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Keeping the lead in: Efforts to thwart toxic ammo caught in political crosshairs

Keeping the lead in: Efforts to thwart toxic ammo caught in political crosshairs


Lead is malleable.

Some opinions about lead ammunition are not.

That’s what critics of lead bullets and shells are finding as they advocate a switch to nontoxic alternatives such as steel.

In a fight reminiscent of the climate-change debate, evolving evidence of threats to the environment, wildlife and humans from lead ammo and tackle is facing a firing squad of politicians and special-interest groups.

Caught in the crossfire are hunters and anglers. So is the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of rural-state lawmakers like U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is a co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

Thune said he inserted the provision in the recently approved $1.1 trillion congressional spending bill that bans the EPA from regulating lead in ammunition and fishing tackle — at least through September, when the spending bill expires. He wants to keep the EPA from getting its “tentacles” into hunting and fishing.

“I don’t know why the EPA needs to cast its net even wider and overreach yet again on another issue,” Thune said.

The EPA says it’s doing no such thing.

In fact, the agency rejected petitions and fought off litigation in recent years from environmental and wildlife groups who sought to force EPA regulation of lead ammo and tackle. The agency said it lacked lawful authority to impose such regulations.

In response to questions for this story, the agency’s public affairs office issued a one-sentence statement: “The agency does not have any plans to regulate lead ammunition or lead tackle/fishing lures.”

Thune, a hunter himself, said he is motivated by hunters and anglers who’ve urged him to fend off potential EPA action.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said Thune’s motivation could be genuine and also political, meant to impress voters and supporters who are concerned about over regulation.

“It wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to stop the EPA from doing something when there’s at least a constituency out there who would like to see it stopped,” Schaff said. “And, obviously, it plays well at home to position yourself against the EPA.”

South Dakota as non-lead leader

Far afield from the political argument and despite Thune’s stance against further lead regulation, South Dakotans have at times been leaders in the use of nontoxic ammo.

During the winter of 1979-1980, 4,000 sick and dead geese were found along the Missouri River in the state. The birds fed in a cornfield near the river that was heavily hunted, and they ingested pellets that caused them to suffer lead poisoning.

The state reacted quickly with the creation of a nontoxic steel shot zone along the river, and then banned lead shot for all waterfowl hunting in 1988. A national ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting followed in 1991.

In 1998, South Dakota extended its ban on lead shot to include all small-game hunting on most public lands within the state. Use of lead shot continues to be allowed on private land.

Throughout the decades and up to the present day, South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks has been at the forefront of research and action on lead ammo.

In September, the department published a 56-page study on lead shot and pheasants, the state’s most economically lucrative game bird. The study is believed to be the most comprehensive research ever conducted into lead ingestion by pheasants in the United States, and it was sparked by a petition to the state’s GF&P Commission that sought to ban lead shot for road hunting.

Researchers examined the gizzards of thousands of hunter-harvested wild pheasants. Among those shot on licensed shooting preserves, about 4 percent had ingested at least one lead pellet. Among those shot in nonpreserve areas, about 1 percent had ingested a lead pellet.

Researchers also fed one or three lead pellets to a group of captive hen pheasants, and none died during the 21-day experiment.

Travis Runia, GF&P’s senior upland game bird biologist, said the study produced some insight for wildlife managers who are considering the potential impact of lead shot on wild birds.

“Pheasants do not appear to be as susceptible to fatal lead poisoning in a captive environment as other birds like waterfowl and mourning doves,” he said. “But the study found wild pheasants do ingest spent lead pellets, a known poison, which could have unknown impacts on survival and reproduction of free-ranging pheasants.”

Gun-lobby politics prove powerful

Thune said existent regulations on lead are sufficient.

“There just isn’t any scientific evidence that the use of traditional ammunition is having an adverse impact on wildlife populations that would require any kind of change in current regulation,” he said.

He contends that a ban on lead ammo and tackle would “price many hunting and fishing enthusiasts out of the market” because of the higher price of nontoxic alternatives. The actual difference in price for shotgun shells typically used in pheasant hunting, according to store prices at Cabela's, is about $4 to $5 more per box for steel compared to lead in a mid-level shell.

Support for Thune's science arguments comes from several groups committed to protecting the use of lead, mostly in ammunition but also in fishing tackle, the latter of which attracts less attention.

The National Rifle Association, which over the years has funneled $49,105 in campaign contributions to Thune through associated individuals and political action committees, says the anti-lead ammunition movement is a front in the effort to end hunting altogether.

An NRA official has said the groups seeking EPA regulation of lead ammo and tackle “are using false data and emotion instead of sound science to further their political agenda.” An article on the NRA’s website discounts research into lead’s effect on eagles, California condors and humans who eat animals shot with lead ammo.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation also says there is “no sound scientific evidence that the use by hunters of traditional ammunition is causing harm to wildlife populations.” The group says concerns about human consumption of animals shot with lead ammo are “nothing more than a scare tactic” used by anti-hunting groups to “advance their political agenda.”

Experts: Harmful evidence 'overwhelming'

On the other side of the debate, anti-lead activists cite reams of scientific research, including some of the same research labeled as invalid by those who seek to protect the use of lead ammo and tackle.

A study of lead fragments in hunter-harvested wild game in North Dakota, for example, led the North Dakota Department of Health to recommend that pregnant women and children younger than 6 avoid eating any venison harvested with lead bullets. Anti-lead groups cite the recommendations as evidence of lead’s potential harm; the NRA and National Shooting Sports Foundation both say there was nothing in the research that should cause any alarm.

On the wildlife front, various studies have shown fish, birds and other animals ingest lead deposited in their environment by spent shells or snagged fishing tackle. Scavengers such as condors, vultures and eagles are also at risk, research has shown, when they eat gut piles or carcasses of animals shot with lead ammo.

Last year, 15 experts from some of the nation’s most renowned medical and scientific institutions co-signed an anti-lead ammunition editorial in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

“No rational deliberation about the use of lead-based ammunition can ignore the overwhelming evidence for the toxic effects of lead,” they wrote, “or that the discharge of lead bullets and shot into the environment poses significant risks of lead exposure to humans and wildlife.”

Unique activist bridges divide

One of the few people attempting to bridge both sides of the debate is Ben Smith, a non-lead outreach coordinator for the Institute of Wildlife Studies in Tres Pinos, Calif.

Far from a stereotypical West Coast, academic activist, Smith grew up on a California farm hunting pheasants and waterfowl and was once a top competitive angler. He’s trying to inspire a voluntarily switch to nontoxic alternatives and said government regulations, such as California’s scheduled 2019 statewide ban on lead ammunition, can sometimes be counterproductive by inciting a backlash from hunters who might have eventually switched on their own.

The interest groups seeking to ban lead can also be self-defeating, Smith said, simply because of their identities. Some of the groups are animal-rights or anti-hunting oriented, and their involvement sparks distrust in the hunting and fishing communities.

“Their resistance is largely just a push back against the Humane Society and other groups,” Smith said.

Further push back from hunters come from outdated ideas about nontoxic alternatives, Smith said. When lead shot was banned from waterfowl hunting in 1991, alternative shells offered inferior performance at far higher prices. That’s changed dramatically over the years. Smith and others interviewed for this story acknowledge that nontoxic ammo remains more expensive in some instances, but the gap has narrowed and in some cases even closed.

He also has studies showing concerns about the performance of nontoxic ammunition are no longer based in reality.

“The original stuff was junk,” Smith said, referring to nontoxic ammo of the early 1990s. “So people still have this memory of it being garbage. They still have this memory of what it used to be, and they’re not necessarily savvy about the most recent products available.”

Experience-based perception is another problem, Smith said. Game-bird hunters who use lead are accustomed to shooting farther in front of birds. When hunters switch to steel, they no longer need to shoot as far out front because steel flies faster. But that adjustment can be difficult for hunters conditioned by decades of habit, Smith said, and they sometimes blame steel for their misses.

Science shot down by experience

No amount of research or outreach seems likely to sway some hunters from opinions formed by long hours in the field.

Randy Vallery, owner of the High Plains Game Ranch near Nisland, said harder, higher-velocity steel shot is not as effective as lesser-velocity, softer lead for pheasant hunting.

“Just from what I’ve seen, it seems like steel shot will do a pass-through, and sometimes you’ll have more crippled birds,” Vallery said.

He thinks lead, which he said is made to “mushroom out a little bit” on impact, cause more trauma and is more effective at killing birds rather than merely wounding them.

Vallery said the current regulation on lead shot in South Dakota — a ban on public land, but not on private land — is a good balance that offers sufficient protection against lead’s harmful effects while still allowing hunters some freedom.

“We don’t want to over regulate ourselves,” he said.

As the debate plays out in the hunting fields of rural America and in the halls of Congress, use of lead in ammunition shows no signs of slowing.

Statistics kept by the U.S. Geological Survey on lead consumption for ammunition are published only through 2011, but they show a growth trend since 2003 after a period of decline since the mid-1990s.

In 2011, 69,200 metric tons of lead was used in ammunition. The experts who co-signed last year’s editorial in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives said that poses unnecessary risks.

“Given the availability of non-lead ammunition for shooting and hunting, the use of lead-based ammunition that introduces lead into the environment can be reduced and eventually eliminated,” they wrote. “This seems to be a reasonable and equitable action to protect the health of humans and wildlife.”

Contact Seth Tupper at

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