The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced a far-reaching, conservation-minded, and science-based action on the eve of the presidential inauguration – establishing a new policy to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle by January 2022 on more than 150 million acres of National Wildlife Refuges and other agency lands and waterways. The policy is designed to stop the needless, incidental poisoning of millions of wild animals each year by lead that’s left behind in the routine pursuit of these field sports.
As the primary wildlife manager on tens of millions of acres of federal lands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has a statutory duty to act to protect and conserve wildlife, and that’s what it did by establishing the new policy. The beauty of the decision is, there are field-tested and cost-competitive alternatives in the marketplace, and absolutely no compelling reason not to require hunters and fishers to switch to these alternative metals.
We’ve known for thousands of years that lead is a deadly toxin, yet it’s only in recent decades that we’ve taken it out of gasoline, paint, and other substances. The lingering effects of lead pipes still pose hazards for communities, as we have seen in the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the larger debate over crumbling infrastructure in the United States. Why wouldn’t we also move to get lead out of the wildlife management profession, especially now that there are ready alternatives available to every single hunter and fisherman?
In 2014, The HSUS and other wildlife groups joined with some rank-and-file sportsmen to petition the Department of the Interior to require the use of nontoxic ammunition when a firearm is discharged on federal lands managed by the National Park Service and the FWS. The director’s order issued last week has the potential to take a big bite out of lead use, if it’s actually implemented and not scuttled by President Trump’s new leaders at the agency or by Congress.
Hunters deposit tens of thousands of tons of lead in our environment, and it is estimated that between 10 and 20 million birds and other animals—including more than 130 species—die each year from lead poisoning. That’s a staggering toll, and an entirely preventable one.
Scientists have called lead ammunition the “greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.” Since it breaks into fragments upon impact, lead inevitably makes its way into the food chain as animals feed off carcasses left in the field by hunters. Hunting families are at risk too, since the meat from animals shot and cooked for the table can contain tiny lead shards. Children are especially vulnerable and even low levels of lead in their bodies can adversely impact their health for life.
Lead alternatives are readily available, and comparably priced copper and steel ammunition outperform lead and do not keep killing days, weeks, and months after leaving the gun. In 1991, FWS required the use of non-lead shot for the hunting of waterfowl nationwide and within just 10 years, researchers found significant improvements in the blood and bone lead levels in a variety of waterfowl species. The use of nontoxic shot reduced the mortality of mallards by 64 percent, and saved approximately 1.4 million ducks in a single fall flight.
Individual states, recognizing the negative impact of lead, have acted to remove lead sources from their forests. Last year, New Hampshire phased out the use of lead fishing sinkers and jigs weighing less than one ounce in order to help protect loon populations in that state. In 2013, California became the first state in the nation to phase out the use of lead ammunition for the taking of all wildlife, with a deadline of 2019 for completing the transition.
But here is a case where the NRA and other hunting groups have a knee-jerk reaction, sacrificing the principles of conservation, public and environmental health, and animal welfare as a matter of personal expediency. Some hunters are familiar with lead, and they may be resistant to change, and the NRA wants to give them a free pass.
We didn’t just leave it up to drivers to choose lead-based fuel or non-lead. We mandated unleaded fuel because it was safer for our society; it protected people from dying. And we didn’t let paint manufacturers decide when and how to get rid of lead. We treated it as a national priority. If you care about wildlife, and don’t want ammunition to keep killing long after it’s left the barrel, it’s time to ban the use of lead ammunition.
Sport hunters often cite the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, and he’s recently been invoked as an inspiration by the incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. But too often sport hunters treat President Roosevelt and his commitment to conservation as a talking point or a historical artifact. They cast the idea of sacrifice and the common good as part of a scheme to erode their rights, and not as part of their duty to uphold the principles for which Roosevelt stood as a conservationist. Here is their test: you’ve got alternatives to lead and you know that lead kills wild animals by the millions. Show us that you treat conservation as a continuing commitment and not an abstraction or a word that you just discharge without any real meaning or force, and register your own support for this vital new policy.