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Hunters, ranchers become front line in efforts to save California condors

Martin Duenas gets an earful almost every time his customers walk into Bear Mountain Sports looking for hunting ammunition.

Instead of paying about $10 for a box of 25 shotgun cartridges, they're now shelling out as much as twice that to comply with new rules requiring hunters to use only lead-free ammunition. 

"I would say it's an imposition," he said, adding that some shotguns don't work well with steel pellets and have to be fitted with a whole new barrel. "It's hard to do. It's a lot more expensive."

They may not like it, but in case it's of any consolation, hunters and ranchers — especially those in Kern County — are increasingly seen as the people to thank for helping keep California condors from going extinct.

Conservationists involved in efforts to save condors say the two groups appear to be abiding by state regulations that took effect this year forbidding the use of lead ammunition when shooting doves and quail. Following other rules carried over from years past, the change means hunting of all types in California now must be done with only lead-free ammunition.

The reason ammunition is so important in protecting the large birds is that condors are scavengers that feed on carrion, which is the remains of animals such as those left behind by hunters and ranchers trying to keep varmints away from livestock. If the ammo that killed those animals contains lead, and if condors eat them, the birds can die from lead poisoning.

It's hard to say precisely how well the prohibition on lead ammunition is working, as recent data is not available.

MAKING SACRIFICES

But Andrew Clare, hunting and conservation outreach coordinator at the Great Basin Institute, said local hunters are to be commended for providing a clean food source for condors and other wildlife.

He said the organization works with hunters and ranchers to help them make ethical, voluntary decisions to avoid using lead ammunition.

"This approach has provided great results, even out of state where no regulations exist, and it is why we want to applaud the strides people have made in-state with hurdles in place — (in) some cases even switching before the ban was introduced," Clare said by email.

"They now must find less widely available ammunition amidst national shortages / price gouging and the alternatives like copper, steel, bismuth and tungsten loads require practice to be effective, as they do not shoot exactly like lead," he wrote.

Kern County is considered ground-zero in this effort because it is where most California condors live. It's also where, in 2007, the state's first major landowner — Lebec-based Tejon Ranch Co. — voluntary banned the use of lead ammunition on its property.

Company spokesman Barry Zoeller said that, 13 years later, the ranch's hunting programs have never been more popular or in greater demand.

"Hunters are conservationists," he said by email, "and once they understood the reason for the change, they embraced it."

POPULATION RECOVERY

The birds' population in the wild was estimated at 150 in 1953. Fourteen years later condors numbered less than half that, and by 1975, the estimate dropped to just 30, according to the Great Basin Institute.

Thanks to in-captivity breeding programs, the birds' population rebounded to 169 by 2012. Following the first condor release in 1992, the number of California condors living in the wild was estimated at 235 in 2012.

The species' population growth in recent years has been driven primarily by the continued release of birds bred in captivity, according to Steve Kirkland, a field coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's California Condor Recovery Program. But he added that lead poisoning "remains the greatest threat to the recovery of the California condor."

The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that half of the 213 California condor deaths from a known cause between 1992 and 2020 were caused by ingestion of lead. Other leading causes include predation and high-voltage power lines.

State legislation passed in 2008 required the use of non-lead ammunition, for certain firearms in particular areas, when hunting big game and coyotes. Five years later, a different bill banned lead-containing ammunition for the taking of all wildlife with any firearm in the California condor range. This year that restriction was extended statewide.

A representative of one of the primary conservation groups pushing for such legislation, Audubon California, said ammunition has become a focus because it's a factor that can be controlled, unlike wildfires, which generally cannot.

Audubon's director of bird conservation, Andrea Jones, noted hunters and ranchers found to be using lead ammunition can be fined up to $500. But she said penalties generally aren't necessary.

"I think hunters are responsible by and large and will figure out a way to comply with this," she said.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Indeed, most hunters have accepted the ban on lead ammunition by now, said Cameron Peoples, a salesman at Valley Gun Inc. in Bakersfield.

"Maybe they don't like it but it's just one of those things," he said. "You've got to do what you've got to do."

Hunters' bigger concern lately is that ammunition is generally hard to locate these days, and anything lead-free is "even harder to find," Peoples said.

No question people are going to complain about the ban, he added, because it raises their costs. But it seems to him the rate of compliance is high.

"Most people just comply with the law, I’m sure,” he said.