SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In November, one of the oldest condors in Central California died from lead poisoning after being found with tiny bullet fragments and a .22-caliber slug in his gullet that he apparently swallowed with a mouthful of meat.
The 9-year-old giant was one of the earliest released in a condor recovery program along the Big Sur coast. His death -- and the recent death of a golden eagle near Sacramento -- are being highlighted by health and environmental groups who want California to become the first state to impose a statewide ban on the use of lead bullets for hunting.
While supporters say the future recovery of the prehistoric birds hangs in the balance, that issue alone hasn't been enough to get statewide lead bullet bans in the past.
Now health-care advocates are taking a different tack, arguing that lead bullet fragments in game such as venison are neurotoxins that can harm children and developing fetuses.
"There is no safe level of lead for human consumption," said state Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, whose closely watched lead bullet ban bill was passed this month by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.
Although hunting with lead bullets already is prohibited in eight counties with endangered California condors, the bill would make the ban statewide. About two dozen states have partial bans, mostly in sensitive wildlife refuges.
The National Rifle Association and other gun advocates strongly oppose banning lead bullets throughout California, saying it is a slippery slope that would lead to gun controls and end hunting in the Golden State.
They argue that hunters who abandon lead and turn to harder bullets such as copper or tungsten could technically be in violation of federal regulations barring armor piercing ammunition.
"We have regulatory uncertainty," said Ryan Bronson of the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Minnesota, who opposes the bill and notes that 95 percent of bullets use lead slugs. "The potential exists for a de facto ammunition ban."
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nationwide there are 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre in wild game territory that can be eaten or washed into waterways, and that the 60,000 metric tons of lead fired off in 2012 is second largest use of lead behind storage batteries.
While fewer than 1 percent of Californians hold hunting licenses, their advocates point out that the money from those licenses funds a host of wildlife protection programs.
Lead ban opponents acknowledge that some individual animals may die after accidentally ingesting bullet fragments. But they said that, with the exception of the condors, there is no study showing significant overall reductions in wildlife populations from lead poisoning.
"Not for doves. Not for eagles. Not for loons," Ryan told the committee shortly before the wildlife committee passed the bill 9-5. It next goes to the appropriations committee then the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Those in favor of a ban say meat that contains lead fragments simply is not safe. "This isn't just about the health of the wildlife population," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, who voted for the measure. "It's about the health of the human population and the health of the environment."
A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Public Health concluded with a recommendation that lead is so prevalent in meat harvested through hunting that pregnant women and children should never eat it. Gun supporters say that those studies have never conclusively linked consumption with illness in humans.
Lead is by far the leading cause of death for the remaining 234 California condors in the wild, which live in California, Baja California, Arizona and Utah. U.S. Fish and Wildlife records show the mature male that died in November was found inland from Big Sur on a ranch near Pinnacles National Park in southern San Benito County. Eight others are in wildlife hospitals, three with confirmed lead poisoning, federal officials say.
"Ground squirrels and coyotes are typically shot and left in the field, so it seems logical that there is a high potential for scavenger lead poisoning in areas with this type of shooting compared to other areas," said Kelly Sorenson of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which runs the Big Sur recovery program and gives away lead-free bullets.
Critics say the continuing problems with lead poisoning in California's condor territory show that lead bullet bans there don't work -- and neither would a statewide ban.
Supports of the bill -- including the Audubon California, the Humane Society of the United States and the Defenders of Wildlife -- say it closes an important loophole that condor experts believe could be the reason that condors continue to be poisoned: it would require ranchers and farmers -- who shoot wild pigs, coyotes and other varmints that don't require hunting permits-- also to use lead-free bullets.
"There are gaps in the prohibition with depredation being one and private ranching being another," said John McCamman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service condor coordinator. "And the other thing that nobody talks about is the poaching that goes on, and they probably don't care that there's a lead prohibition."