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Can California condor biologists and hunters unite to save a species from extinction?

Another False Debate

01-30-2014 | Matthew Podolsky
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, home of the Arizona release site for condors.  Photo by Eric Weis.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, home of the Arizona release site for condors. Photo by Eric Weis.

One would think that I’d be happy to see the lead poisoning issue for condors continue to get attention from the press.  This week USA Today ran a story focusing on the Arizona/Utah condor population and it’s continued struggle with this issue.  My problem with this article: it could have been run over a year ago – it contains no new information.  If anything we have seen a regression in the way this issue is presented by the media over the past year.  Despite the fact that both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have publicly stated their support for AZ Game and Fish Department’s voluntary lead reduction program in the past, all we get in this article is the same line from our buddy Larry Keane, “We think there are serious questions about the purported science.”

The fact is that articles like this are exactly what the NRA and NSSF want.  They want people to think that there is an active debate within the scientific community over where the lead is coming from.  If the public perceives that there is an ongoing debate over the science behind lead poisoning of wildlife, it is a hell of a lot more difficult to implement both voluntary and regulatory action.  The longer it takes to implement serious action to resolve this issue, the longer the lead ammunition industry can continue to rake in record profits.

This is the oldest trick in the book and the lead industry has been hammering us over the head with it for almost a century.  Lead has been known to be a dangerous neurotoxin for well over a hundred years, yet when GM discovered in 1921 that tetraethyl lead reduced engine knock they began a large-scale pro-lead PR campaign.  The introduction of this toxic chemical into gasoline was very controversial – a handful of workers at a Standard Oil lead plant died of lead poisoning that same year, and many others suffered acute and irreversible damage from working with the lead (including the GM worker who discovered how lead could reduce engine “knock”).  Leaded gasoline was banned in a few Northeastern states in the early ‘20s. However, it wasn’t until GM and Standard Oil hired their own team of “scientists” who were paid to prove that leaded gasoline was harmless, that this new product finally started to catch on.

It was this false debate, fabricated by corporate interests that led to the public’s reluctant acceptance of both leaded gasoline and leaded paint in the 1920s.  It took more than half a century of fighting for the scientific community to prove to the public that the lead found in these products was poisoning an entire generation of people, literally shifting the bell curve for IQ across the globe and having large-scale societal consequences that we are only just now beginning to comprehend (Be sure to read Kevin Drum‘s excellent article explaining the possible connections between lead poisoning and crime).  How is it that the NRA and the NSSF continue to get away with these same tactics almost 100 years later?  Have we learned nothing?

The sad but truthful answer to this question is that it appears as though we have in fact learned nothing at all from the early days of leaded paint and gasoline.  Now more than ever corporations are using this same tactic to delay and/or prevent meaningful action on a wide variety of public health issues, climate change being the most significant.  So why are we duped again and again by this age-old trick?

Those of us who work in the media understand the importance of controversy and debate – this is what makes a good story, and more importantly this is what sells a good story.  But are we too rash to present stories as controversial when in reality they might be quite simple and straightforward?  Could I be guilty of this as well in my telling of the story presented in Scavenger Hunt?  Maybe I should have ignored the radical perspective of the NRA and the NSSF in the film?

The fate of the condor looms in the balance.  Photo by Eric Weis.

The fate of the condor looms in the balance. Photo by Eric Weis.

Ultimately I believe that those of us in the media have to approach our stories from a more scientific perspective.  In order to publish scientific research one must go through a rigorous and often quite challenging peer review process.  This process, while it can be frustrating at times, filters out studies that have no basis in the scientific method while dramatically improving many more studies by forcing the researchers to answer unaddressed questions.

We desperately need something akin to the scientific peer review process for journalism.  If I were sitting on the peer review panel for the USA Today article published earlier this week I would have had a long list of comments, corrections and suggestions for further investigation.  My top concern for this article would read: are we playing into the hands of the ammunition industry by continuing to print the same two lines of propaganda that they’ve been feeding us for the past 5+ years?

Instead let’s have an announcement of consensus within the scientific community – lead fragments from spent ammunition have been proven beyond any doubt to be the primary cause of mortality for California condors and the one factor holding populations back from reaching a self sustaining level.  We could add that the only “scientists” who seem to disagree with this are clearly doing so because their paycheck depends upon it.

Harvesting my first White-tailed deer

12-05-2013 | Matthew Podolsky

There are lots of stereotypes about hunting.  Many folks think that any redneck with a gun can go out and shoot a deer, as if all it takes to harvest an animal is the right tools and a willingness to pull the trigger.  If this were the case, I would have shot a deer long ago.  This is not to say that I’m particularly anxious about killing an animal, but that I long to be an active participant in the ecosystems that surround me.

I’ve now spent the past two Thanksgivings with my girlfriend Miranda’s family in St. Maries, ID, waking up long before dawn and heading out into the beautiful and diverse evergreen forests of Northern Idaho in search of White-tailed deer.  Although I didn’t harvest a deer during last year’s hunt, I learned a lot about big game hunting, and this year I felt much more prepared.

Brian and his wife Lyndsey with an elk harvested earlier this season.

Brian and his wife Lyndsey with an elk harvested earlier this season.

We spent our first morning sighting in the rifle that I was using; Miranda’s dad’s 7mm Remington loaded with Barnes triple-shock bullets (non-lead of course).  The days were short with the sun staying low in the sky, but we were out from sun-up to sundown searching for deer.

Day two of the hunt and all three of us; Miranda’s dad Rick, her brother Brian, and myself, still had tags to fill.  We spotted a moose on the drive out with just hint of sunlight coming through the trees.  The three of us split up and I spent the morning walking slowly along the forest edge, stopping to scan my surroundings at every corner.  Although I didn’t spot any deer, I did come across a herd of elk, and was proud that I was able to get within 100 yards without them taking any notice of my presence.

We returned to Miranda’s dad’s house for lunch and Brian and I decided to explore the woods back behind the property.  After 10 minutes of walking we spotted a doe.  She was over 300 yards away so we made our way across the draw to get a better angle on her.  As we came around a bend tracking this deer, we spotted another doe.  She was a bit closer – about 260 yards – so I set up for a shot.  As I positioned myself along the bank two more does popped out from the surrounding brush.  One of the three was in perfect position for a shot – I took aim just above and behind the front leg, and fired my shot.

I had no idea whether or not I hit her since she bolted into a clump of trees and out of view immediately.  Brian, who had been watching the animal through his binos, knew that I’d hit her.  He told me that the “thwak” of the bullet, and the way the doe looked as she ran off indicated that the shot had been true.  We waited for a few minutes to see if she’d reappear, and when we saw nothing we began our bushwhack down into the draw to search for the body.

Non-lead ammo did the trick.

Non-lead ammo did the trick.

My doe was curled up at the bottom of a wash at the base of the draw.  Although it was difficult to tell as we approached, she was most certainly dead.  We pulled her out of the wash and examined the body.  I’d hit her almost exactly where I’d been aiming; the bullet had passed through her lungs and out the other side.

Now began my lesson in gutting a deer.  Every hunter has a slightly different technique, and Brian takes pride in his strategy, which he claims to be the fastest and most efficient method.  Although it may seem odd to some, I enjoyed this part of the process immensely.  I was full of pride after just harvesting my first big game animal, and now I was getting a quick anatomy lesson while preparing this animal for human consumption.

Pulling the gut pile out filled me with satisfaction.  Back in my days working as a California condor field biologist I hauled innumerable gut piles out from the field.  This was always done in an attempt to remove harmful lead fragments and prevent the poisoning of condors and other scavengers, but this gut pile was clean thanks to my solid copper bullet.  This would be a lead-free food source for the local Bald eagles, ravens and coyotes.

I processed this deer myself, with the generous help of Miranda’s family, and am happy to say that I now have a freezer full of venison.  It feels good knowing that my new family has a clean and healthy source of animal protein that should last us through to next year’s hunting season.  Above all else however, it feels good knowing that I am an active participant in my environment.  I am happy to share this top predator niche with the wolves and mountain lions that we are so lucky to have present in our Idaho ecosystems.

