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Getting the lead out of condor country

Wildlife biologist Mike Palermo knows that whatever bullets he packs during this fall's big-game hunting seasons, they won't conflict with the goals of his day job.

Palermo is a wildlife biologist working on the Yurok tribe's effort to reintroduce California condors to the Klamath River basin, and that means he won't be firing lead bullets at black-tailed deer and wild boars this fall.

His bullets will be copper, which — unlike lead — aren't toxic to carrion-feeders such as condors known to ingest lead from eating big-game gut piles. And he'll do so happily, even though the massive birds aren't here yet.

"I want to get out there and say, 'Yes. I used the copper. Here we go,' " Palermo says. "Why go back once you find a good thing?"

Palermo believes like-minded hunters who follow suit by trying copper ammunition will voluntarily eschew lead, thereby making it that much more possible to one day see a 10-foot shadow soar across the Klamath River, or even the Rogue River.

Palermo will join a tribal contingent who will give Rogue Valley hunters a taste of copper when they host a special range day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Josephine County Sportsman Association Range, 7407 Highland Ave., Grants Pass.

Hunters are encouraged to bring their own rifles to fire their own lead bullets at targets and then fire non-lead bullets provided by the tribe to assess accuracy. The tribe's wildlife program will trade copper bullets for lead bullets, one box per caliber per participant.

The range day is free for association members, but non-members will be charged $4.50.

The tribe does not support a ban on lead ammunition, but its members believe hunters who literally give copper a shot will like it.

And that's just fine with shooting-sports industry leaders who have resisted any governmental restrictions on lead bullets, which they refer to as "traditional ammunition."

"We agree that it should be the hunter's choice and not mandatory," says Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade organization for the firearms, hunting and shooting-sports industry.

"If it's not a call for a ban on traditional ammunition, we certainly have no problem with that," says Bazinet, who is based in Connecticut. "It sounds like a reasonable approach. Good for this tribe."

Getting the lead out of condor habitat has been one of the early steps toward restoration of these birds in the Southwest and in the Yurok's 3-year-old effort to reintroduce them in the Klamath Basin.

The condors, which are federally listed as an endangered species, were native to most large basins here and were documented in at least the Klamath, Umpqua and Columbia drainages. The last confirmed Oregon sighting was in 1904 near Drain, within the Umpqua basin southwest of Cottage Grove.

Because the birds with wingspans of up to 10 feet are known to fly up to 300 miles a day in search of carrion, the Rogue River basin would be a logical place for the birds either to frequent or to establish themselves, experts say.

But condors can't do it alone.

Studies show the chief limiting factor to condor recovery is lead poisoning, and the most common source of lead is the ingestion of bullet fragments in the carcasses and gut piles left by hunters.

California has banned the use of lead bullets in condor habitat. Arizona has a voluntary program that provides hunters in condor habitat with all-copper bullets, and three out of four hunters who use them recommend their use to all hunters, according to the Arizona Department of Fish and Game.

Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1991, and several alternatives to lead already are marketed within the ballistics industry.

But it's not just birds that benefit from getting the lead out. Studies show that kids with even low levels of lead in their blood have an average IQ that's 6.2 points lower than average, according to the tribe.

Copper is being pushed as a good alternative for big-game hunters. Because it's harder than lead, it retains nearly 100 percent of its weight when penetrating an animal and generally does not fragment.

Also, the bullets expand upon impact, doubling in diameter, and have deeper penetration. But they are more expensive.

Chris West, another Yurok biologist on the condor project, began dabbling in hunting when he moved to California's north coast four years ago. At first, he used both lead and copper bullets "because there wasn't a condor presence up here," he says.

But knowing that so many other carrion eaters could benefit from less lead in his environment, West made the switch.

"It's worth it for me to fork out an extra buck a bullet," West says. "Especially in big-game hunting, you don't fire too many rounds in a season."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman