If you follow me as a writer, you probably know that I also write about firearms. As a safety instructor, I end up covering a broad variety of topics, ranging from rights to responsibility to gear to just having fun. Whatever your position on firearms, I do think most here would agree that protecting the environment is highly important, and there are important environmental issues in hunting and the shooting sports. And, like in most other areas of modern life, there are clean technologies that can reduce or eliminate environmental harms.
Recent announcements by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announcing the opening of some refuges to population management hunts have been welcome among hunters, but there’s a catch: lead ammunition and tackle won’t be allowed for people who get permission to hunt and fish in these refuges.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of what USFWS is proposing, let’s talk a bit about why people use lead for hunting and fishing to begin with.
If you watch the first couple minutes of the above video, you’ll see that a modern firearm and a piston (combustion) engine aren’t that different. A propellant is burned, which creates pressure, which creates a pushing force. In the case of a gas-powered car, the piston can only be pushed so far before it comes back for the next burn and push. In a firearm, the bullet acts like a piston, but gets pushed out of the machine entirely.
One of the key challenges with a firearm’s accuracy is having enough weight and sectional density to fly straight, carry energy to the target, and do sufficient damage upon impact. This requires that the bullet (or most of it) be built from dense materials. Lead isn’t that close to being the densest element on the atomic table, but there are problems with most denser metals. For example, mercury can’t hold a shape at room temperatures, plutonium, iridium, uranium, platinum, and gold are expensive (and some of them are radioactive), and tungsten (one common alternative) is expensive, too.
Lead has proven to be a two-edged sword. Lead is relatively dense, easy to melt and pour into molds, and is pretty cheap. So, it found widespread use as bullet material over the last several hundred years. Being able to mold it easily also lead to it being useful for fishing weights, so it found widespread use there, too. But, like lead-based paints and leaded gasoline, the low costs and ease of processing doesn’t mean that lead isn’t toxic. Just as with humans, ingesting or breathing the stuff in is downright terrible for development of young animals and the health of adult animals.
Hunting and fishing tends to leave lead behind in two ways.
For hunting, the shots that don’t end up in a target do leave lead in the environment, but generally in such small amounts as to have a negligible environmental impact. But, when you hunt with a lead bullet, the bullet itself and fragments of it end up in the guts. Hunters tend to gut the animal in the field to reduce what they have to carry out and prevent bacteria from decomposing the meat too quickly, leaving a “gut pile” behind. Generally, the guts get eaten by coyotes, vultures, condors, and other animals.
When there’s lead in these gut piles, it ends up in the animals that come to eat it. This has led to the decline of whole species, including the California Condor. This has led to a total ban on lead hunting ammunition in California as well as a voluntary ammunition trade program in Arizona. In the latter case, hunters are offered lead-free ammunition in exchange for lead cartridges, or are given raffle tickets for bagging up and removing lead-contaminated gut piles from the backcountry. This voluntary program has reduced lead gut piles by an estimated 88%. These efforts have greatly helped the Condor’s population return, especially on the Kaibab Plateau and the Grand Canyon.
When it comes to fishing, the problem is much simpler to explain. Anyone who has gone fishing knows that you sometimes lose your tackle or have to cut the line after it gets snagged on the bottom. This leaves lead behind in the water, which is obviously bad. Lead tackle can also be directly ingested by fish who get away or those that are caught and released.
Some readers are probably wondering why there hasn’t been a national ban on lead bullets for hunting and lead tackle, and the problem is mostly centered around costs. Past efforts to ban lead ammo and tackle from public lands have been met with accusations that the government is trying to price out hunters and make outdoor sports inaccessible to poorer Americans. Prices for lead-free ammo are around $10 more per box of 20 rounds, or about 50 cents per shot.
As we all know, gun owners are very sensitive about government rules and laws applying to guns, so even that relatively small additional cost runs into stiff opposition, and usually quick repeals of such rules whenever the political winds shift.
The Latest USFWS Lead Ammunition Ban
While I know some readers are opposed to hunting, you do have to understand that hunting isn’t done indiscriminately. Game and Fish authorities at the state and federal levels set limits on how many animals can be taken in a given year to have a healthy and sustainable population in a given area. This hunting used to be done by animals like jaguars and wolves, which have either gone completely extinct or lost serious numbers in the United States since the 18th and 19th centuries. So, hunters are replacing the role of predators in the ecosystem.
This obviously isn’t a perfect system, but it’s the one we have and could be improved upon.
For this reason, the Fish and Wildlife service wants to open 19 wildlife refuges, a total of about 54,000 additional acres, to fishermen and hunters. Like all fishing and hunting, numbers would be controlled, but USFWS doesn’t want anybody using lead ammunition and tackle in these new areas at all.
Some outdoorsmen are just happy that new areas will be open to hunting and fishing, but others think it’s a slippery slope to additional lead ammunition bans.
“The proposed lead ban on refuges kicks open the barn door to banning lead ammunition and tackle on all federal land, including national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, national preserves, and other areas,” the vice president of government affairs for the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Todd Adkins, said in a press release. “It provides a legal basis for radical animal rights and environmental groups to sue the federal government to force additional lead bans. In effect, President Biden is handing extremists a howitzer to fire at the federal government until the use of lead in ammunition and tackle for hunting and fishing is banned everywhere.”
This fear isn’t entirely unfounded, as environmental groups have sued the federal government over lead ammunition, but this has largely been contained to new areas opened to hunting and not the entirety of public lands.
Cleantech Could Solve This Impasse
This is an area where technology could prove to be a solution. To solve this impasse, we need lead-free ammunition that’s cost-competitive with traditional lead bullets with comparable performance. While I haven’t seen this happen for hunting ammunition, there are pistol cartridges with bullets made from a mixture of copper and polymer. While not useful for hunting, it does show that lead can be replaced with other moldable materials. But, work will be needed to handle the much higher velocities in hunting rifles.
It would be a good idea for sportsmen, government agencies, and environmental groups to team up on research in this area. If hunters and fishermen can get comparable alternatives in hand, it would take the financial and gun rights sting out of lead ammunition bans. Everyone could win with that outcome.
Featured image: Waterfowl fly at twilight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Image by Tom Koerner/USFWS (Public Domain).
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