The California Fish and Game Commission on Friday rejected a petition by environmentalists to immediately phase out hunters’ use of lead ammunition in order to protect the endangered California condor.
The coalition behind the petition, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, said afterward that it would lobby state lawmakers to pass legislation banning the ammunition. It is also exploring whether to take the issue to voters through an initiative campaign.
“If the commission does not want to save the condors from extinction, it should step aside so the Legislature can,” said James Birkelund of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Science is clear. You need to phase out lead ammunition quickly or the only condors left in California will be stamped on the back of our new quarters.”
The panel voted 3 to 1 to reject the call for the emergency regulation, siding with hunting groups and the staff of the California Department of Fish and Game, which said it was still looking into whether the imperiled raptors are being poisoned by lead ammunition they ingest from carcasses left behind by hunters.
State officials stressed that they may still recommend a ban if evidence proves it is warranted.
“Research is going on as we speak. The condor recovery team has been looking into this for a year,” Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano said. “Although there is no firm evidence that lead ammunition has harmed condors, we are certainly aware that it is possible. We are taking this seriously.”
Environmentalists said there is ample evidence that lead ammunition is poisoning condors.
When biologists captured the birds in the 1980s and began a captive-breeding program to save them from extinction, poisoning from lead bullets was cited as a key factor in their demise.
Five of the 40 condors released into the wild in California between 1995 and 2001 were later diagnosed with acute lead poisoning.
In 2003, independent reports by a UC Davis animal scientist and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that hunters leave behind thousands of animals shot with lead bullets in the range where the condors are released.
In response, the Department of Fish and Game asked hunters to take voluntary steps to reduce the risk to the condors, including retrieving the carcasses from the field and using lead-free ammunition.