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Lead is banned in paint, gasoline, dishes and children’s toys, and now California is looking at removing the largest unregulated source of the neurotoxin by also banning lead ammunition.

One motivation is to generally protect wildlife and human health, but some see it as a way to improve the prospects of California condors; lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for the massive, inky-feathered carrion eaters.

Twenty-six endangered California condors have died from lead poisoning since 1996. One recently notable lead casualty was a 9-year old bird in Big Sur that died last November. Even though lead ammunition is already banned in the bird’s California range, the source of the lead was a .22-caliber bullet, and he likely swallowed it while chowing down on a shot-up carcass.

Condor No. 318 was one of the first captive bred condors released on the California coast around Big Sur. According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, which studies and manages the central California population, he was one of only a handful of breeding males in the region—and the first to breed in Pinnacles National Park in 100 years.

In 1987, there were only 26 California condors, all in captivity. Now there are about 150 of the intensively monitored scavengers flying free in central California, Utah, Arizona and Mexico, and some are starting to breed on their own. But after years of extreme, hands-on efforts to rescue North America’s largest land bird, poisoning from lead ammunition in left-behind animal carcasses or in post-hunt gut piles is still one of the major problems preventing a self-sustaining population of wild condors emerging from the priciest species rescue in American history.

There’s strong scientific evidence for the connection between lead ammo and condor deaths, even though some groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, try to discredit it. And unlike with some endangered species, it’s easy to point to individual human actions (like loading that lead .22 round) that have real consequences for single condors in the sparse population.

After so many years and dollars have been spent trying to bring the condor back to the landscape, the question is: What will it take for people to change their behavior, and stop using lead ammo in the bird’s range?

California and Arizona have taken two distinct tactics. Arizona began a voluntary lead ammo reduction program in 2005, and in 2008, California rolled out a lead ammo ban for everything but small game animals in the condor’s range. Utah is following Arizona’s lead, as reported at Greenwire (subscription required). But condors in Arizona and California are still dying from lead poisoning. In California, a 2012 study concluded that as far as reducing lead levels in condor blood goes, the ban wasn’t effective, at least for the handful of years for which data exist. It appears that neither strategy is working very well so far.

Now a ban on lead ammo in the entire state, for all wildlife, is on the table in California thanks to Assembly Bill 711, and it’s currently working its way through committees on the way to the full Legislature. Critics say that if a lead ban in the condor’s range hasn’t really worked, why would a statewide ban work? Even the Fish and Wildlife Service’s California condor recovery coordinator, John McCamman, is on the side of voluntary changes. "I actually think it's more beneficial to have a voluntary program," he told Greenwire. "I think that at the end of the day, it's a hunter's choice. If they're educated on the issues, they'll make the right choice. Hunters are conservationists."

Beyond the reality that almost nothing is going to stop a handful of bad actors from making the wrong choice, copper ammunition has an image problem within the hunting community. It’s had a reputation for being more expensive than lead ammo; it’s been harder to find in a range of calibers; and some people question its performance.

However, as a 2012 Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences study found, those problems, whether real or perceived, seem to be falling away as the market for copper ammo has grown, and the technology has evolved. (I know hunters who switched to copper rounds because they think their performance is superior to that of lead—my household included, and here’s a Wisconsinite who was sold on it after an ammo demonstration day.)

Last year, the Ventana Wildlife Society received a lot of attention for taking an ammo-centric approach to condor conservation. The wildlife group spent $47,000 to buy and ship 1,246 boxes of nonlead ammunition to hunters in the condor’s territory. They had 400 orders within 48 hours of rolling out the program. In a report released last year, 34 percent of the people who responded to their survey said the program made them more willing to shoot with non-lead ammunition.

Here are some of the comments the group received:

“I am happy to see that we hunters and non-hunters can work together on these difficult issues. Thank you for your efforts.”

“I think it was a good way to break the ice. It shows me that you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.”

In an NPR story, the executive director of the Ventana Wildife Society credited hunters with “moving the needle in the right direction.”

At least the dialogue started by giving out free ammo is a sharp contrast to the rhetoric unleashed in response to the suggestion of a statewide lead ammo ban: "These people want to ban hunting. Go to their cocktail parties and snuggle up to them, and that's what they'll tell you," Don Saba, once a member of the NRA board of directors, told the San Jose Mercury News. "They characterize hunters as crazy rednecks, even as they talk about tolerance and diversity." (Never mind that lead was banned nationally for waterfowl hunting in 1991, and no one lost their shotgun over it. Those were the days.)

