The ban on lead bullets is meant to preserve wildlife, but can it succeed?
Sometimes, hunting has unforeseen impacts on the environment. That was the case when the California Condor was nearly wiped out in the early 1980s, largely thanks to the presence of lethal lead contaminants in hunters' ammo. Since condors are scavenger birds which get most of their food from animal corpses, they are a species ripe to be affected by the hunting industry.
Hunters who gut their kills in the field will often leave parts of the corpse behind, and while condors and other scavenger birds serve as the virtual "garbage crew" that cleans up such messes and assures that contaminants don't reach other species, animals felled by lead bullets represent a dangerous meal for a California Condor.
In 1982, after the condor population had dropped to a near-extinction level of 22 worldwide, scientists realized that the birds were eating lead fragments in the corpses of hunters' game and dying from the poison.
Now, even though decades have passed and the condor population has been revitalized slightly by a California captivity breeding program, the lead bullet issue is still causing controversy.
While the birds are protected as much as possible - the state even outfits them with radio transmitters to follow their movements - corpses of dead birds often reveal traces of lead as the cause of death. Indeed, hunting and lead bullets have risen to "primary threat" status according to scientists and condor preservation specialists, a status that the figureheads of the National Rifle Association - and likely, many hunters - are not too pleased with.
Now, California is actively working to solve the lead problem, once and for all. Earlier this month, the state's governor signed a bill that bans the use of lead in hunting ammunition.
The ban will not go into effect right away - the bill outlines plans to gradually "phase in" the new rule over the next four or five years - but it still represents a huge change for the hunting industry. Not only will ammunition companies need to shift their manufacturing plans to cater specifically to the new California market - the state is the first in the country to ban lead in bullets - it will also mean that California hunters who have stocked up on lead-based ammunition are more or less out of luck.
While hunters may balk at the idea of their ammunition leaving condors and other scavengers on the brink of extinction, studies have proven repeatedly that lead is a major problem among the birds. And since hunting ammunition is one of the last known widespread uses of lead - considering the element's well-documented toxicity - there is no doubt that it is a big part of the problem.
A ban, as much as it may inconvenience the hunting industry, will go a long way in solving the issue.
Hunting enthusiasts outside of California shouldn't sit back and relax, either. If any indication is offered by past campaigns to remove lead from common market items - from gasoline to paint - this is only the beginning of the end for lead bullets. Ultimately, the shift will be a good thing for the environment - the fact that lead has remained popular in hunting ammunition for so long is a bit alarming - just make sure not to buy up a whole store's worth of bullets any time soon.