New Study Points to Lead Ammunition as Primary Factor Limiting Condor Recovery

Apr 11, 2011
MEDIA RELEASE Contact: Robert Johns, 202-234-7181 ext.210,
(Washington, D.C., April 8, 2011) A new study announced at the Society of Toxicology's Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. points to lead ammunition as a primary factor limiting the survival and recovery of one of the country's most imperiled birds, the California Condor. The study was conducted by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. "This study is especially important and unique because not only does it cite lead as a major factor, but it cites lead ammunition specifically. While many field studies had suggested that lead ammunition was the source of often fatal lead poisoning in these birds, the gun lobby has demanded highly specific data to identify the source(s) of lead poisoning. We now have that information in the form of sound science that connects the dots between condor deaths and lead ammunition," said Dr. Michael Fry, a leading avian toxicologist and Director of Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy. California Condors were decimated as a species, reduced to 22 wild individuals by 1982. There followed a captive breeding and release program that has seen the wild population rise to 190 condors in the 'wild' (Californian 97, Arizona 73 and Baja 20), but despite substantial management efforts to reduce lead exposure risk, California condors continue to be poisoned on a regular basis. For example, in 2009, almost 50% of the condors monitored at one California release site (Pinnacles National Monument) received clinical treatment for lead poisoning. The recent study analyzed blood collected from 17 pre-release condors exposed to "background" sources of lead and 70 free-flying condors in California. This blood analysis was compared with an analysis of a representative selection of 71 lead-based ammunitions. The results demonstrated that the lead "signature" of free-flying condors is different from that of pre-release birds, and based on that signature, that about 90% of free-flying condors had been exposed to lead-based ammunition. The study also found that out of 760 condor blood samples collected between 2004-2009 in California, about 35% of free-flying condors are chronically exposed to lead levels well-known to be toxic. "Four highly respected science organizations have concluded that lead ammunition is poisoning our wildlife. The very sad part of this is that it doesn't have to happen as there are numerous other non-lead, non-toxic bullets that perform as well or better than their lead counterparts," Fry said. Lead is a highly toxic substance that is dangerous to wildlife even at low levels. Exposure can cause a range of health effects, from loss of coordination and nerve damage to acute poisoning and death. Long-term effects can include mental retardation, reduced reproduction and damage to neurological development. An estimated total of 10 million to 15 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning in the United States, including Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Loons, Trumpeter Swans, and Doves. This occurs when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead bullet fragments, or pick up and eat spent lead-shot pellets or lost fishing weights, mistaking them for food or grit. Some animals die within days from lead poisoning while others suffer for years from its debilitating effects. Lead ammunition also poses health risks to people. Lead bullets fragment on impact into minute particles, spreading throughout game meat that people eat. X-ray studies show that hundreds of dust-sized lead particles can contaminate meat more than a foot and a half away from the bullet track. A recent study found that up to 87 percent of game killed by lead ammunition contains unsafe levels of lead when consumed by pregnant women or children. Nearly 10 million hunters, their families and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations may be at risk. In 2008, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on human exposure to lead from venison in Wisconsin that recommended that " .... food pantries and their clients should be made aware of possible lead fragments in venison." In response to a 2008 discovery that found lead in 53 of 95 venison packages intended for food pantries, the North Dakota Health Department halted distribution of venison from food pantries. Another study in Minnesota prompted the removal of over 1,000 pounds of venison from food pantries. American Bird Conservancy ( conserves native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats while building capacity of the bird conservation movement. ABC is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization.