Fly fishing rod

USFWS Lead Munitions & Tackle Ban Generates Controversy

If you follow me as a writer, you probably know that I also write about guns. As a safety instructor, I end up covering a wide variety of topics, from rights to liability to equipment to fun. Regardless of your position on firearms, I think most of you would agree that environmental protection is very important and that hunting and shooting sports are significant issues environmental. And, like in most other areas of modern life, there are clean technologies that can reduce or eliminate environmental damage.

Recent announcements from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announcing the opening of certain sanctuaries for population management hunts have been well received by hunters, but there is a catch: ammunition and lead tackle will only be not allowed for people who obtain permission to hunt and fish in these refuges.

A bit of context

Before we get to the specifics of what the USFWS offers, let’s talk a bit about why people use lead for hunting and fishing.

If you watch the first few minutes of the video above, you will see that a modern firearm and a piston (combustion) engine are not so different. A propellant is burned, which creates pressure, which creates a thrust force. In the case of a gasoline car, the piston can only be pushed until it returns for the next burn and push. In a firearm, the bullet acts like a piston, but is pushed entirely out of the machine.

One of the main challenges with firearm accuracy is having enough weight and sectional density to fly straight, carry energy to the target, and do enough damage on impact. . This requires the ball (or most of it) to be constructed from dense materials. Lead isn’t that close to being the densest element on the atomic table, but there are issues with the densest metals. For example, mercury cannot hold its shape at room temperature, plutonium, iridium, uranium, platinum and gold are expensive (and some of them are radioactive), and tungsten (a common alternative) is also expensive.

Lead turned out to be a double-edged sword. Lead is relatively dense, easy to melt and pour into molds, and is quite inexpensive. Thus, it has been widely used as a ball material for the past hundreds of years. Being able to mold it easily also made it useful for fishing weights, so it was widely used there as well. But, as with lead-based paints and leaded gasoline, low costs and ease of processing do not mean that lead is not toxic. Just like with humans, ingesting or breathing in these substances is downright terrible for the development of young animals and the health of adult animals.

Hunting and fishing tend to lead in two ways.

For hunting, shots that do not land on a target leave lead in the environment, but usually in such small quantities that they have negligible impact on the environment. But, when hunting with a lead bullet, the bullet itself and fragments of it end up in the bowels. Hunters tend to gut the animal in the field to reduce what they have to do and prevent bacteria from breaking down the meat too quickly, leaving behind a “pile of intestines”. Commonly, tripe is eaten by coyotes, vultures, condors, and other animals.

When there is lead in these intestines, it ends up in the animals that come to eat it. This has led to the decline of entire species, including the California Condor. This 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 shotshells, or given raffle tickets to bag and remove heaps of lead-contaminated intestines from the backcountry. This voluntary program has reduced lead casing piles by approximately 88%. These efforts have greatly aided the return of the Condor population, especially to the Kaibab Plateau and the Grand Canyon.

In fishing, the problem is much simpler to explain. Anyone who’s been fishing knows that sometimes you lose your tackle or have to cut the line after it gets snagged on the bottom. It leaves lead in the water, which is obviously bad. Lead material can also be directly ingested by escaping fish or those that are caught and released.

Some readers are probably wondering why there hasn’t been a nationwide ban on lead bullets for hunting and lead tackle, and the issue is mostly centered on cost. Past efforts to ban lead ammunition and equipment from public lands have been met with accusations that the government is trying to price hunters and make outdoor sports inaccessible to poorer Americans. Prices for lead-free ammunition are about $10 more per box of 20 rounds, or about 50 cents per shot.

As we all know, gun owners are very sensitive to government rules and gun laws, so even this relatively small additional cost is met with stiff opposition, and usually quick repeals. these rules whenever the political winds change.

The USFWS’ Last Lead Ammunition Ban

Although I know some readers are opposed to hunting, you must understand that hunting is not indiscriminate. Game and fisheries authorities at the state and federal levels set limits on the number of animals that can be taken in a given year to have a healthy and sustainable population in a given area. This hunt was once practiced by animals like jaguars and wolves, which have either disappeared completely or lost large numbers in the United States since the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, hunters replace the role of predators in the ecosystem.

It’s obviously not a perfect system, but it’s the one we have and it could be improved.

For this reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to open 19 wildlife sanctuaries, totaling about 54,000 additional acres, to anglers and hunters. As with all fishing and hunting activities, the numbers would be controlled, but the USFWS does not want anyone using lead ammunition and tackle in these new areas at all.

Some outdoor enthusiasts are just happy that new areas are opening up for hunting and fishing, but others think it’s a slippery slope to further lead ammunition bans.

“The proposed ban on lead on refuges opens the barn door to banning lead ammunition and equipment on all federal lands, including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Preserves and other areas,” the Sportsmen’s Vice President of Government Affairs said. Alliance, Todd Adkins, said in a press release. “It provides a legal basis for radical animal and environmental rights groups to sue the federal government to impose additional bans on lead. In effect, President Biden hands extremists a howitzer to fire on the federal government until the use of lead in ammunition and hunting and fishing equipment is prohibited everywhere.

This fear is not entirely unfounded, as environmental groups have sued the federal government over lead ammunition, but this has largely been limited to new areas open to hunting and not entire public lands.

Clean technologies 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 is cost-competitive with traditional lead bullets of comparable performance. Although I haven’t seen this happen for hunting ammunition, there are pistol cartridges with bullets made from a mixture of copper and polymer. Although not useful for hunting, it shows that lead can be replaced by other castable materials. But work will be needed to handle the much higher velocities of shotguns.

It would be a good idea for athletes, government agencies and environmental groups to team up for research in this area. If hunters and anglers can get comparable alternatives in hand, it would eliminate the financial and gun rights consequences of lead ammunition bans. Anyone could win with this result.

Featured Image: Waterfowl fly at dusk at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Image by Tom Koerner/USFWS (Public Domain).


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