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The bane of lead bullets

Restrictions on traditional ammo should help condors, but enforcement will be difficult.

June 14, 2008

Hunters and California condors have a paradoxical relationship. With the diminished numbers of large predators, such as mountain lions, in the state's wilderness areas, hunters help fill the role. By leaving behind part of their kill, as is common, they provide a portion of the carrion eaters' indelicate diet.

But when that diet contains lead bullets, hunters are a prime threat to the survival of the majestic, endangered species. Two weeks before California imposes a ban on such ammunition throughout condor habitat, the discovery of lead poisoning in six birds -- one of which died -- points to both the need for such a ban and the obstacles to enforcing it.

Condor territory covers a vast region -- a rough U shape formed by the southern Sierra, coastal mountains and Tejon Ranch linking the two -- that encompasses national forests, state parks and private land, with myriad entry and exit points. If hunters don't accept the ban, the state will need to put most of its thin enforcement staff into the effort.

Tejon Ranch, a premier private hunting spot that was six months ahead of the state in banning lead bullets, has shown how it should be done. Before imposing the ban, it spent months educating hunters. It limited access to two entrances, where hunters must show they have non-lead ammunition, and it is looking at increased patrols of its perimeter to prevent poaching. After the six condors with high lead levels were found -- there are only 34 of the birds flying free in California -- Tejon banned hunting for 30 days, even though it's not known whether the birds ingested lead on ranch property.

The California Department of Fish and Game plans to send enforcement staff to check hunters in the field. But with only 200 agents patrolling the entire state -- and fewer than that dedicated to condors -- cracking down on recalcitrant hunters will undoubtedly prove difficult. The state should be looking at partnerships with federal and private land managers to provide restricted access for hunters, who should have to show their non-lead bullets.

The condors' best friend might end up being the soaring cost of gasoline. Hunters' primary objection to non-lead ammunition is its cost -- about $20 more a box than similar-quality lead. A hunter who recently bought his first copper bullets paid $53 a box for the high-quality stuff, enough to last at least half a season. The cost of copper bullets for a hunting trip is now peanuts compared with the cost of gas to get there and back.

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