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The Way Forward Post Zinke’s Repeal of Obama Ban on Lead Ammunition

We need to engage hunters and anglers in an open dialogue about the true cost of lead contamination

With frontier flair, Ryan Zinke showed up for his first day of work as interior secretary on horseback on March 2. The former Montana congressman hadn’t been out of the saddle long before he took aim at Obama’s ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle in in national parks and wildlife refuges.

man fly fishingPhoto by Joseph/FlickrWhile the ban has been removed from some 500 million acres of federally administered lands where hunting and angling is allowed, some states — including Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — already restrict the use of lead bait and tackle.

Surrounded by representatives from a host of sportsman’s organizations, including the National Rifle Association, Zinke overturned President Obama’s last minute effort to protect wildlife and human health. The repeal of the ban was one of two secretarial orders, which Zinke said would “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.” Zinke expressed a concern about Obama-era restrictions that he believes threatens to make hunting and fishing out of reach to everyone but “the land-owning elite.”

The ban had been issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on January 19, one day before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning.

Many conservationists are crying foul, calling the move a clear effort to pander to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other hunting groups. (The NRA had called the ban a “final assault on gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights” as it would force them to buy more expensive steel and copper bullets.)

WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places program director Greg Dyson expressed disappointment with Zinke’s order to lift the ban. In an email message, he wrote, “The existing order pertained only to lands managed by the USFWS, in other words, wildlife refuges. If we can’t put wildlife first in wildlife refuges, then that’s pretty sad.”

While the ban has been removed from some 500 million acres of federally administered lands where hunting is allowed, some states — including Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — already restrict the use of lead bait and tackle. And California will institute the nation’s first statewide ban on lead ammunition and tackle in 2019.

However, there are some conservationists who question whether a ban would have been effective in the first place. The National Wildlife Federation — a conservation group that has worked for decades to reduce the use of lead ammunition and tackle — criticized the Obama administration’s “unilateral,” “last minute approach” in instituting the ban in the first place, saying that the effort didn’t engage stakeholders, didn’t conduct any outreach to state agencies, and didn’t attempt to build a coalition to ensure that the ban would endure. “This unilateral, last minute approach further politicized an already challenging problem and hardened the positions of various interests, making future progress more difficult,” NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara wrote in a post last week. (The NWF’s position, it should be noted however, has drawn some flak from its supporters and other conservation groups.)

“A ban will not work because the [hunting with lead ammunition] tradition is so strong. Ink on paper doesn’t solve a problem on the ground,” adds Chris Parish, director of The Peregrine Fund’s California condor conservation program.

A conservation biologist, hunter, and fisher, Parish prefers direct communication with hunters to encourage them to switch to non-toxic ammunition. He begins conversations by asking, “Would you knowingly eat lead?” The answer is always no. But, he says, at the same time  hunters don’t want more regulations that force them to change the way they have always done things.

calforina condor in flightPhoto by cswtwo/FlickrLead poisoning is one of the gravest threat to endangered California condors, an obligate scavenger that dines exclusively on dead meat

Parish oversees a lead reduction program in Arizona and Utah, where 53 percent of diagnosed deaths of California condors were caused by lead poisoning. To reduce exposure to lead, in 2005 Arizona hunters were asked to participate in a volunteer program to use free non-lead ammunition or remove gut piles of dead animals instead of leaving them behind for the condors to eat. So far, 87 percent of hunters have taken part in the campaign.

“We can ameliorate on the ground on a small scale, from the bottom up to a collective scale. It’s not so simple to say, ban or no ban. We have to dig deeper, let’s raise the bar,” Parish says.

Field studies conducted by The Peregrine Fund identified lead ingestion as the “only significant obstacle to the establishment of the California condor in the wilds of Arizona and Utah.”

Numerous scientific studies have identified lead poisoning as the gravest threat to endangered California condors, an obligate scavenger that dines exclusively on dead meat. In 2012 environmental toxicologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered that condors in California are chronically exposed to harmful lead levels from ingesting animal remains filled with lead fragments. One in five condors each year since 1997 required costly treatment to remove the lead through chelation therapy.

Toxic ammunition is not only deadly for the intended victim. One lead bullet that hits an animal fragments into hundreds of tiny particles that lodge in its flesh. Contaminated meat enters the food chain when hunters leave animal parts in the field or when a wounded animals runs off to die later or when so-called “nuisance” animals like coyotes are killed by ranchers are left to rot where they drop and become food for other wild carnivores. 

It’s not just condors that are impacted. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, in the United States, an estimated 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunting every year, another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fishing lures and sinkers — while as many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from subsequent lead poisoning.

The USGS National Wildlife Health Center identified the ingestion of lead as the most significant hazard to wildlife. Consumption of small amounts of lead causes a slow, debilitating process that shows outwardly as lethargy, weakness, diarrhea, and vomiting. Poisoned birds become reluctant to fly or unable to sustain flight. All those slippery piles tinted green left behind by Canada geese indicate lead poisoning. If a victim doesn’t die right away, inevitably, digestive paralysis ensures an agonizing death.         

In a study conducted in Montana from 1985-1993, lead was found in the blood of 97 percent of 37 bald eagles and 85 percent of 86 golden eagles tested. Lead bullet fragments in ground squirrels ingested by the migrating raptors were implicated in the poisoning. Mourning doves die after confusing shotgun pellets for grit and grain scattered around stock ponds.

Hawks, ravens, turkey vultures, and grizzly bears are particularly susceptible to the hazard because carcasses are a dietary staple. Waterfowl like common loons, trumpeter swans, and fish also risk being poisoned by accidentally swallowing lead tackle.  

Lead also poses considerable risks to human health for its especially dastardly cascade of physiological effects on developing fetuses and young children. Until North Dakota’s health department discovered high levels of lead in ground venison in 2008, deer hunters used to generously donate hundreds of pounds of wild meat to Midwestern food banks. Blood samples from people who frequently dine on ground venison show higher concentrations of the metal in their blood.

The findings did not initiate a ban of lead ammunition in North Dakota, but it curtailed donations of ground venison to food banks in several Midwestern states. The discovery prompted North Dakota’s health department to issue advisories warning pregnant woman to limit their consumption and to avoid feeding ground venison to children under six.

The Peregrine Fund acknowledges that lead is “easily substituted with less toxic alternatives,” but as Parish emphasized, traditions die hard and the hunting issue is rife with emotions that polarize people.

In the absence of a federal ban, the way forward, it seems, would be to have a more open dialogue with all stakeholders, including hunters and anglers about the science of how lead continues to harm both wildlife and humans.

Eliza Murphy
Eliza Murphy writes from the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

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