Educational Series: No More Animals Should Die From Lead Bullet Poisoning

By Nick Engelfried
In 1982, North America’s largest bird seemed to be heading for extinction. California condors, which prior to European colonization soared above forests, prairies, and deserts from what is now British Columbia down into Baja California, had been reduced to just 22 individuals. A variety of factors, from habitat loss to hunting, contributed to the catastrophic decline. However, one cause of mortality stood out as the greatest existential threat to these majestic birds: lead ammunition. Condors who fed on the carcasses of animals killed by lead bullets would sicken and die, indirect casualties of the practice of hunting animals with lead shot.

A heroic conservation effort saved California condors from the very brink of extinction, with all the surviving wild birds being brought into a captive breeding program by 1987. Five years later, the offspring of some of these survivors were released back into their native habitat, the first step toward establishing what conservationists hope will one day be healthy, self-sustaining condor populations in some of the wildest places across their original range.

The dramatic rescue of the California condor is a conservation success story. However, while living condors now number in the hundreds–including both wild birds and those in captive breeding programs–the species remains critically endangered. Even more worrying, the most important factor in their near-extinction remains a real and present danger. Between 1992 and 2021, a total of 120 condors succumbed to lead poisoning, a devastating toll for such an imperiled species. More than half the mortality of wild California condors during this time period is believed to have resulted from lead poisoning.

Protecting condors from lead is an imperative if this species is to have a viable future. However, while their case is especially dramatic, condors are far from the only animal threatened by the continued use of lead ammunition.

While hunting affects wildlife populations in many ways, most obviously by targeting certain species for sport or subsistence, the use of lead bullets ripples throughout entire ecosystems. Scavengers like condors, eagles, ravens, bears, coyotes, and many others are especially likely to be poisoned when they feed on the remains of hunting casualties. Waterfowl, cranes, and other wetland birds also ingest lead in the form of shot that is left behind in wetlands, lakes, and rivers. While lead is poisonous to all animals, birds are especially prone to suffering lethal consequences. For example, just 1% of a lead bullet can be enough to kill a California condor. A total of at least seventy-five bird species have been documented suffering from lead poisoning.

Animals who are likely to directly ingest bullet remnants are at the highest of risk of lead poisoning. However, once it is introduced to the environment this deadly toxin spreads throughout the food web. Lead shot that breaks down over time will eventually be incorporated into the soil, ending up in plants that in turn are eaten by animals. Nor are we humans safe from harm. Like any animal, we will eventually be affected by any substance that contaminates the food chain. At a time when billions of dollars are being spent to protect public health by removing and replacing lead pipes, it makes little sense to ignore how this toxin is being introduced into our environment by hunting.

If endangered species like condors are to recover to anything like their former numbers, it is imperative that lead ammunition be phased out. Many animal lovers, understandably, dislike hunting in any form–but it is also true that alternatives to lead ammunition exist. In places where hunting is going to continue, lead bullets could be replaced by bullets made from other metals that have far fewer negative consequences for the ecosystem.

Copper, tungsten, and steel are all viable lead alternatives that do not poison non-target animals or people. Yet, despite the existence of readily available solutions, getting the federal government to act on the threat posed by lead ammunition has been very difficult. As a result, lead bullets remain legal in most parts of the United States to this day.

Back in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected a petition from environmental groups calling on the agency to ban lead ammunition. The agency claimed that the federal Toxic Substances Control Act does not give it authority to ban lead, and subsequent efforts to get the EPA to reconsider have proven unsuccessful. Misinformation from pro-gun organizations has complicated the politics of lead, unnecessarily endangering wildlife.

Last year, Gun Owners of America urged its membership to oppose banning lead ammunition in certain wildlife refuges, falsely characterizing the effort to protect wildlife as an attack on the Second Amendment. However, whatever your position on the Second Amendment or the use of firearms, the idea that banning lead bullets equates to an attack on gun rights is simply false. With many viable alternative forms of ammunition, we can protect wildlife from lead poisoning without affecting the right to bear arms.

In the absence of widespread federal action, some states have stepped forward to address the threat of lead bullets. In 2013, California passed legislation to phase out lead ammunition, which went fully into effect in 2019. It is now illegal to use lead for hunting in the state, meaning endangered species like condors have a better chance to recover from over a century of contamination in their habitat. Other states–including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, and New York–have restricted lead bullets for specific kinds of hunting or on certain public lands like wildlife refuges.

The still-tenuous plight of the condor symbolizes why the work of getting lead out of ammunition is so important–and while California’s ban will certainly help the birds, the condor’s historic range extends into many other states where lead bullets are still routinely used. The successful effort to phase out the legal use of lead ammunition in California can serve as an inspiration and a model for other states who aspire to protect animals and people from this existential threat. Animal lovers everywhere can do our part to help by contacting our representatives and letting them know we support getting lead out of ammunition.

With enough voices calling for the phase-out of lead bullets, we can work toward a future where no animal has to suffer or die from this wholly preventable threat. Only then will it be possible for birds like the magnificent California condor to once again soar over their historic range, safe from the prospect of a grim fate caused by poisoning.

Photo credit: Chuck Szmurlo

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What is a factor that makes condors especially susceptible to ingesting lead bullets?
Which of these animals is most likely to ingest dangerous amounts of lead from bullets in their food?
Which group of animals is unusually susceptible to lead poisoning?
Approximately how many California condors were killed by lead poisoning between 1992 and 2021?
True or false: Ingesting just 1% of a lead bullet can kill a condor
What is a way that lead ammunition contaminates the environment?
Which of these states has banned lead ammunition for hunting?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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