Lead Bullets

March 16, 2007 12:00 am
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By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Although the endangered California condor once ranged from British Columbia to Baja California, it lives nowhere near Del Norte County today.

Yet, local hunters and government officials have been eyeing a change in state hunting laws meant to protect the bird by keeping lead out of the animal carcasses that it feeds on.

The California Department of Fish and Game has recommended that the state's fish and game commission ban lead bullets used to hunt big game such as deer, elk, bears, coyote and wild pigs. The proposal targets regions where the now lives, along much of the state's southern coastal counties.

Alternative proposals could target the bird's historic range, a much broader region, or the entire state.

The Del Norte County Fish and Game Advisory Commission will review the proposal at an April 5 meeting, before a state commission meeting on April 13. The county board of supervisors could send comments to the state commission.

"I do think we need to be heard from," District 4 supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said.

So do some area hunters.

"We don't have California condors up here," said Gary Hastings, owner of Hastings Sporting Goods in Crescent City. "Why should it affect the rest of the state?"

At about twice the cost of lead bullets, copper bullets would price a lot of hunters out of the game, said Crescent City resident and hunter Marc Raulfs.

"They'd have to come up with something," Raulfs said, noting a lack of other bullet alternatives.

Hastings doubts such a move.

"These ammunition manufacturers are not going to put out something special for California," he said.

Chris Hegnes, a life-long hunter and advisory commission member, wonders if the alternative bullets can kill as well as the heavier lead ones that expand after copper casings peel back on impact. The others penetrate and may only wound animals.

"I think it's just another way to try to close something else down," he said of the proposal, noting state fishing and timber regulations. "They want people just to sit back here and look at a park."

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity seeks to enact a statewide ban on lead ammunition.

"This is not an anti-hunting issue. We're not trying to restrict anyone's right to hunt," said conservation advocate Jeff Miller, noting efforts to remove lead from gasoline and drinking water pipes.

Lead bullets also threatens eagles, swans, loons and ravens. But condors remain especially susceptible, eating guts, hides and other lead-tainted carcass parts that hunters sometimes leave behind.

The condor's numbers dropped to the twenties in the mid-1980s. A captive breeding program has increased their totals to about 140 and reintroduction efforts aim to let them inhabit more regions of California.

Last fall, the nonprofit sued the state for allowing lead ammunition use. Copper bullets work just as well, Miller said, adding that their prices will likely fall fast.

"The day the state announces a switch to non-lead bullets," he said, "you're gonna see a bullet manufacturer rush to fill that market."

If approved, the proposal would only affect Northcoast hunters who travel to zones where the proposal takes affect, said Jeff Dayton, a wildlife biologist with the state's fish and game department.

"They should be aware of this proposal," Dayton said of the measure that, if approved, could take effect in the summer. "It's really not an issue for Del Norte or Humboldt county."

The state fish and game commission may review the proposal at an April 13 meeting.

"I don't think this is gonna even go anywhere," Hastings said, adding that he still plans to follow the issue. "In California, you just never know."

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