My lead-free gut pile.

My lead-free gut pile.

Setting an Example by using Non-lead

11-18-2013 | Matthew Podolsky
X-ray of a single game meat package with lead fragments circled in red.

X-ray of a single game meat package with lead fragments circled in red.

In last week’s blog post I talked about some of the similarities between conservation threats faced by different species of vultures all across the globe.  Here in North America however, there is one key component that makes our situation with regard to vultures unique.  The neurotoxin that is killing our vultures is also being ingested by people through the exact same pathway.  We’ve known about the presence of lead fragments in game meat since 2009 (read that first paper documenting the presence of lead in game meat here), yet this point seemed to be largely absent from the heated debate over lead ammo that’s been going on in California over the past six months.  Generally, when folks mention the potential for human dietary exposure to lead from bullet fragments in game meat, hunters are the target group of discussion.  It’s easy for the average person to think, “I don’t hunt so I don’t have to worry about my family ingesting lead from game meat.”  Through the many educational screenings that we’ve held for Scavenger Hunt, and the many conversations that I’ve had with a wide variety of folks about this issue, I have found that this is not entirely true.

At every screening of Scavenger Hunt that I’ve attended, I address the audience after the film is over and ask just a few questions.  First, I ask everyone who has ever hunted to raise his or her hands.  At most of our screenings, this is a minority of the crowd.  Next, I ask how many people know someone who hunts.  Inevitably, almost everyone raises his or her hand.  Last, I ask how many people have eaten wild game meat.  Even more hands are raised when this question is asked, which illuminates an interesting point.  Although only 6% of Americans are hunters, the vast majority of people in this country know someone who hunts and have eaten wild game meat.

Addressing the crowd at a Wild Lens screening event.  Photo by Eddie Chung.

Addressing the crowd at a Wild Lens screening event. Photo by Eddie Chung.

Here’s where the story gets personal; on August 27 of 2013 my son Rowan was born.  Although I’ve been out on a few hunts and have shot a handful of mallards in my day, I certainly would not consider myself to be an avid hunter.  I do however love to eat wild game meat.  Not only is it lean, hormone-free and healthy, but it’s simply delicious!  I am lucky that Rowan’s grandfather and uncle are what I would consider to be “super hunters.”  I define “super hunter” as someone who routinely harvests enough game meat to provide his or her entire family with animal protein for the entire year.  These new members of my family easily meet the definition, and they are not shy about spreading the wealth.

While I would love more than anything to accept all that is offered, I now find myself faced with a new responsibility.  My son’s health and well-being must be top priority, and I refuse to take any chances with lead poisoning.  While I have had several conversations with the “super hunters” in the family about the importance of using non-lead ammunition, I understand that this transition is going to take some time.  It’s not as easy as you might think to make the switch, especially when you live in a remote corner of Idaho or Wyoming where non-lead ammunition options simply aren’t available locally.

This is not to say that Rowan’s new grandpa and uncle are unreceptive to the message; far from it, they are eager to do what’s best for the environment.  Addressing the human health component of the issue can be a lot trickier in a situation like this however.  How do you tell someone that you’d really rather not eat that delicious looking venison steak unless they shot the deer with non-lead??

The answer is, very carefully.  Word choice is extremely important when addressing a tricky issue like this; read the scientific literature cited here and be sure of yourself.  Be firm, but not condescending, and keep in mind the end goal; to eliminate the potential for human dietary lead exposure.  Most importantly, don’t be afraid to get the conversation started and don’t be discouraged if you can’t convince someone to switch right off the bat.  For most hunters the type of ammunition they use is a very important consideration – it’s okay if they don’t take your word for it.  Direct them to the relevant research and let them make up their own mind (but make sure to follow up so they don’t forget…).  In my case, I hope to accomplish this by setting an example.  When I go out to shoot a deer with the “super-hunters” I insist on using non-lead.  During family visits, we make it clear that our new family will only eat wild game meat that was taken with non-lead.  Our reason – the health and well being of our three month old son is simply too important to take any chances.

My son Rowan.  I'd like to keep him lead-free!

My son Rowan. I’d like to keep him lead-free!

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