New Federal Lead Rule Will Have Hunters and Fishers Looking to Safer Alternatives

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting, the agency is expanding its protections.

On January 19, Dan Ashe, the outgoing director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), issued an order to phase out lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle on all 568 million acres of agency-managed lands and waters.

The mandate came more than 25 years after the USFWS issued its first lead-ammunition ban in 1991, which eliminated the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting nationwide. Last month's order follows in the footsteps of a recent law from California. In 2013, the state became the first to pass a total lead-ammo ban, which was spearheaded and co-sponsored by Audubon California. But throughout the rest of the country, the metal is still widely used for upland hunting, shooting sports, and fishing.

Under “Director’s Order 219,” regional USFWS supervisors must work with state hunting officials to replace all lead-based gear used on agency property with nontoxic alternatives by 2022. The service declined to comment on the new rule, stating that its implications are currently under review. As its stands, the order will remain in effect until it’s “amended, superseded, or revoked.” Whether the new administration, which has the power to undo such orders, will do so, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that a wealth of evidence shows how lead ammunition and tackle can be poisonous to humans and wildlife.

The problem crops up often in the avian world: The metal causes neurological and reproductive problems in birds, resulting in paralysis and tremors, organ failure, and eventually death. Before the ban in 1991, an estimated two million ducks and geese died of lead poisoning every year. The spent shot also tainted lakes and ponds (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the toxin is extremely persistent in water). Out West, lead is the leading cause of death for endangered California Condors: At least 30 have been killed in the past 10 years after ingesting ammunition. Lead tackle, on the other hand, has been plaguing loons for decades. Between 1989 and 2011, 124 adults were lost to sinkers and jigs in just New Hampshire.

Today, lead poisoning in waterfowl is way down; but it’s still a major issue for eagles, vultures, and other raptors. For example, a three-year study on poisoned condors predicted that without lead-shot regulations, the population could crash from 400 to 23 birds in the next decade.

“What opponents [to this new directive] don’t like to acknowledge is that lead bans are simple to implement and don’t impair their ability to hunt, yet have huge benefits on wildlife populations,” says Garrison Frost, Audubon California’s marketing and communications director. Frost helped head up the campaign against lead in his home state, and is now hoping to see the same progress on the national level.

Concerned bird advocates are doing all they can to reduce mortalities in places where lead still can be used. Some focus their efforts around educating hunters on how to buy and use alternatives such as shotgun and rifle bullets made from copper, tungsten, bismuth, and metal alloys. Fishers, meanwhile, can opt for steel fishing tackle.

Many in the sporting community are still not on board with such changes. Because ammunition and tackle made from non-lead metals can vary in size, shape, and weight, the performance might differ from that of traditional products, opponents say. (Ballistics tests show that lead-free bullets, one type of ammunition, have essentially the same behavior and effectiveness.) Alternative types usually cost more, too: A box of 100 30-caliber lead hunting bullets costs $24, while a box of 100 30-caliber copper bullets rings in at $34. And they’re currently not as easy to find on the market. This makes the switch more difficult and time-consuming, Chris Parish, project director of the Condor Reintroduction Project at the Peregrine Fund, says.

To help make the transition smoother, Parish holds workshops at places where he’s likely to encounter hunters, such as at shooting ranges and nature fairs. “Like it or not, they’re the only ones who can solve this problem,” says Parish, who is a hunter himself. “The more we can reach with good information, the smaller this problem will become.”

Other anti-lead groups are trying to further their reach online. The website was created by the Institute for Wildlife Studies in 2009 to provide easy access to the latest news and research on safer technologies. “People get used to doing something a certain way,” says Leland Brown, the non-lead hunting education coordinator at the Oregon Zoo and website contributor. “But when there’s a ton of information in front of them, especially when it’s online and easy to find, they tend to be more willing to try something new.” 

Of course, the most direct way to confront the problem is through policy changes that prevent lead from entering the environment. After Governor Jerry Brown signed the California ban in 2013, hunters within the state had to start switching to non-lead ammunition. The law, which is being introduced in phases, is now in its second phase and will go into full effect by 2019. 

Some states, including OhioMaine, and Wyoming, are already regulating the use of lead ammunition and/or tackle. And while California’s progress has been instrumental in setting the stage for the recovery of the condor and other species, Frost says widespread action is needed to save birds in greater numbers. 

Politicians will continue to contest federal lead bans, Frost says. But even so, "the science is clear: We need to get rid of lead.”