March 25, 2011- Nick Engelfried
Saving an endangered species can be a complicated business. Preventing extinction of a rare plant or animal may involve preserving huge tracts of land, controlling poaching in dangerous and remote areas, or even taking on planet-scale challenges like reducing climate change. However once in a while giving a species a second chance at survival can be as simple as straightforward as taking simple steps to change the way products are made. This is the idea behind the national Get the Lead Out campaign, which aims to save endangered wildlife by preventing them from being exposed to lead. Most notably the campaign hopes to secure a future for one of the rarest birds on the planet, the endangered California condor.
Before the toxic effects of lead were fully understood, this heavy metal was used in products from gasoline to paint to pipes in indoor plumbing. Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause damage to the nervous system, especially in young children whose brains are not fully developed. At higher levels lead poisoning can cause sickness or death. Federal law now prohibits the uses of lead most likely to impact human health, but every year thousands of birds and other wildlife are still exposed to lead poisoning. That’s because lead is commonly used in rifle ammunition and fishing tackle—two sources of the heavy metal that are especially likely to contaminate natural areas.
Every year the US hunting industry discharges three thousand tons of lead into the environment where it may be eaten by birds and other wildlife—including endangered species like the California condor. Eagles, vultures, and predatory mammals like wolves and mountain lions are exposed to lead when they feed on carcasses of animals that were shot but never successfully retrieved by hunters. Because condors are scavengers that normally feed on deer and other large animal carcasses, they are particularly vulnerable.
After being driven to the edge of the extinction in the 1980s, captive breeding programs have allowed California condors to be released into the wild in California and Arizona. The condor is a conservation success story in the making: from nine individuals taken into captivity more than twenty years ago, close to two hundred of the birds have now become established in the wild. However lead poisoning threatens to undo years of conservation work, as condors continue to die from exposure to ammunition. The Get the Lead Out campaign is pushing to save condors and other wildlife by eliminating the worst remaining sources of lead in the environment.
Just as lead in paint and gasoline was replaced with less harmful ingredients, alternatives exist to using lead in bullets and fishing tackle. In 2010 a coalition of groups launched Get the Lead Out by filing a petition with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asking for a nationwide ban on lead in hunting and fishing equipment. Though the EPA initially denied the petition, the groups are now suing to have that decision reconsidered. On Thursday the Center for Biological Diversity reported that one hundred and eleven groups have signed onto their petition for a national lead ban.
Removing lead from hunting and fishing gear would affect not just California condors, but other wildlife species from bald eagles to mountain lions. It would help restore populations of some of the very species most often most sought by hunters. Geese and other waterfowl, for instance, may get lead poisoning when they swallow bullets or fishing sinkers that litter the bottoms of many ponds. In replacing lead with less harmful alternatives in hunting and fishing equipment, conservation groups hope to help not only wildlife but the outdoor industries that depend on healthy animal populations.
Photo source: US Fish and Wildlife Service