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A Gratuitous Parting Shot

hunter in safety gear aims a shotgun at a bird in flight
photo by Torrey Wiley

I have never been a hunter and I would be a legitimate contender in any contest for America’s worst fisherman. However, I do know people who hunt and fish (successfully, even).

When I lived in Montana decades ago, I recall a friend of mine who hunted game birds sharing a meal with me. He mentioned to his guests that he had used steel shot, rather than the more common lead variety, to bring down the birds so as not to risk leaving lead pellets a guest might accidentally swallow – or, more practically, so as not to scatter lead around the area where he hunted even though then, in the 1970s, there were no serious restrictions on doing so.

Today some states do restrict the use of lead shot at certain times of year, in certain areas or when hunting particular animals. And, since 1991, federal regulation forbids using lead ammunition when hunting waterfowl. My friend hunted upland birds, such as grouse and partridge, rather than waterfowl, such as ducks or geese. In Montana, he would be allowed to use lead even today if he wished.

In a truly midnight regulatory step earlier this month, however, the departing head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a swipe at lead ammunition that was largely, if not entirely, gratuitous. On Jan. 19, then-Director Daniel Ashe signed a plan that would require hunters to use nontoxic bullets at national wildlife refuges and protected wetlands by 2022. The plan would also restrict the use of lead fishing tackle in such areas.

To read some coverage of the decision, it would seem terribly clear-cut. Research has demonstrated that lead bullet fragments can poison birds that ingest them. This is, in fact, the logic underpinning the ban on using lead shot for hunting waterfowl; birds would retrieve them from lakebeds and swamps. Similarly, some aquatic birds such as loons swallow lost fishing weights when they mistake them for pebbles. A lead “sinker” lost in a pond or a lake can easily prove deadly to a bird that ingests it.

Supporters of the decision often give the impression that not only is banning lead ammunition and fishing weights good for wildlife, but that there is basically no downside, since substitutes are readily available. Moreover, some of the media coverage has suggested the National Rifle Association’s opposition is merely the organization’s reflexive reaction to any attempt to limit firearm use in any way.

The real issue is more complicated. Some shotguns, especially older ones, cannot safely fire steel shot, which remains the most common substitute for lead. If the gun’s barrel isn’t harder than the steel ammunition, the barrel can sustain damage when the gun is discharged. Firing a damaged shotgun is unsafe for the hunter and anyone who happens to be nearby. Nor is it especially cheap to replace an old gun with a newer model, especially when you consider that hunting is a sport that reaches across income levels.

Some hunters have also noted that steel shot tends to tear up the bird when compared to lead, which does not make for great eating and leaves a bloody mess. Some detractors of steel shot assert that it is more likely to wound birds without killing them outright, leaving them to suffer long after they have eluded the hunter. In addition, steel shot generally won’t scatter quite as widely as lead, meaning that hunters need to be more accurate, closer or both to bring down their targets. Some observers have suggested that the waterfowl ban weeded out some of the less-skilled participants in the sport.

Many people would argue that the ban on using lead shot to hunt waterfowl has already solved the main problem, as far as we know. There is not much evidence that lead in upland bird habitats has caused significant damage, although as my friend taught me many years ago, you may not want to risk serving lead pellets to your dinner guests. (On the other hand, your teeth or dental work may survive an accidental encounter with soft lead; not so with steel.)

Nonhunters may find it counterintuitive that hunting and fishing are allowed on national wildlife refuges in the first place. After all, a place you get shot at doesn’t sound much like a “refuge” to most of us. However, hunting and fishing can serve real conservation purposes. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own website explains, regulated hunting in these areas can serve as a check on out-of-control populations. Moreover, many hunters are deeply invested in preserving such refuges as a source of the very creatures they hunt for food, sport or both.

In fact, in the big picture the biggest harm done by the new regulation may be to the sport of hunting and its participants’ commitment to conservation. Hunters are often major sources of money and political support in the preservation of wetlands and wildlife habitats. After all, who is most invested in keeping duck populations healthy? Well, presumably ducks, but they don’t vote. After ducks? Duck hunters.

If regulations make hunting too expensive, or too inconvenient, or too difficult, you will eventually have fewer hunters. In the long run, that could mean less money available for wildlife management.

Where fishing is concerned, the issue seems a little clearer. That’s because you can get high-quality weights that are somewhat more expensive but a reasonable replacement for lead, such as tungsten or tin. Or you can use low-quality sinkers made from granite, which are as cheap (or cheaper) than lead and have no environmental consequences at all; as “Game & Fish” magazine observed, “If you lose one in the water, you’ve really done little more than throw a stone in the lake!” Nor is there any need to replace all your existing equipment in order to use the substitute weights. Unlike hunters, few fishers would be put off entirely by losing access to lead.

If the new rule were sound, it could have been discussed earlier than the day before the inauguration of a new administration. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service threw it into the air as a gift to the environmental lobby. The Trump administration now may or may not completely reverse the rule.

As much as I sympathize with the instinct to simply scrap it, the proposal deserves real consideration. Maybe we don’t need lead fishing weights anymore, in our wildlife refuges or anywhere. Or maybe we should continue to leave these regulations in the hands of the states, who have handled it themselves up until now.

Whatever ultimately happens, the Obama administration’s potshot on its way out the door was unwarranted.

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