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California condors are making a recovery in the wild at Big Sur, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Ventana Wildlife Society. (Photo archives)

The California condor has survived many threats during the 12,000 years of its existence: an ice age, the extinction of long-ago contemporaries such as the woolly mammoth, human development upon its habitat and the near-death experience of having the population of its species decline to single digits in 1987.

But today the California condor may be facing its most formidable threat yet: the National Rifle Association.

A move is under way in the California Legislature to ban the use of lead ammunition in all types of hunting. One motivation is protection of the California condor.

But there is more to it than that. Environmental organizations and animal-protection groups regard a ban on lead ammunition as the next logical step in a regulatory march to reduce sources of lead in the environment.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says there is no safe level of human exposure to lead, and it has been removed from paint, gasoline and other consumer products. In the hunting arena, lead shot was long ago banned in the hunting of water fowl, based on concerns about lead accumulating in sources of drinking water.

Momentum seems to be developing to also prohibit lead bullets used in hunting large game. It follows passage of a California law in 2007 that barred the use of lead ammunition in large swaths of the state where the condor is known to scavenge.

Those on both sides of this year's debate over Assembly Bill 711 believe that this could become another one of those instances in which if California acts, other states might follow.

Jennifer Fearing, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, says there are no immediate plans to move into other states. She does note, however, that her organization "isn't interested in stopping lead poisoning only in California."

A sense of inevitability is building, not unlike in the run-up to California becoming the first state to ban cigarette smoking in public places in 1995, at a time when some still sought to discredit research into the health dangers of secondhand smoke. Such bans are now in place in 28 states.

The NRA, hoping to stop this potential lead-free movement before it starts, has launched an operation called "Hunt for Truth," which features a website that seeks to discredit all manner of scientific conclusions about the risks of lead ammunition to wildlife and to humans who eat the meat of hunted game.

The site includes a list of "interested parties" that it implies are part of an anti-hunting conspiracy. Among them are the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the zoos in Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara.

Caught in the crossfire of all this is the condor.

While the population of the endangered bird has rebounded to more than 400, more than half of which are in the wild, the condor's status remains fragile.

Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which manages the condor population in the mountains around Big Sur, asserts that, absent a ban on lead bullets, condors will never survive without extraordinary human intervention.

"The reason," he wrote in an essay published last week, "is that lead ammunition is so prevalent in the carcasses condors eat that it is only a matter of time before they die."

The regrettable fact is that the ban on lead ammunition in condor zones has had no appreciable effect on the lead content in the bloodstreams of condors in the wild.

The NRA cites this as proof that lead ammunition is not the culprit.

Proponents of the statewide ban suggest other possibilities, including the fact the current law still permits the use of lead ammunition in the taking of small game such as squirrels and to kill nuisance animals such as skunks.

The proposed statewide bill would ban lead ammunition in the shooting of all animals.

"It's not a debate about hunting. It's simply saying that when you hunt, use safe ammunition," says Dan Taylor, public policy director at Audubon California. "Behavior can change when people see this does not affect the core issue of hunting. We're not changing one bag limit."

The proof of that assertion is that the ban on the use of lead ammunition in the condor zones has had zero effect on hunting. In the years since it has been in effect, the number of deer tags issued to hunters in those zones has slightly increased. Hunters, firing nonlead bullets, are still bagging deer.