condor dying of lead poisoning.
That was 30 years ago this spring. Since that time dozens of reintroduced condors have died of lead exposure from spent ammunition as the Condor recovery effort struggles forward, trying to keep ahead of the excessive mortality. Even though the world population is now at 400 – divided between the captive breeding program and birds reintroduced into the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja Mexico – a cessation of the costly program would quickly put the majestic condors back on the road to extirpation.
Today 130 condors fly free in California. Beneath this veneer of success is a recovery program that skates on the edge every day. Lead poisoning from ingestion of lead bullet fragments is by far the greatest threat to the recovery of the species, and unless that threat is removed no amount of effort to recover the species will be successful.
The problem is not specific to condors. Deaths from lead exposure have been documented in numerous animals, from Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles to ravens and turkey vultures.
It’s also not specific to birds. Research has shown for some time that people who eat meat contaminated by lead ammunition have higher levels of lead in their blood. No surprises there – if wildlife can get poisoned eating the meat, why can’t people?
Earlier this year, 30 prominent scientists with expertise on the toxic effects of lead on human and wildlife health from institutions like the Harvard School of Public Heath, UC Berkeley, Cornell University, Rutgers University, UC Santa Cruz, Tufts University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Johns Hopkins University, among others, came together to sign a consensus statement affirming that lead from ammunition presents a significant threat to both humans and wildlife.
Eliminating lead from the condor’s food chain would allow government conservation agencies and private organizations to safely wind down their commitment to condor survival and turn their attention to other crucial conservation concerns. High quality nontoxic ammunitions suitable for hunting are becoming available in most calibers at moderate cost, so the extinction of lead ammunition would not threaten established hunting activities.
As I write this, Gov. Jerry Brown has on his desk a bill, Assembly Bill 711, that will require the use of nonlead ammunition for hunting in California. He should sign it.
It’s time to make wild game safe for wildlife and human food chains alike.
Jesse Grantham played a key role for 30 years in the protection of the California Condor, most recently as coordinator for the California Condor Recovery Program with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
(Condor photo by David Clendenen/USFWS)