“Eliminate lead and we’re there,” he said, leaning over the edge of the cliff to see the condor sweep by. We were perched on top of the rosy-red cliffs at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, looking out over the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona. On the horizon the land vanished, then reappeared – the hint of the leading edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim 30 miles away.
Eddie Feltes is in his prime, imprinted with the indomitable attitude of someone who gets shit done. He’s the field manager for the Peregrine Fund’s condor release program, which has helped bring the California condor population up from a low of 22 individuals in 1982 to more than 300 today, 60 of them flying free along the Arizona-Utah border where we stood. As the day warmed up, thermals formed above the Vermilion Cliffs, curling invisibly above the coves until we saw one, then two, then four condors soar by us on wings that spanned 9 1/2 feet and catch the heat wave as it lifted them up in a spiral. Their perfect black forms floated on the current, clear numbered markers affixed to their wings.
Another condor, #367, flew by and lifted its wings to land on a rock outcropping a hundred feet below us. Their roosting spots were clear on the cliffs, the white frosting of their droppings crusted onto the red rock. She watched us and we watched her, her crop full with the weight of a recent meal, expanded to the point that it was bursting through her breast feathers. She wouldn’t need to eat again anytime soon. She could sit and watch and soar and sit again. Her biggest worry, were she to think of such things, was the approach of hunting season, and with it, carcass remains that are saturated with the shrapnel of lead bullets.
That lead is a hazardous substance isn’t exactly news. Look here and here . The risks of lead poisoning were known as far back as Roman times, and some have even speculated that the ancient empire fell as their population succumbed to low-level lead poisoning that caused illness and developmental problems. Today, we can’t avoid public health posters warning against children eating lead paint chips, and unleaded gasoline is now the norm. That lead is still the common base for ammunition, even for the hunting of animals that sportsmen then proudly take home to feed their families, seems to be one last sticking point that hasn’t quite reached public consciousness and even meets a steadfast resistance, at least here in the United States. Lead shot has been banned, according to Feltes, in Germany and Japan as well as other countries.
There are alternatives. Copper, tungsten and steel bullets all exist, and are being used in limited areas in the U.S. If a hunter gets a permit in the Kaibab, for example, Arizona Game and Fish Department sends them a coupon for lead-free bullets in the caliber of their choice, and the state of California has banned the use of lead bullets outright in the range of the condor. They work better and are cleaner, and although they can be a bit more expensive, it’s an incidental cost in the expense a hunter accrues over a season.
X-ray photographs show that lead leaves – in the words of several biologists I spoke to – a “snowstorm of fragmentation.” The Peregrine Fund published a paper in 2006 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin to this effect and continues, along with others, to conduct studies demonstrating the deleterious effects of lead on the health of the humans and animals that ingest animals shot with lead bullets. People can pick out the shrapnel and think they’ve cleaned their meat, but microscopic lead dust remains in the animal that can neither be tasted nor felt. Major amounts of the ammunition are left behind in gut piles that are then fed upon by condors as well as other scavengers.
Feltes is an avid hunter and falconer. He loves guns and has a collection of hero shots of himself with animals he’s slain. This was not an eco peacenik leaning over the cliff face before me. “If condors were just going extinct because their time here was done, that would be one thing,” he said. “But it’s because of humans that they’re in such trouble, and we’ve got a responsibility to them. Hunters are the biggest conservationists in this country. We don’t have to stop hunting. We just have to stop using lead.”
Feltes is also a rock climber, part of the job when working with these cliff-nesting creatures that have life spans that rival a human’s. In the process of monitoring one nest site that appeared to have failed, he climbed down the cliff face and into what turned out to be cave big enough “to drive a truck into.” Inside, he found an ancient Anasazi ruin complete with the untouched signs of human habitation left behind by a people that lived in these rock dwellings a thousand years before Christ walked the earth. “It’s a prehistoric bird in a prehistoric place,” Feltes said, as we watched the four condors funnel out of the top of the thermal and head off to the northwest. It was a scene that could be witnessed a hundred years ago or a thousand. Will it be seen a century hence?