Given the conservation heritage that many hunters identify with, this shouldn’t be the us-versus-them issue that the NRA suggests it should be. What if conservation-oriented hunting and sporting groups were to acknowledge the amount of lead that generally creeps into habitats and food chains from ammo and fishing tackle, and take a courageous stance by actively promoting non-lead alternatives?

Copper will probably be the standard some day, but until then, a condor-sized part of our natural heritage is at stake.

This was originally posted at High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices

Amid all the talk, legislative proposals and presidential decrees inspired by the recent shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, perhaps the most significant was the announcement in early January that former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was starting a gun-control lobbying organization.

Americans for Responsible Solutions seeks to raise $20 million by the next election cycle—about the same amount the National Rifle Association spent to influence the 2012 vote. More important, symbolically, is the fact that this ambitious effort was launched in the West, where guns are part of the culture.

Giffords has long been a gun owner and gun-rights advocate. As a congresswoman, she was part of a cadre of Western Democrats—along with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and others—who stayed in the NRA's relatively good graces because they supported firearms' traditional role.

But then Giffords, along with 18 others, was shot down in a Tucson parking lot two years ago with a not-so-traditional gun: A Glock 9 mm with a 33-round magazine. Like the AR-15s used by both the Aurora and Newtown shooters, it wasn't something a Western rancher or hunter or gunslinger would have carried back in the day.

These weapons have transformed the gun market, and the shootings have shaken the political landscape. With President Obama's proposed bans on assault weapons and high-volume magazines heading toward Congress, all eyes are on the remaining pro-gun Democrats and their potentially pivotal votes. For once, invoking Western tradition to shoot down gun control may backfire.

Westerners do love guns. Firearms were critical tools for settlers—like dynamite, shovels and blacksmiths' bellows. Along with the horse and the cowboy hat, the Colt .45 and the Winchester rifle are icons of Wild West mythology. That myth survives today in Western gun laws—some of the nation's most lax—and in a firearms-related death rate about 30 percent above the national average.

So it's not surprising that some Westerners have reacted to the prospect of stricter gun laws as though their very identity were under attack. In 2012, more than 3.5 million firearm background checks were processed in the West, compared to some 2 million five years ago. Wyoming lawmakers are pushing to make it a felony to enforce any new gun regulations, and Colorado Republicans want to let teachers carry concealed weapons in the classroom. The Spring City, Utah, town council considered an ordinance requiring all residents to own guns. The Wild West, indeed.

Yet these reactions are more in line with Hollywood than history. After the Civil War, the nation was awash in cheap guns, and the occasional gunfight erupted, though never as bloody as today's shootings. In response, Western communities regulated firearms. By the turn of the century, Colorado statute restricted what kind of bullets and guns one could use for shooting game; most states had laws against concealed weapons; and many municipalities added their own restrictions—Tombstone, Ariz., believe it or not, banned guns altogether during the 1880s.

For some, it wasn't enough. "Firearms in the daily walks of life have no place in our modern civilization, and should not be carried," said the mayor of Durango, Colo., in 1903, one of many town officials calling for a stricter crackdown. As long as the laws didn't infringe on the practical application of firearms, Westerners generally accepted them. Even later, when the National Firearms Act of 1934 restricted the sale of machine guns, the National Rifle Association didn't protest, acknowledging that such weapons were intended for battlefields, not the streets or the hunting ground.

Ironically, it was the decline of traditional gun uses that inspired firearm companies to start marketing semi-automatic handguns and so-called "modern sporting" assault-style rifles. By the 1980s, hunting had declined, and ranches and farms were being gobbled up by suburban sprawl. Gun sales waned accordingly. To open up new markets, companies started pushing civilian models of military and police guns, such as the AR-15 and the Glock 9mm, marketed not as tools, but as instruments of "fun" and symbols of power and masculinity.

The gun industry's savvy marketing has worked: According to the annual report of the Freedom Group, whose subsidiaries include Remington and Bushmaster, the rifle market in general has grown at a 3 percent annual rate over the past five years, while the modern sporting market has ballooned at a 27 percent annual rate. The National Shooting Sports Foundation found that most gun-buyers weren't hunters and ranchers: 99 percent of modern sporting rifle owners are men, most with a background in the military or law enforcement, and they bought their rifles primarily for target-shooting and home defense, not to hunt big game or kill ranch varmints.

Though this new gun-loving constituency can no longer boast of its rural heritage, it is powerful. Modern sporting rifle owners tend to have higher incomes than yesterday's hunters, and that money—along with corporate donations—fuels the gun-rights political machine, from the big-spending NRA to the even-more-extreme Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Reid, Tester and others will certainly face the wrath, and cash, of these groups if they vote for any new gun control, which may be why they've tended to be vague and noncommittal on the issue.

