Is Skepticism in Condor Country Hindering Lead Ammunition Ban?

Aug 1, 2013

Mike Shields stands on his front porch and points to the steep slopes that condors often use to get aloft. The birds with a wingspan of as much as 9 feet and can fly from these peaks straight to Pinnacles National Park.
Credit Leslie David
Game Warden Byron Jones watches a few condors from his truck in southern San Benito County.
Credit Leslie David
This is condor country, high mountain ledges, wide open spaces and enough large game to survive.
Credit Leslie David

Over the past 25 years, the California Condor population has gone from a low of nine to just over 400 today.  Part of the broad-based effort to save the endangered bird has been a ban on lead ammunition in the Condor reintroduction areas.  Now state legislators are considering extending that ban statewide, but some argue the existing ban just needs more time.

Byron Jones’ semi-automatic rifle jiggles in the gun rack of his pick-up truck as he roams the back-country roads of southern San Benito County. He’s patrolling the central coast Condor Range, part of the California Condor’s habitat.  As a Game Warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, his job is to enforce the lead ammunition ban in the range. It went into effect about six years ago in an effort to protect the critically endangered bird.  “If I hear gunshots, or I receive information that there’s hunting occurring in a particular location, then I’ll make contact with the individuals, and  ask them what they’re  trying to accomplish, and what kind of ammunition are you using,” said Jones.

Despite this ban, a UC Santa Cruz study concludes that condors are still being poisoned by lead.  Researchers say it can take only one contact with lead to kill a condor.  They suspect the birds are eating discarded animal remains left behind by hunters still using lead ammunition.  Game Warden Jones says the citation for using lead ammunition is really no different than a traffic ticket, and the small fine doesn’t change local attitudes. “A lot of them have grown up in this country, and have seen these animals all their lives, and are skeptical of science that tells them particular ideas about things are happening,” said Jones.  So Jones’ approach is not to dismiss the skepticism of hunters and residents in the Condor Range.  Rather through talking it over, he hopes they’ll understand why the lead ban is important. 

Rancher Mike Shields is one of those skeptics.  His family has been here since 1863. He has a cattle ranch in the small town of San Benito. 77-year-old Shields hunts deer, and occasionally, feral pigs.  Like many of his neighbors, he doubts the condor can survive, ban or no ban.  “I think in the long run it’s just kind of a futile effort to try and keep something going that by nature is not fitting into the environment that we have now today,” said Shields.  He and some other people around here think the money spent trying to save the California Condor could be better spent elsewhere.  “I think they’re wasting a heck of a lot of money because if they just take that money, and you know, put it towards school children and whatnot,  think of what they could do with all the money that they’re spending there,” said Shields.

More than $5-million is spent annually on the California Condor Recovery Program, a public, private partnership to save the state’s largest land-based bird.  The program handles everything from breeding the bird in captivity, to trying to save lead poisoned condors and community outreach.  Scott Scherbinski is the Pinnacles Condor Program’s Outreach Coordinator.  In his seven years of community dialogue for Pinnacles Park, he’s learned a lot. “We depend on the hunting community and on these open rural landscapes for condor recovery,” said Scherbinski.  That’s because once in the wild, the condor’s main source of food is dead animals like cattle, wild pigs and road kill. Scherbinski teaches hunting groups about why the lead ban is important to condor survival.  But he says habits change slowly.  “You’ve got families that are handing down the same rifle, and use of the same ammunition for generation after generation. So it is very difficult for someone to be told after they’ve been using this for multiple generations that suddenly they have to switch what they’re doing, and I think it does cause some cultural resistance,” said Scherbinski.

Back in his truck, Game Warden Byron Jones heads home looking around the open landscape.  “This is sort of Custer’s last stand for those animals, and it just happened to be in San Benito County,” said Jones .  As legislators move forward to expand the lead ammunition ban statewide, both Jones and Scherbinski think that may not be the answer.   Both say they’ve made progress, but what they feel they need is more time, to rally support for a program that already exists. 

Click here to see a video of  a condor in flight near the San Benito county entrance of Pinnacles National Park. This short video clip is  from the recently released film, "Masters of the Skies: The Story of the California Condor" by John Mark Maio (video shared with Maio's permission).