OPINION: Lead Bullets Pose Unnecessary Risk

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The following was written and submitted by Tom Gagnon.

Photos by Gerry Gagnon.

Soaring high over the Arizona desert, condors search the landscape for meat.  Anything will do: a gut pile left by a hunter; a lightning killed bison, or a tourist falling over the edge of the Grand Canyon.

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On an autumnal drive through northern Arizona, my uncle Gerry Gagnon and I turned off a highway to the House Rock condor viewing area.  The white guano-stain marks, just beneath the nests of the great birds, can be seen with the naked eye from miles away.  The dark spots, against the blue sky, are condors.  They glide swiftly and seemingly without effort.  They fly alone or with a partner. One group of three seemed to be arguing over a lover.

With a good pair of binoculars, the huge birds, with wingspans of up to 114 inches, that’s nine and a half feet, you can see their nonchalant grace, masters of the sky. Under each wing they have an acute-triangular patch that is white.

Friends of mine, who live at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, tell me that the condors that live here at House Rock routinely fly over the crowds of people enjoying the views of the canyon, sometimes stealing the show.  The distance is over fifty miles.

Most of us associate the condor with the coast of California.  In fact, they once ranged over the Great Plains of North America, too. There they disappeared, in the eighteen hundreds, with the near extermination of the bison.  They were also known to soar over the Rockies, the Columbia Plateau, the Basin and Range, and far down into Mexico.

Condors are scavengers. They usually eat large dead animals, which they can easily spot from far above. The rugged California coast, with many large sea mammals, was the last place offering a livelihood for condors.  By 1987, they were down to just twenty-two birds.  Thanks to a privately funded captive-breeding program, nevertheless very expensive, together with some help from the California legislature, condor numbers have increased.

In 1996, six were released here in Arizona.  Upon these fabulous and endless cliffs of Arizona and southern Utah, they now number about seventy. In addition, there are about 161 in the wild in California and in Mexico and 200 or so in captive breeding centers. By rough count, that’s 431. These thirty years, then, can be viewed as a spectacular success, but their numbers are still dangerously low, and dangers there are.

Power lines and car accidents take some out, as do coyotes and golden eagles, but by far the biggest killer is toxic lead poisoning. Hunters who use lead tipped bullets shoot animals who sometimes get away, only dying later of their wounds. Alternatively, the gut piles of field-dressed animals are left behind. In either case, since lead bullets shatter into countless pieces, dispersing as much as two feet from the bullet entry point, pretty much the entire dead animal is poisoned.

If a condor looks weakened, and if it can be captured, it is possible to do a complicated medical procedure called a chelation treatment. In doing this the digestive tract is cleaned out. During this time, which can take more than two weeks, the condor is fed through a tube. The stress on the poor bird must be awful. Condors in a healthy environment can live to seventy. The first condor released in Arizona died of lead poisoning at age seventeen. And then it gets political.

On January 19, 2017, during President Obama’s last full day in office, he banned all lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal property. In the new administration, with NRA prodding, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned Obama’s order.

Incidentally, however, what can sicken and kill a condor can do the same to humans. 

Much processed wild game has hundreds of toxic particles of lead. Some food pantries for the poor no longer accept donations of wild game. Copper and polymer tipped bullets are just as accurate and are far less toxic. They currently cost more, but not excessively so.

An important source of my information comes from a book published this year, called Grand Canyon for Sale, by Stephen Nash. The first two words in the title are a metaphor for all of the public lands. The last two words are no metaphor.

Perhaps the current occupant of the White House, and many on Capitol Hill, could use a good chelation treatment, to detoxify. While the condor soars, our morals, compassion, and intelligence descend.

On the streets of Rock Springs, in order to learn more, I visited two gun and ammunition shops. They are located only a couple of blocks from each other. At one shop, a long established business, the owner said that he’s aware of the problems with lead bullets. I asked him if he had any plans to phase them out, or educate his customers about the dangers of lead ammunition. He said that he prefers to let customer demand dictate what he carries, and resents government interfering in citizen choices. He added that he really loves Wyoming, and felt that many of the problems we have now, such as the much publicized and recent poaching of elk, are due to the booms in the energy industry, and the type of people it brings in.

A couple of thoughts that I had later are:

1) We don’t let babies play with razor blades, so we shouldn’t let hunters use lead bullets.  Some people might take offense to my comparison, but I doubt change will happen very fast on its own, especially when lead bullets still have a pricing advantage -health be damned;

2) Part of loving a place is to let people know what is right and what is wrong.  Whether a person is new to the area, or old-blood, they sometimes need to hear uncomfortable truths, and this can be for their own good, too.

Helpful interpretive sign.

At the other shop, I was pegged as a “greenie” right of way. All that I had to do was mention lead bullets, versus safer alternatives. When I asked one of the owners about lead bullets breaking up upon entering an animal, he denied that that ever happened. He explained that if you weigh a lead bullet before and after being used on an animal, there is no difference in the weight at all. I asked if he had ever done this. He said no, but he had heard about it. It’s a fact. He insinuated that some people are spreading all these lies because they don’t want any animals to ever be hunted. I was strongly under the impression that he pegged me for one of them. Actually, OK, OK, I’m of a pretty liberal disposition on a lot of things, and I’m even a registered Democrat, but I have hunted previously, and plan to again. What’s more, like many other Democrats who I know, I own guns! So please lay off with the Second Amendment insinuations.

From there, inevitably I suppose, the talk turned to Trump. He liked Trump because he is “tough”, and a “businessman”. I said we need a president, not a conman, and left.                                        

Tom Gagnon

The nesting cliffs. At top right are stained areas, which are located below the nests.