Arizona Game and FIsh Department - Managing Today for Wildlife Tomorrow: Arizona Game and Fish Department

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Condors and Lead

Lead toxicity has been identified as the leading cause of death in condors in the Arizona reintroduction program. At least fifteen condors have died of lead poisoning since 2000. Condors are trapped twice a year to have their blood tested for lead. Biologists have documented over 300 instances of lead exposure in condors since testing began in 1999, with 45 to 95 percent of the condor population testing positive for lead exposure each year. Chelation treatment is often required to reverse dangerously high blood lead levels. Surgery has also been needed in the worst cases. Without these treatments more condors likely would have died.

A number of scientific studies collectively provide strong evidence to support the idea that spent ammunition is the primary source of lead exposure in condors. Background lead from the environment does not appear to be a factor. An additional study has determined that condor lead exposure rates are highest during the fall hunting season in northern Arizona. This study also concluded that during this same time, condors spend forage heavily on the Kaibab Plateau. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is committed to reducing the amount of lead available to condors by encouraging sportsmen to take lead reduction actions when hunting in condor range.

Condors incidentally ingest lead bullet fragments and shot remaining in game carcasses and gut piles. Fragments from lead bullets or lead shot have been found within the digestive tracts of condors 22 times in Arizona. Lead bullets fragment into hundreds of pieces before they exit a game such as a deer or coyote. Since condors are group feeders, and only one or two lead fragments or pellets can cause lead toxicity, one animal carcass or gut pile containing lead fragments or lead shot has the potential to poison several condors.

How you can help
Arizona hunters have a long tradition of wildlife conservation. Arizona Game and Fish Department is asking for your help in continuing this proud tradition. The Department recently surveyed hunters and ranchers about their thoughts on condor management, and specifically the concern over lead poisoning in condors. Hunters and ranchers responded that they wanted to help, but requested more information on the topic. We responded by providing the public with condor lead exposure data and funding scientific studies to determine the source of this lead. We're also engaged in an extensive public education effort. Now we're asking for your help. If you hunt within condor range in Arizona (Game Management Units 12A, 12B, 9, 10, 13A, and 13B), please use non-lead ammunition.

High performance all-copper bullets are now available in most rifle calibers. In comparison to lead and copper-jacketed bullets, all-copper bullets do not fragment and are far less toxic. Scavengers like the condor are less likely to ingest one large mushroomed bullet versus many small bullet fragments scattered throughout a carcass or gut pile. Shotgun, pistol, and muzzleloader ammunition are also available in high performing non-lead alternatives. There are also non-lead alternatives for hand-loaders. For a list of some manufacturers and available calibers of non-lead ammunition, click [PDF]. For a list of some non-lead ammunition retailers, click[PDF].

Since 2005, as part of an effort to reduce lead exposure in condors, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has provided free non-lead ammunition to big game hunters in Units 12A, 12B, 13A, and 13B (the areas condors frequent most during the hunting season). Hunters have responded with an 80 to 90 percent participation rate since 2007. Thanks to the efforts of these hunters the amount of lead available to condors has been reduced in Arizona. According to post-hunt survey results, 93 percent of hunters who used the non-lead ammunition said it performed as well as or better than lead bullets. In addition, 72 percent of all hunters said they would recommend the 100% copper bullets to other hunters. This free non-lead ammunition program will continue as long as funding permits, thanks to the Heritage Fund (state lottery revenue) and the Wildlife Conservation Fund (state gaming revenue).

If you cannot find non-lead ammunition or choose to use lead ammunition, there are still ways you can help condors when hunting by removing ALL shot animals (coyotes, small and big game) and gut piles from the field.

Several sportsmen’s groups and agencies have already joined efforts to help the condor. A Condor Conservation Coalition has been formed to promote voluntary lead reduction efforts within condor range, including the use of non-lead ammunition. If your sportsmen’s group is interested in joining this coalition and continuing the proud tradition of wildlife conservation, please contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Current local coalition members include the Arizona Deer Association, Arizona Antelope Foundation, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, and Arizona Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

We hope that this program will mark the beginning of a voluntary switch to non-lead ammunition by Arizona hunters. Hunter support is a key factor in bringing condors back for all of us to enjoy.

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Why Use Non-lead Ammunition?

California Condors in Arizona
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- Hunting with Non-lead Ammo
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Lead Research
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Non-Lead Ammunition
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Lead Reduction Efforts
- Arizona's lead reduction efforts [PDF]
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Non-Lead Ammunition Downloads [More]
- Non-lead Brochure [PDF]
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