Ban on Lead Sparks Battle

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Condors, which resemble large turkey vultures, were the subject of the ban in San Benito County. Now, environmental groups argue that lead ammunition can harm other birds and fish as well.

Hollister
– If the state Fish and Game Commission likes what it hears
Friday, hunters in San Benito County may have to switch from lead
to copper bullets to help preserve California’s condor
population.
Hollister – If the state Fish and Game Commission likes what it hears Friday, hunters in San Benito County may have to switch from lead to copper bullets to help preserve California’s condor population.

The commission is expected to vote on a proposal would require hunters to use copper bullets when hunting animals such as deer, pigs and coyotes in the California condor corridor, which stretches from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, said that the vote is crucial to saving North America’s largest bird, the condor.

“I think it’s a make or break for the condor population,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson, whose organization began introducing the giant scavenging bird into the wild at Pinnacles National Monument in San Benito County 2003, said lead bullets contribute to the lead poisoning of condors.

“Lead ammunition has a strong possibility to fragment into hundreds of pieces in carcasses,” he said.

But some sportsmen question whether lead bullets really contribute significantly to lead poisoning in condors, and also whether those pushing for the ban on lead bullets are really going after gun-owner rights.

There are more than 30,000 carcasses and gut-piles, or entrails left by hunters, in the condor’s range annually, according to a 2003 study by the University of California, Davis.

And citing a study last year by the University of California, Santa Cruz, Sorenson said that researchers found high lead levels in the blood stream of almost one-third of condors sampled. The lead found in 77 percent of the condors matched the lead found in ammunition, he said.

As the lead moves through the condor, it shuts down its digestive system, starving the bird, Sorenson said.

The proposed ban on lead bullets is the latest development in on-going efforts to preserve the condor, a creature whose numbers dropped to only 22 in the 1980s. But thanks to breeding efforts, the condor population in Arizona and California has reached 279, of which 127 are in the wild.

There are 14 condors living in the wild at Pinnacles National Monument. Park officials will release up to three condors from captivity on April 21.

Opponents of the push to ban lead bullets say problems with the ban range from the true source of lead poisoning to infringement of Second Amendment rights.

Gary Lease, a hunter who serves as the chairman of the Santa Cruz County Fish and Game Commission, questioned the source of lead poisoning in condors.

The ban would not eliminate the use of lead bullets in .22-caliber rifles, commonly used to kill squirrels, Lease said.

“I have friends who kill several hundreds of ground squirrels a day,” he said.

Although condors have been seen feeding on the rodents, Sorenson said the majority of the bird’s diet comes from larger carcasses.

“They’re not going to go down there and pick up these tiny scraps,” he said.

Opponents also question the true motive behind banning lead bullets. Lease said he believes that some supporters of the ban on lead bullets are really going after gun rights.

But Sorenson said the only goal of the ban is to create a clean food supply for condors.

“This is only anti-lead,” Sorenson said. “This is not anti-hunting whatsoever.”

Lease also argued that the ban of lead ammunition would place an unfair financial burden on hunters in the California’s condor corridor.

Jerry Muenzer, of Muenzer’s Cyclery and Sports Center on Fifth Street in Hollister, said the ban would tack an extra $20 onto each box of ammunition for big-game hunters.

When a federal ban was placed on lead shot for hunting waterfowl, prices for more expensive steel shot eventually dropped, Muenzer said. But only hunters in certain California counties will be required to use copper bullets.

“I don’t know if that’s going to be enough for the national manufactures to start coming out with a cheaper shell,” Muenzer said.

Muenzer said he has seen the ban coming for years.

“As soon as they started releasing condors down at the Pinnacles it was only a matter of time,” Muenzer said.

Michael Van Cassell covers public safety for the Free Lance. He can be reached at 831-637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected]

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