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

April Fool’s!

04-02-2015 | Matthew Podolsky

Well I definitely tricked more people than I expected into believing the content of yesterday’s April Fool’s day post here on the Scavenger Hunt blog! I do apologize for any confusion that this may have caused – this blog is not usually a space for humor or pranks and I understand that I may have caught more than a few people off guard.

I understand now that the reason I was able to fool so many people with yesterday’s post is that the fake situation I imagined truly is a conceivable outcome for this issue. I won’t name names, but I talked to several people yesterday after this post came out who are closely involved in the politics of this issue, and I had them fooled! It seems as though I came quite a bit closer to reality that I realized!

The fact that my little imagined scenario is so believable here in our current political climate surrounding the lead ammo issue means that we may be closer than we think to finding a legitimate compromise. Where we stand seems pretty bleak at the moment; the messages coming from the NRA and like-minded groups had devolved over the past few years. While two or three years ago these groups had accepted that condors are being poisoned by the lead found in ammunition, now they say this lead that the condors are ingesting must be coming from somewhere else. There used to be occasional praise from these groups of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s voluntary non-lead ammo program, but this has been silenced.

Turkey vulture, CA-smallAs the politics of the situation regress, the science continues to move forward. The study that I mentioned in yesterday’s post is real. No joke – all the Turkey vultures and Black vultures that were tested as a part of this research showed signs of chronic lead exposure – 100%! Several years ago, while shooting for Scavenger Hunt, I sat at a conference presentation and listened to Lawrence Keane from the National Shooting Sports Foundation claim that lead couldn’t be a real problem for scavengers (other than the condor) because every time he looks up in the sky he sees a Turkey vulture. Well, Larry – those Turkey vultures that you’re looking at are all suffering from chronic lead exposure – most likely every single one of them that you see.

Is this okay because the populations of these species remain robust? What does this mean for human populations? One of the most striking components of this paper is the comparison between lead found in the bone, and lead found in the soft tissue. The researchers found that soft tissue lead was not a good indicator of long-term exposure. No surprise here – this research had already been done on humans. Well known pediatrician and lead poisoning expert Herb Needleman had his breakthrough in his research on the effects of childhood lead poisoning when he started collecting children’s teeth when they would fall out for his study. Through this method of analyzing the levels of lead in these teeth, he was able to make the connection between low level childhood lead exposure and IQ scores later in life.

So could lead from ammunition be causing low-level human lead exposure? I don’t think we’ll have a definitive answer on this until someone replicates Herb Needlman’s research using the teeth from children that regularly consume wild game meat harvested with lead ammunition. This new research on vultures certainly serves as an indicator that there is a lot more lead out there in our environment than we may have previously thought, which in my mind increases the likelihood that us humans are being effected. It’s certainly not a risk that I’m willing to take, which is why I harvest big-game with non-lead ammo.


NRA Admits Wrongdoing

04-01-2015 | Matthew Podolsky

article-nra-0421The NRA, along with several other prominent gun rights groups released a joint statement today conceding that their denial of the science behind the lead poisoning of wildlife was ill founded. While it is very clear that the groups will continue to oppose any sort of ban on the product, the statement clearly reads, “We got it wrong. Simple as that. Recent research has shown chronic lead poisoning to be ubiquitous in populations of our most common scavengers, the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. We now understand how pervasive this problem is, and it’s time to step up and do something about it.”

They are referencing a study published recently in the journal Environment International, which claims that, “The extent to which vultures are exposed [to lead] suggests that anthropogenic lead permeates eastern North American ecosystems to a previously unrecognized degree.” (Behmke, et al. 2015)

The gun rights groups, not surprisingly, argue against a legislative approach, instead making the bold claim that they can make hunting 100% lead-free in 10 years through education and outreach efforts alone. Now here is where this gets even more interesting – their stipulation towards giving this education and outreach program the green light is the repeal of California’s lead ammunition ban. Their tactic here is truly fascinating – now that they have admitted that the science behind lead poisoning of wildlife is real, they need a new conflict. They haven’t taken their eyes off the crosshairs of the California lead ammo ban, they’ve just changed weapons.

The argument against a statewide ban in California has been focused on one central target: the failure of the 2008 regional ban on the use of lead-based ammo for hunting to have any detectable impact on lead exposure in condors. Their old argument was that the lead must be coming from somewhere else – and this makes sense if you believe that 99% of hunters within the region were in compliance with the law (as was reported by California Fish and Game). The new argument (I am theorizing here based on the content of the recently released statement) will be that these reported compliance numbers were totally bogus, and that the state has no way of enforcing this law, or even of knowing what type of ammunition hunters have loaded in their guns.

IMG_1449 small

Solid copper bullet alongside two lead-core bullets.

What would happen if the NRA, along with sportsmen’s groups from all across the country got behind a campaign to voluntarily move away from lead-based ammo for hunting? Anyone who supports a ban on this product needs to think long and hard right now; are you ready for another battle with the NRA? Or will you embrace this opportunity to come together?

Of course the NRA may be expecting environmentalists and liberal legislators to balk at this proposition. Maybe they have no real intention of following through. After all, if they were sincere about this, couldn’t they just throw some money and support towards Arizona’s already well-established voluntary non-lead ammo program?

In order to make sense of this one must think about the huge success that the NRA has had in motivating their supporters based around conflict (or some would argue perceived conflict). They needed to find a way to accept the science behind the lead poisoning of wildlife, without ending their fight against liberal government legislators (and all those other anti-gun and anti-hunting liberals out there), and they have certainly found a truly unique way to dramatically shift their focus without giving up their fight to repeal California’s lead ban.

Harvesting My First Elk

11-17-2014 | Matthew Podolsky

This past weekend I shot my first elk.  Aside from the freezer full of meat, this hunt was an amazing learning experience and an opportunity to explore some truly spectacular country.  I was hunting with my good friend Thomas Hayes, who was kind enough to take me to one of his favorite hunting spots.  Although I won’t reveal the exact location (I was sworn to secrecy!), I’ll just say that we were up in the mountains Northeast of Boise in an incredibly beautiful spot.

elk ridge timelapse

For the unit that we were hunting, elk season starts on November 1st, and ends November 9th, so we had a limited amount of time to get an animal.  This hunt is for antlered elk only, so we had to find a male (cow tags in this area are a lottery draw, whereas this tag is unlimited and can be purchased over the counter).  Thomas and I got an early start the morning after Halloween, leaving Boise several hours before daybreak.

We started our hike as the sun was rising, carrying everything that we would need for three days of backcountry camping.  We set up camp on top of a forested ridgeline, right in the midst of elk country, and began searching for animals.  We didn’t have much luck that first day – we spotted a group of elk from a distance, but couldn’t find a way to get close to them.  That afternoon the rain began to fall and by the time we arrived back at our tent just after sunset we were soaked to the bone.

That night the rain turned to snow.  We awoke to several inches of snow and ice weighing down our tent, and all of our wet gear was now frozen solid.  Luckily we had come prepared with plenty of extra dry clothes, but slipping our feet into those frozen hiking boots was very unpleasant!  The beauty of our snow-covered surroundings easily made up for this uncomfortable situation however, and we knew the snow would make it that much easier to track elk.

We hiked up along the same ridge where we were camped that morning, and spent an hour or so slowly walking, stopping regularly to observe our surroundings and glass distant hillsides.  We came out from behind a group of ponderosa pine and Thomas froze in place.  I followed his line of sight and spotted the object of his attention – a good size bull elk!  He was looking right in our direction, but in a moment when he looked away I sat down and pulled the 30-06 rifle into position.  The bull was 200 yards away – a bit far for me to feel completely comfortable with taking a shot, and on top of that my view through the rifle’s scope was partially obscured by a tree branch.  The elk turned, and walked off behind a stand of trees and out of view.  We waited for a bit to see if he would pop back out on the ridgeline, but I knew that I had squandered this opportunity and was already kicking myself for not being able to get a shot off.

Thomas over look with bins

Later that day Thomas and I decided to hike to the top of a nearby peak.  We had spent some time watching a herd of elk up on the mountainside, and decided to hike up and explore.  When we reached the top of the snow-covered peak we did indeed see lots of fresh elk tracks in the snow, and were able to get up close to a group of three cow elk, but didn’t see any bulls.  We climbed down and hiked back to our tent where we curled up inside our sleeping bags, exhausted.

The next day we hiked back to the road, looking for elk all along the way, but didn’t see any animals.  We made the drive back to Boise a bit dejected, but knowing that we had one last opportunity to fill my tag.  We would be back the following weekend to give it one last shot.

That next weekend we were back – once again leaving Boise hours before sunrise and hiking up the same mountain as the sun rose.  I picked a spot with a nice view of a hillside where we had seen elk the previous weekend, and sat there for much of the day.  As the afternoon dragged on I grew antsy and decided to do some walking.  I hiked out to a viewpoint where Thomas had been sitting and scanning for elk – and just minutes after arriving we spotted a herd of elk in the distance – right along the hillside that I had been watching all morning!  We rushed back to the spot, but we were too late – it was dark by the time we made it back, and once again we were hiking back to our tent feeling dejected.

I resolved to return to that same spot along the ridgeline before daybreak the next morning, thinking that I could catch that herd of elk in the early morning light.  I carefully made my way back, creeping along the ridgeline in the pitch dark of early morning.  As I approached on the ridgeline, all of a sudden, I was startled by a loud crashing of brush – the elk herd was right in front of me and I had spooked them!  It sounded like a stampede as this group of a dozen or so large animals busted their way through the dense brush.  All I could do was stand and listen, crestfallen that my plan had failed.  By the time there was enough daylight to see, the herd was long gone.

This was the final day of elk season, and I now had only half a day left to fill my tag.  Thomas and I regrouped, and decided that our best chance lay in a different area.  We packed up all of our gear and hiked down the mountain to the road.  Thomas had been watching a large group of elk across the canyon on the opposite side of the river.  We waded across and began the steep climb up the opposite side.

After a couple hours of climbing we were up on the ridgeline and we began slowly creeping along, stopping to scan the open hillsides every few steps.  We made it up to a rocky point that was an excellent spot to observe the surrounding landscape, and decided to sit and wait, despite the fact that we did not see any elk.  Where had the huge herd that we’d seen from across the river gone?

After just 5 minutes of sitting three elk stood up from their hiding place behind a patch of brush about 150 yards away.  As they started to make their way across the steep hillside I got my binoculars on them and immediately saw that the last in line was a spike (a young bull elk with just one antler point on either side).  I rested the rifle on a large rock in front of me and took aim.


I fired a shot and the spike froze – I’d hit him!  He wavered back and forth, then dropped to the ground.  I waited; watching him through the rifle scope – if he got back up I’d be ready.  He did get back up a few minutes later and I fired off another two solid copper rounds.  He dropped to the ground once again, and Thomas and I began our approach.  He was still kicking when we got close, but one last round to the head ended his suffering.  I watched in awe as this massive animal took his last few breaths.

There was an hour or two until sunset and the rain started to fall.  Processing this animal and hauling the meat down the mountain would be no small feat.  We got to work right away, separating and skinning the quarters and removing the meat from the body.  Everything went into game bags and was strapped to our packs for the long haul down the steep hillside.  The final step was to remove the heart and liver – by this time the sun had set and we were surrounded by complete darkness.  We switched on our headlamps and strapped on our packs, now laden with roughly 150 lbs. of elk meat each.

The hike down was steep and difficult, largely due to the extremely heavy loads strapped to our backs.  The rain continued to come down, and by the time we reached the river we were thoroughly soaked and exhausted, but filled with a strong sense of accomplishment.  We waded across the river, taking several trips to haul our heavy loads, and celebrated at the truck with a dry set of clothes and a heaping slice of birthday cake (Thomas had celebrated his birthday the previous week).

It took an entire day for Thomas and I to finish butchering the elk back in Boise.  I had to go out and buy a freezer, which I immediately filled with fresh meat.  There are many things that are satisfying to me about going through this process of harvesting an animal and processing it for consumption.  The most obvious is the satisfaction that comes with having a year’s supply of meat in the freezer, but almost as strong is the feeling of connection with my local ecosystem.  By harvesting an elk I am playing the role of predator – I am now a member of this natural system, rather than just an observer.

Lastly I have demonstrated, once again, the effectiveness of alternatives to lead-based ammunition.  I shot my elk with 168 grain Barnes triple-shock bullets designed for a 30-06 rifle.  The damage caused by these bullets was devastating, and I have no doubt that their effectiveness is comparable to any lead-core round.  Because I used non-lead, I can feel good about the parts of the animal that were left behind in the field – I have provided a safe meal for the local wolves, coyotes, eagles, ravens and other scavengers that call this area their home.  Just minutes after shooting my elk a Golden Eagle circled overhead, knowing that he or she would soon be in for a feast.  I am certain that the remains of this animal have not gone to waste.  If there are folks out there reading this who are unfamiliar with the issue of lead poisoning in wildlife, you can now watch the film I produced and directed all about this issue right here on our website – click here to watch now!

And of course I don’t have to worry about the presence of tiny fragments of lead in the meat that is currently sitting in my freezer.  This is especially important to me because I care so deeply about the health of my one-year-old son.  I’m not willing to take any chances when it comes to his health, and since we all know that there is no safe level of lead in the human body, I strive to keep him lead-free.


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