A pro-hunting group is up in arms after obtaining emails that it says indicate that a federal official withheld critical data on lead blood levels in the California condor until after gun control advocates in the California state legislature used the iconic bird’s plight to help push through a law last year to ban lead ammunition.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation obtained the emails as part of a Freedom of Information Act request showing that John McCamman, California condor recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, did not make the report public until the bill was on its way to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown signed the measure in October 2013.
The annual update, which had been previously issued in June, found little change in the condor’s blood lead levels despite a 2007 ban on lead ammunition in the “condor zone,” a lengthy swath of habitat along the coast from Ventura County to Santa Clara County. The California state legislature acted at the urging of wildlife and animal rights advocates, led by the Humane Society, which argued that the California condor and other species were being poisoned by ingesting lead shot, fragments or contaminated prey.
Lawrence Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general counsel, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of deliberately sitting on the report in order to bolster the chances of passage of Assembly Bill 711, which ushered in the nation’s first statewide lead ammunition ban.
“[T]he email thread shows that they withheld that [information] from the public; they withheld it from the legislature purposely,” Mr. Keane said. “And why? Because the results show that despite the existing law and regulations that ban the use of traditional ammunition by hunters, it was not having an impact on condor blood-lead levels in California.”
Mr. Keane added, “Which suggests, as we have said all along, that condors in California are accessing lead from other sources, not ammunition.”
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Gun rights groups, which have blasted the law as a backdoor effort to ban hunting, countered that the lead-poisoning claim wasn’t backed up by scientific research. About 95 percent of U.S. hunting ammunition is made of lead.
Mr. McCamman could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Fish and Wildlife spokesman Scott Flaherty said that while the 18-page report, entitled “California Condor Recovery Program, Project Update and 2011 and 2012 Lead Exposure Report,” had been held back, “I’m pretty sure it was not delayed simply to withhold it from the debate.”
The emails between Fish and Wildlife Service personnel show that a draft of the report was ready in April 2013. The state legislature passed a final version of the bill on Sept. 10, 2013. Seven days later, Mr. McCamman sent an email to agency wildlife biologist Joseph Brandt.
“Joseph — is this ready to go? I’ve attached a summary document — the state has been avoiding getting into the middle of the legislatures business (AB711) but now that that is over, this has to be ready to go. … [Are] you comfortable?” says Mr. McCamman in an email dated Sept. 17, 2013, provided by the NSSF.
The email suggests Mr. McCamman may have been trying to avoid embroiling the Fish and Wildlife Service on either side in the political debate over lead ammunition, but Mr. Keane said that such a decision was not the bureaucrat’s call to make.
“It’s disingenuous if he were to suggest that he was somehow trying to stay out of it,” Mr. Keane said. “By withholding that information, he injected himself into it, and again, that information was relevant — highly relevant — to the debate. The public should have been allowed to take that into consideration — certainly members of the legislature, and even the governor, before signing the bill.”
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Mr. Flaherty said that while he was unfamiliar with the details surrounding the report’s release, “It’s not the business of the service to influence state legislation on condor matters.”
“Our concern is strictly focused on condor conservation and condor health and the effect that lead has on condors,” Mr. Flaherty said. “It’s a scientific fact that lead poisoning is a leading cause of death in condors.”
First in the nation
Other states have also wrestled with the lead ammunition issue, but California is the first and only state to ban it altogether. State wildlife agencies in Arizona and Utah, which are also home to California condor populations, have enacted successful voluntary programs in which hunters entering condor territory receive free nonlead ammunition.
“As of fall 2014, biologists were pleased that substantially fewer condors in the Arizona-Utah population had to be treated for lead exposure,” said the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in an online post. “Only 13 birds were treated from Sept. 1, 2013, to Aug. 31, 2014, as compared to 28 birds that were treated during the same period the previous year.”
The California condor’s numbers, which had dwindled to just 22 in 1987, have since bounced back to 430. A scavenger with a nearly 10-foot wingspan, the California condor is known for eating carrion in the gut piles left by hunters, which often include bullet fragments, but also picking through trash and debris from other sources.
The Fish and Wildlife Service report released in October 2013 concluded that California condors continue to be exposed to lead despite California’s ban on lead ammunition in the “condor zone,” and offered explanations that included alternative sources to hunters’ bullets.
“[T]here are other sources of lead in the environment that condors may be accessing, including five individual condors apparently ingesting chips of lead-based paint in a fire tower (since remediated),” said the report.
The update also cited a 2012 peer-reviewed scientific paper that found nine condors “had lead detected in their blood that did not match the isotopic signature of ammunition, background levels, or paint, indicating an unidentified source of lead in the environment.”
It’s entirely possible that California’s Democratic-controlled state legislature would have approved AB 711 even if the Fish and Wildlife Service data had been made available before the vote — but “we’ll never know,” said Mr. Keane. The measure passed the state Assembly by a 44-21 margin in May and by a 23-15 margin in the state Senate in September.
“The legislature and the public did not have the opportunity to take that into consideration when debating and voting on AB 711,” he said. “And we think that is a very important issue, and the public deserves to know about it.”