So much for sober-minded consultation, careful study of the data, and thoughtful analysis from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and other experts on his staff. Before the chair in his office was even warm, and just after he dismounted from his horse, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke undid a director’s order to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle over the next five years on more than 150 million acres of National Wildlife Refuges and other agency lands and waterways. The nullified policy had a simple and good purpose: it was 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 of 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 policy after careful deliberation last year. What Zinke ignored is that less toxic forms of ammunition are field-tested, cost-competitive, and readily available in the marketplace. Leaders of hunting groups huddled around him for his first official action, cheering on an action inimical to the imperatives of conservation and wildlife enhancement.
The NRA and the same crowd of hunting lobbying groups stamped their feet a quarter century ago when George H.W. Bush’s Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead ammunition for hunting waterfowl. President Bush, himself a hunter, showed his true commitment to conservation, even as detractors portended the demise of waterfowl sports.
History has proved them wrong – badly and unmistakably wrong. Waterfowl hunting has continued unabated, but just without the collateral poisoning of so many birds and other creatures.
And today, a quarter century later, there’s absolutely no compelling reason not to require hunters and anglers to switch to these alternative metals for their ammunition. Just like there’s no reason for oil companies to not use non-leaded gasoline or paint makers to keep lead out of their paint.
We’ve known for thousands of years that lead is a deadly toxin. The lingering effects of lead pipes still pose hazards for communities, as we’ve 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 angler? Why oppose it? And why make it your first official action?
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.
Hunters and anglers 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, given our ability to manufacture better ammunition.
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. News stories continually emerge, including recently in Oregon and Pennsylvania, of dedicated, self-sacrificing wildlife rehabilitators struggling to treat predatory birds—including our own national symbol, the bald eagle—for acute lead poisoning. 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. Why risk it?
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. Ten years after the FWS required the use of non-lead shot for the hunting of waterfowl nationwide, 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, are starting to act to remove lead sources from their forests, despite the anti-conservation bluster and threats of political retribution from the NRA. 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.
Sport hunters – including Mr. Zinke — often cite the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. But too often they 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.
This is a very inauspicious start for Mr. Zinke, and it smacks of a political sop to the NRA. The nation’s wildlife and the health of our public lands depend on both his independence and tangible acts of policy that align with conservation-laden rhetoric.
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