Copper for Condors – Field Report

As Chris Parish pulls the trigger it’s clear that not everyone is used to gunfire. Some in the crowd of NPS interpreters behind him jump a little at the hard shock of the .30-06 as it sends 150 grains of copper jacketed lead down range. The gallon jugs of water explode as if they aren’t used to guns and bullets either. After Chris ejects the spent cartridge and proves to the supervising NPS officer that the “range is safe,” he and the interpretive rangers walk toward the splattered water jugs to look for the remnants of the bullet.

Chris Parish from the Peregrine Fund speaks with Grand Canyon interpretive rangers about the hazards of lead ammunition

Chris Parish from the Peregrine Fund speaks with Grand Canyon interpretive rangers about the dangers of lead ammunition

Chris is a PhD student with LCI, who in addition to going to class and writing his dissertation, directs the California Condor reintroduction program for The Peregrine Fund. On this day he is educating the seasonal interpretive staff at Grand Canyon National Park about the differences between lead and copper bullets. As he screens out the fragments of the lead bullet he dumps them into a small cup. Once all the fragments that can be collected have been he holds the cup up and asks the group:

“Imagine we had shot a deer and not six gallons of water, where do you suppose all these small fragments would have ended up?

The lead fragments would end up in the meat of the animal or they would stay in the gut pile and be ingested by whatever creature came across that great pile of seemingly healthy protein.”

The reamins of a lead bullet looses significant mass once entering an animal, the fragments left behind can poison condors

A lead bullet looses significant mass once entering an animal, the fragments left behind can poison condors

There’s the problem. When animals, human or otherwise, eat lead laden animal parts they ingest small amounts of lead. Over time this can lead to debilitating developmental problems and chronic health problems in humans. For the endangered California Condor ingesting lead over a long period,  or even a single heavy dose, causes paralysis of the muscles of the GI tract. Though the Condor will continue to fill its crop with food and eat, it suffers from malnutrition and essentially starves to death while eating voraciously, due to it’s inability to digest food. Over half of all diagnosed Condor deaths are attributed to lead toxicosis. The primary source of lead comes from ammunition. Because the Condors are obligate scavengers, they rely exclusively upon the remains of dead animals. During hunting season, the remains of hunted animals provide a valuable food source. In the cases where hunters use lead ammunition and leave the gut pile in the forest, they are contributing to the poisoning deaths of Condors.

A copper bullet recovered from the shooting demonstration. Copper bullets, compared to lead bullets retain almost their entire mass after entering an animal.

A copper bullet recovered from the shooting demonstration. Copper bullets, compared to lead bullets retain almost their entire mass after entering an animal.

On the range Chris demonstrates a possible solution. He sets his rifle in the stand, takes aim, and fires at a fresh set of water jugs. The jugs still explode, a few people still jump, in every practical sense the results are the same as before.  This time, at the far end of the range, Chris reaches in a removes a solid copper bullet. There are no fragments to collect as the bullet has maintained almost its entire mass and has even burst one more water jug than the lead bullet. Since the copper bullet contains no lead, the animal remains are safe for Condors to eat.

After all the shots are fired, Chris talks to the rangers about their role in the plight of the condor. Lead ammunition is legal to use on the Kaibab Plateau, just north of Grand Canyon National Park, one place where the Condors and hunters intersect. Chris and The Peregrine Fund along with AZ Game and Fish are in the midst of a campaign to invite hunters to voluntarily switch from lead to copper ammunition. Given the depth and breadth of Grand Canyon visitation, Chris hopes that these rangers will make contact with more than a few hunters and be able to give a personal and local account of how lead ammunition is imperiling an ancient resident of the Grand Canyon. This conversation may lead hunters to realize, as so many have, that using lead ammunition violates a serious tenant of a hunters conservation ethic: ’never harm non-target species.’

The success or failure of condor reintroduction hinges on hunters. Will we continue to use lead ammunition at levels that are lethal to Condors until we run out of the social and political will, or the birds, to keep the population viable? Or will participation in the voluntary lead ammunition removal program continue to increase (over 80% of hunters reported they participated in 2013), removing lead from the Condor’s foodweb? In the latter case, those who switch to copper could use the story of the Condor to teach their children about how the hunter is a small piece of the much larger puzzle that is the ecosystem. As hunters, we have the opportunity to save a species. We can represent the best of our kind– hunters who you’d expect to encounter on public lands, hunters the land deserves, not to be conflated the over exuberant individuals from the late night buck snuff shows. In some ways our reputation and our future is tied to the Condor’s.

As a hunter (or a voter), ask yourself: how long will people put up with hunting on public lands if those who benefit the most are unwilling to make the smallest sacrifice by changing from lead to copper so that we all can stand in awe of the last vestiges of the Pleistocene megafauna?

One thought on “Copper for Condors – Field Report

  1. I think the efforts you are taking to help the condors is wonderful.
    I have seen these amazing birds, and been saddened by their deaths.

    I have an idea that might help the plight of the condors, and humans too.

    Most of the focus is on the condors and how lead can negatively effect the birds by paralyzing their GI tract, and causing death. There are some hunters who may not care too much for condors (hard to believe). They may be the ones who are insisting on using lead ammunition, instead of copper.

    If the Peregrine Fund put more of a focus on how ingesting lead can harm people, especially children, the hunters may be more likely to buy copper bullets instead of lead. What kind of father would want to feed his child meat that is tainted with poison (lead)?

    From the little research that I’ve done, I’ve discovered that lead can lead to brain damage, and higher levels can damage the kidney and nervous system.

    I think this would be a great message to get across through your website, facebook, etc…

    Also, could you forward this message to Chris Parish.

    Keep up the great work! I love those birds.


    Amanda DeGroat

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