On the other hand, if they waffle, they'll have to answer to Giffords (NRA grade C in 2010). Hers is not the first gun-control special-interest group, but it is on its way to being the biggest, dwarfing the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has spent only about $5 million on lobbying and political campaigns in the last decade. Though Giffords will certainly be accused of "betraying" her Western heritage, her crusade actually hearkens back to a much older time.

"It is high time that the man who packs a gun should be suppressed, fined, jailed or run out of the country," opined the editor of the Cripple Creek (Colorado) Morning Times in 1899. "Legislatures and city councils are afraid to legislate against this class. If an ordinance were passed making it a misdemeanor to carry a revolver, there would be fewer revolvers, fewer coroner's inquests, less sorrow in homes and fewer widows."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

On summer evenings in the former mining town of Silverton, Colo., the staccato sound of gunshots used to echo through otherwise quiet streets. A cast of stereotypical Old West characters riddled one another with bullets, as the legendary gunfighters did once upon a time in the West.

Except that those kind of shoot-’em-ups didn’t happen out here in the West. Not really.

Back in the 1950s, those fake Silverton gunfights followed a well-timed schedule, erupting when the narrow-gauge train, loaded with tourists, rolled into town in the middle of the day. Eventually, however, a group of history-minded citizens gained influence and rejected the violent charade as a mockery of their town’s history. By the 1970s, the fake gunfights were no more.

The West always has been a land of myths, where visitors can live out their dreams—and their misconceptions. Perhaps the most persistent one is that of the gunslinging West, when ordinary citizens were armed to the teeth, and the only law and order came from the end of a brave man’s Colt 45. Today, the notion persists that Westerners define themselves by their love of guns.

Like most legends, that of the gunfighters’ West derives from a morsel of truth. Yet, nourished by pop culture, movies and the snowball effect of falsehood, that myth has very little in common with the history that spawned it. Even in late 19th-century Silverton, a rough-and-tumble mining town, ordinary citizens didn’t walk the streets with sidearms. There were occasional gunfights, as when a 19-year-old recidivist shot the town marshal dead in 1881. There were four or five shots fired in all, and the criminals were hanged, not shot, by vigilantes. Full-on fights like those in old Westerns, in which the butcher, baker and candlemaker were also involved, were virtually unknown.

It’s not that guns weren’t around. Hunters were armed, and at least one early newspaper editor was known to have a pistol stashed in his desk. It was not an armed citizenry that kept law and order, however, but the marshals, sheriffs and federal government. Rare flare-ups between the area Utes and white settlers were generally handled by federal soldiers, not citizen militias. The only assault rifle back then was the Gatling gun, which was available only to soldiers at a few military posts. Richard Gatling had invented the rapid-fire “battery gun” during the Civil War, thinking—National Rifle Association-like—that a more efficient killing machine would reduce the carnage on the battlefield. He was terribly wrong.

Comb through the region’s early newspapers, and you’ll find only occasional mentions of killings by gun. Accounts of shootings over the 19th century equivalent to a fender-bender are sparse. Madmen in the Wild West didn’t shoot up schools or even saloons. Believe it or not, teachers weren’t armed.

Dynamite was a far more ubiquitous and more important symbol of the Old West’s culture. This was mining country, after all, and miners and road builders relied on explosives to make a living, and a killing. Dynamite was easy to access, and was not uncommonly used for murders and suicides over the years, even in more modern times. In 1975, a bomber blew the Silverton Depot off its foundation. Around the same time, a motorcycle shop and bar in Durango, and a watering hole in Silverton, were bombed.

Today, explosives are tightly regulated. Lobbyists for the explosives industry, however, have yet to proclaim that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with dynamite is a good guy with dynamite. Well-paid lobbyists do not argue that it infringes on our liberties or threatens agrarian culture to subject a farmer to a background check if he buys a truckload of nitrogen fertilizer. And though I’ve known of people dynamiting ponds to catch fish easily, I have yet to hear any politician arguing that regulating the sale of explosives is a threat to our traditional hunting-and-fishing culture.

The Old West was, at times, quite wild, but if we’re looking for a symbol of the times, it’s not the Colt Peacemaker and certainly not the AR-15. Firearms are not integral to Western culture or identity. Take away our semi-automatic guns and our high-volume ammo clips, and limit the amount of ammunition we can buy—and we’ll still be Westerners.

It’s time to follow Silverton’s example and stop reducing ourselves and our region to a silly caricature manufactured by Hollywood and supported by a gun industry looking to peddle more of its deadly wares.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Based in Durango, Colo., he is a senior editor at HCN.

Published in Community Voices

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