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Condor Fans Seek to Curb Use of Lead Ammo

September 28, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

From above, a soaring condor scans the terrain and spots easy pickings -- the remains left after hunters have shot a deer, wild pig or some other game animal.

But the entrails that would otherwise be perfect for the vulture-like birds can be riddled with fragments of lead from the kind of bullets that hunters have used for centuries. And even a tiny morsel of that secondhand lead can be enough to paralyze a condor's digestive system, condemning the bird to an agonizing death by starvation.

Conservationists have fretted about the lethal effects of secondhand lead for decades. Only now, though, are they attempting to reduce it in the rugged outback shared by hunters on the track of game and California condors on the lookout for lunch.

"Lead could stop our program cold in its tracks," said Bruce Palmer, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's $35-million effort to bring back the once nearly extinct California condor. Lead poisoning is believed to have killed at least seven condors and sickened nearly one-third of the 80 birds now in the wild.

Last week the U.S. Forest Service announced a plan to give $15 rebates to deer hunters who use non-lead ammunition in a portion of Los Padres National Forest.

Meanwhile, an odd-bedfellows coalition of government agencies, sportsmen groups and environmentalists is doing market research for a multiyear campaign aimed at getting hunters either to switch ammo or bury the remains of animals they gut.

At the same time, without so much as a focus group, a handful of enthusiasts who call themselves Project Gutpile have trudged into the field in camouflage pants and save-the-condor T-shirts, gingerly spreading the word to sometimes skeptical hunters.

"Our approach isn't to go out and tell hunters what to do," said Paul Andreano, 32, Project Gutpile's founder and a recent biology graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "It's just talking to them as human beings. We're not trying to convince them; we're just happy to engage them."

Andreano, whose day job involves working with bald eagles for a Northern California conservation group, fell in love with condors during a college internship at a field research station called the Hi Mountain Lookout.

While tracking the huge birds as they swooped through the Santa Lucia Mountains, he met another volunteer, Anthony Prieto, 40, who has been crazy about condors since he was a kid.

Prieto is a rare bird himself. In his Santa Barbara bungalow he proudly displays his condor photos and speaks reverently of the whooshing noise the birds make as air streams through the feathers of their 9-foot wingspread. At the same time, his living-room walls are crammed with huge heads of elk, deer, pigs and other game he's taken as an avid hunter.

Working late at night and into the early morning, Prieto paints the stripes on Santa Barbara's streets. From time to time on weekends, he heads out with Project Gutpile, handing out fliers and talking hunter-to-hunter about switching to copper bullets or making gut piles inaccessible.

"At first I was ridiculed," he said. "But once they heard that I hunt too, they kind of shut it down. I told them I'm not here to bag on hunting -- I just wanted to say there are some alternatives to lead."

It's not an easy sell.

Every ammunition shoots differently, and switching requires hunters to painstakingly readjust their rifles' sights. Less toxic than lead, the copper bullets that Prieto favors are a lot more expensive. And although hunters might want to take a few extra steps to save the condors, it might be tougher getting ranch hands to bury all the coyotes, ground squirrels and other "varmints" they shoot on the job.

"How do you approach a rancher and say, 'I know you've been doing this out here for the last hundred years, but we've got a better way?' " Andreano asked.

On top of all that, some hunters are simply wary of tree-huggers, figuring that a gently suggested change in the way they do things could be a first step toward squeezing them out of the woods.

"Everyone's temperamental about, 'You're not going to take my guns away from me,' " said Pat Brady, a gun dealer in Lancaster.

The fact is that non-lead bullets just don't shoot as well as lead, he said. And the concern over gut piles "is the biggest joke ever created."

The amount of lead left in animal remains is minuscule, Brady contended -- especially compared with lead that condors and other wildlife could be absorbing from industrial pollution.

"Big corporations do a lot worse to the environment than hunters," he said.

Although the source of the lead that kills condors is an open question to some hunters, wildlife biologists have little doubt, pointing to the more than 30,000 gut piles that dot the condors' range in California each year.

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