By Douglas Claycomb, Outdoor Ethics Chair
In the final decades of the twentieth century, remarkable progress was realized in the reduction of lead in our environment. Prior to the 1970s, lead was ubiquitous; it was in our house paint, gasoline, pottery, and plumbing. We were not only poisoning our environment, but also ourselves--and we knew it. So we rolled up our sleeves, found non-toxic alternatives, and regulated lead.
Because of these efforts, very little lead is being released into our environment through these routes any more. Lead pipes, for example, have been replaced by copper and plastic, and solder is lead-free. Instead of lead, zinc and titanium are used to produce pigments in today’s house paint and ethanol serves in place of tetraethyl lead to boost octane levels in our gasoline. In each case, viable alternative materials and techniques were developed in conjunction with lead regulations so that the environment was protected and livelihoods and economies were not up-ended in the process--a win-win.
So, what next? Where is progress feasible? Where are there both a lead contamination problems and viable alternatives? Fishing and hunting. Nearly all fishing sinkers and the large majority firearms projectiles are still lead. This would not be a problem except for the fact that almost every time an angler loses his or her rig and darn near each time a hunter shoots, lead ends up strewn on the bottom of a waterway, littering the forest, or lodged in the flesh of wounded game. This “lost lead” is an inevitable part of fishing and hunting.
This is a lot of lead. And it does not break down. It persists, accumulating in our environment year after year. Furthermore, lead is highly toxic. One does not need to be a scientist to conclude that scattering it across our woods and waters is a bad idea. And, although the hazards posed by this “lost lead” to humans and to the environment are multiple, birds are the most vulnerable to its toxic effects.
Lost lead has a nasty habit of showing up in birds’ digestive systems. Birds eat it. Ducks and other birds mistake it for grit--thinking they are getting sand and pebbles for their gizzards. They are just birds, and cannot tell the difference between a pebble and a fishing sinker. Eagles and other scavengers ingest lead too, but for another reason; they inadvertently consume lead-contaminated carrion. How does this carrion become contaminated? It is the residue of animals which have either consumed lead themselves or have been “peppered” by a hunter’s lead projectile and the lead stayed in them.
We know that lead from hunting and fishing is a problem and fortunately the solution is right before us. Lead has been outlawed for waterfowl hunting nationwide since 1991 and it is prohibited in California’s condor country. Lead fishing tackle is prohibited in many National Parks and in Maine--to protect loons. And it works out just fine because there is a multitude of viable, non-toxic alternatives. Tin, steel, and tungsten fishing sinkers are offered at most tackle shops. Non-toxic pellets (of steel, tungsten, bismuth) for shotguns have been around since the 1970s and copper bullets are widely available for centerfire rifles. Even shotgun slugs are offered in copper and other non-lead options. These options are every bit as effective as lead (sometimes even more so) and they cost only a little bit more. Given these perfectly viable, affordable, effective and available non-toxic alternatives, we seem to have an easy fix. Right?
Wrong! Since lead was prohibited for waterfowl in 1991, no significant wide-reaching progress has been realized in the U.S. So, what is the hold-up? Part of the problem is that hunters and anglers, by and large, resist lead regulations. Why is this? Surely hunters and anglers know that good hunting and fishing are found in healthy, uncontaminated woods and waters. And surely they know lead is poisonous. So why would hunters and anglers want to contaminate the very environment upon which their pursuits depend? Why would hunters eschew lead paint in their homes yet willingly season their own family’s table fare with it, especially when non-toxic options are right there on the store shelf?
Hunters and anglers are not the problem. They are victims like the rest of us, of a system where public opinion is swayed by moneyed interest groups and their slick use of media to distort facts, to produce wedge issues which encourage tribalism, and then to exploit the very cleavages they create for their own benefit. In the case of lead, three factors have conspired to make the problem seem intractable. First, the NRA has successfully misled hunters by conflating lead regulations with gun-rights. Second, the biggest economic beneficiaries of fishing and hunting, manufacturers and retailers represented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and American Sportfishing Association, have exaggerated the cost of non-toxic alternatives--saying lead regulations would make fishing and hunting too expensive, pricing common people out. And third is the fact that most hunters and anglers already live in rural, government-regulation-averse, America.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, Interior Secretary Dan Ashe idealistically (but naively) issued Order 219, phasing out lead projectiles for hunting on National Wildlife Refuge lands. Although scientists and environmentalists knew it was a common-sense step in the right direction, it never stood a chance. The current Interior Secretary revoked it immediately and was congratulated by the NRA for it and then heralded as a “true friend of the American Sportsman” by the NSSF.
Lead is cheap and plentiful and the manufacturers of ammunition and fishing tackle hope to keep production rates growing and to protect their profit margins by continuing to use it. By aligning with the NRA and the various trade groups who oppose lead regulations, hunters and anglers are hurting the environment and undermining the long-term viability of the very same woods and waters upon which their pursuits rely. And they are possibly sickening themselves by eating their lead-laced game to boot. But here is the worst part: the NRA and the industry trade groups are duping hunters and anglers into advocating against regulations which would be in their own best interest--playing them for chumps.
Although sweeping regulation like the 1991 waterfowl lead ban are not in the offing at the moment, a number of states are taking small steps. For example, in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the lead shot is extended beyond waterfowl to also include turkeys and small game. And it has worked. Hunters still bag game and lead contamination is held in check. Currently, there is another small, but positive, proposal. The Minnesota DNR has convened a Nontoxic Shot Advisory Committee and is considering requiring hunters to use non-toxic shot for small game hunting in all Wildlife Management Area except those in the northeastern “forest zone.” This would not apply to private land but at least it is something. For now, in this current political circumstance, we are fortunate to be discussing it at all.
Hunters and anglers are uniquely positioned at the moment to be the agents of progress on lead in the environment. They could be the force that re-establishes the lead-reduction momentum of the 1970s and 80s and they would also reap the benefits--better fishing and hunting and healthier fare for their families’ supper tables.