Contrary to the preposterous—yet increasingly popular—belief that gas-guzzling, beer-can-tossing hunters are concerned environmentalists, hunting has been and continues to be the primary cause of extinctions world-wide. Even the plight of non-“game” animals, like the California condor, the country’s largest and perhaps most critically endangered bird species, stems from the same root cause that has led to the decimation of so many other species: hunting.
By the end of the nineteenth century, that darkest of times for wildlife in North America, rampant hunting had led to the extinction of the great auk, the passenger pigeon, two subspecies of elk and the near-total extinction of bison, pronghorn, trumpeter swans, bighorn sheep and a myriad of other coveted species. Meanwhile, scavengers like condors were collateral damage in the frenzied campaign to rid the continent of its native carnivores.
Together with ravens and vultures, condors were senselessly shot on sight by trigger-happy ranchers mistaking the huge birds for predators—an ignorance that continues to this day. Moreover, those scavengers, along with eagles, hawks and other raptors, perished from eating poisoned meat intended for wolves, coyotes, bears and cougars.
Incidental poisoning is an ongoing threat plaguing condors right up to this day. Like so many other egg-laying species, their population suffered another major setback from the widespread use of DDT during the mid-20th Century. That toxic chemical was finally banned, but the great birds continued to perish. By the time it was determined they were also dying from lead-poisoning as the result of scavenging the carcasses of animals killed with lead-based bullets and buckshot, the condor population was down to an all-time low of only 22 individuals.Thanks to concerted efforts, their numbers have increased nowadays and lead-based ammunition has been banned from the condor’s most critical habitat. But the 400 surviving birds are still threatened by the illegal use of lead shot and bullets, in addition to other anthropogenic pressures, like power lines and wind turbans.
California condors have a life span of up to 60 years (longer than most human carnivores, prior to the discovery of statin drugs). And though they may appear ungainly on land, once a condor has worked his or her way up to a proper elevation, they can glide for miles without ever flapping a wing and sometimes attain speeds of 55 miles per hour, at elevations of 15,000 feet.
More proof that hunters aren’t really environmentalists: condors are still shot as pests or for target practice, and many “sportsmen” continue to oppose a nationwide-ban on lead-based ammo.