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Lead Ban Chronicles – Copper Vs Frangibles, Check The Facts

October 20, 2016

Lead Ban ChroncilesBeen a while since you’ve seen this, huh?  Trust me, it’s not because the lead ammo ban movement is dead.  Oh no, not by any means.  While the anti-lead forces have run into road blocks (e.g. the European Commission recently announced that it would not pursue a ban on the use of lead ammunition), they’re still pushing… and in some cases, they’re making headway (I’m looking at you, Wolverine State).  And, of course, California is well on its way to completing its implementation of the statewide ban of lead ammo for all hunting.

The thing that got me to dust off the familiar little icon above, though, is an “article” I saw this morning (courtesy of my friend Albert, at the SoCal Bowhunter blog).  The title of the link is what caught my eye, of course, “Copper Bullets Can Be Inhumane“.

The argument isn’t new, and as I read through the first part of the “article”, I recognized most of the talking points, such as:

  • Copper bullets don’t expand sufficiently to leave a major wound channel.
  • Copper bullets don’t perform well at lower velocities.
  • Copper bullets don’t deliver enough “shock” to kill with imperfect shot placement.
  • Copper bullets are inaccurate.
  • Copper bullets kill slowly (due to the aforementioned factors).

I won’t argue with some of these points.  For example, I don’t believe copper performs its best at low velocity.  Anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming, when talking to friends who are shooting game with copper shotgun slugs and muzzleloaders, especially when shooting at the longer ranges afforded by modern guns and powders.  This is why I recommend (when asked, and sometimes when not asked) that if you’re hunting with these, traditionally short-range firearms, you use them as such.  Even lead slugs or muzzleloading bullets don’t offer consistently good terminal ballistics outside of a certain distance (modern sabots may extend that range… slightly).

I also recommend that, if you don’t have to use lead free slugs or muzzleloader bullets, don’t.  Most of the studies have shown that these big, slow-moving projectiles present very little risk when it comes to environmental impact, such as being consumed by scavenger birds.  They seldom fragment or disintegrate due to their low velocities, and when they don’t pass through, they are relatively easy to recover from the carcass.

But when you load a modern copper bullet in a centerfire rifle, and deliver the bullet at modern velocities, it generally performs quite well.  While I can’t claim, as the “article’s” author does, to have killed over 8000 head of game in my research, I’ve killed a lot, my friends and hunting companions have killed a lot, and as a guide, my clients have also killed a lot.  I’ve seen field performance enough to feel that I can make a pretty valid comparison between lead ammo and copper.  In that comparison, copper has consistently held up very well.

To be completely up front, over the course of that experience I’ve seen occasional “failures” with copper bullets.  But, and here’s the kicker, I’ve also witnessed a fair share of anomalous performance from lead projectiles.  When you look at the physics involved in propelling a relatively tiny projectile, at supersonic speed, into a target composed of a mix of bone, soft tissue, and muscle, it’s amazing that ballistic technology has achieved any semblance of consistency.  The tiniest factor can affect the outcome.

And sure, copper bullets don’t kill quickly when they’re poorly placed.  Neither does any bullet, though.  If you shoot an animal in the gut, you’re probably going to have to track it.  If you shoot it in the ass, you’re probably going to lose it.  It doesn’t matter if the bullet is copper, lead, or uranium.  Animals are made up of all sorts of blood vessels and vital organs, though, and you don’t have to thread a needle to hit those vitals.  As much as I hate the saying, “it’s not the bullet but the placement,” I have to say it fits here.  Take the good shot, not just any shot, and you’ll kill cleanly and humanely.

It’s also a fact that copper ammo has come a long way, but it wasn’t always great.  Despite the author’s contention that copper ammo was originally presented as an environmental boon, the truth is that monolithic copper solids were designed, and effectively used, for dangerous big game for years before serious, public discussion of lead’s effects on the environment began.  It may be somewhat true that the introduction into the US was padded by ecological considerations, but I think it was primarily a plan to expand the market share.  However, those monolithic bullets are not made to expand, and many US hunters who adopted the early version complained of “pencil hole” wound channels and lost game.  Barnes, the primary producer of copper bullets at the time, stepped up their game and improved the bullets, overcoming various shortcomings.  The current variations of copper and lead-free bullets on the market today offer impressive terminal performance and accuracy, both in the lab and in the field.

How impressive?  Well, you’d have to fight me to make me give up the Nosler E-Tips I shoot in my 30-06 or the Barnes TSX that I use in my .325 wsm.  Even though I could switch back to lead ammo since moving out of California, I have no desire to do so.

Back to the “article”…

You have probably noticed, by the way, that when I reference the “article”, I use quotation marks.  Yes, it’s intentional, because as I continued to read, I soon came to the realization that it’s not an entirely objective piece at all… it’s an opinion piece, and on some level, an extended advertisement for DRT frangible bullets.  DRT, by the way, is officially Dynamic Research Technologies, but most folks recognize the short form of Dead Right There… a term popularized on certain hunting television programs.  It’s a slick bit of marketing, and kudos for coming up with it.  Also, note that what I’m writing here is not intended as a hit on DRT.  I’ve never used them, but by all accounts I’ve heard, they deliver exactly what they advertise.  In fact, not only am I not taking a pot shot at DRT, nor am I taking issue with Mr. Foster’s (the author) credentials, I’m going to step right up and say that, technically, the point he finally makes here is pretty solid… even incontrovertible.

What is that point?

When he gets to it, Foster is saying that the only way to ensure a quick, humane kill is to inflict massive tissue damage.  The best way to do that is with a bullet that not only hits hard, but expands explosively… e.g. frangible bullets such as those made by (surprise) DRT.  That’s an impossible point to argue, because even the least scientific mind can recognize the practical truth in it.  If you shoot an animal, even if you don’t hit vitals directly, a round that leaves a hole as big as a man’s fist, or bigger, is certainly more likely to result in quick death than one that leaves a wound channel that is only as big as a finger.

I hunted with frangibles in Texas, in order to test some ammo from a certain manufacturer.  My experience though, is that the additional tissue damage these bullets create is unacceptable for the meat hunter.  In one case, I lost over half the meat on an animal with a single shot.  In other instances, immediate meat loss was significant, but worse, the tiny fragments spread through a broad area.  Even though the meat was not mangled, it was peppered throughout with little bullet bits.  The manufacturers will tell you that these fragments are harmless, but the thought of it was enough to put me off my appetite.  (Tungsten, which was a component in the particular ammo I was testing, was later determined to be a carcinogen, and less stable than metallic lead.  Even the US military won’t use it.  The manufacturer I was testing for is no longer in business.  I do not know what DRT or other current manufacturers are using in their projectiles. )  In addition to meat damage, if you’re shooting for fur, consider that the damage may make any hides you collect worthless.

Frangible bullets do offer a specific level of safety, in some situations.  Since they are designed to pretty much disintegrate, they are not likely to ricochet or pass through the target and carry on downrange (which is why they are popular for home defense and some law enforcement applications).  For folks shooting in more densely populated areas where a ricochet or pass-through might be risky, frangibles are actually not the worst idea in the world.

A more important consideration, however, is the legality of frangible projectiles for big game hunting.  DRT is approved as a lead-free projectile by the CA DFW, as is Sinterfire, another manufacturer of frangible bullets.  However, CA regulations prohibit the use of frangible projectiles for the taking of big game.  So, my Golden State friends, remember that it’s not enough to simply see a bullet manufacturer on the “Lead Free List“.  Make sure that the projectile is legal for the game you want to hunt.  Not all states prohibit frangibles, by the way, but if you want to give them a try, you’d better check your local regs.

At the end, Foster does circle back to the argument that lead ban regulations that require a switch to copper are ill-considered, based on his argument that copper bullets are not humane… the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned regulation.  It’s an argument that was, and still is, trotted out regularly in the discussions of lead ammo bans, and while I think the reality trumps the theory in regards to copper bullet performance, it’s not entirely without merit.  I think there are, or should be, questions about the long term effects of lead alternatives, such as tungsten.  I also agree, at a higher level, that general bans on lead ammo are misdirected and unnecessary.

But if you do have to use lead free ammo, don’t believe the negative hype.

Like any other ammo change, you need to experiment until you find something that is accurate for your firearm, but between the major manufacturers, Barnes, Nosler, and Hornady, as well as Winchester and Remington, there’s almost certainly a bullet or cartridge that works well.  It’s certainly more expensive than the basic lead ammo.  For some hunters, that is a very real issue, but for most of us it is not, honestly, a limiting factor.  An awful lot of folks shoot “premium” ammo already, so we’re talking about a potential difference of a few bucks.  The biggest real issue I see is that it’s still difficult to find, except in the most common calibers.  If you don’t handload, you may have to start.  For example, it’s the only way I can feed my .325 wsm.

But when it comes to terminal performance, copper works, and it works well.

News And Reviews – CA Lead Law, MO Hog Regs, Rapala Skinning Knives, Browning Headlamps

June 29, 2016

I suppose a lot of folks think it’s a little early for hunting news and gear reviews, but the truth is that we’re just a couple of days out of July, and while most of the country is still sweating it out in the summer doldrums, and most sportsmen are focused on finned quarry; deer season is just around the corner in California.  A zone deer hunters will start bowhunting the second week of July.  South Carolina and a couple of other states will open up in August.

So, first the news…

Lead Ban ChroncilesCA hunters are reminded that the second phase of the lead ammo ban will come into effect on July 1.

This phase adds upland birds to the list of species that must be taken with lead-free ammunition.  Also, lead free shotgun ammo is now required for taking resident small game mammals, furbearing mammals, nongame mammals, nongame birds, and any wildlife for depredation purposes.  (For some reason, if it’s any help, you are still permitted to use lead shot for Eurasian collared doves.)  Remember that the lead ammo ban has no effect on ammo used for target shooting.  It is only for hunting.  The final phase of the lead ban will kick in on July 1, 2019.  You can learn more about the lead ban on CA DFW’s website.

Feral hogsIn Missouri, the State has determined that, when it comes to feral hogs, sport hunting and eradication efforts are not compatible.  As a result, the state is shutting down sport hunting for feral hogs on any lands owned or managed by the Missouri Dept of Conservation.  This does not affect hog hunters on private land.  Since I’m not a resident of MO, nor do I hunt there, I can’t speak to the impact on the Show Me State’s hunters, but there is an unsurprising uproar from that population.  Personally (not that my opinion is crucial here), it’s probably the right call.  As I mentioned in a Facebook post earlier, feral hogs are either a destructive pest that needs to be eradicated, or they’re a game animal.  It really doesn’t work to try to have it both ways.

Rapala Drop-Point SkinnerNow, on to some gear reviews…

Fishermen have known about Rapala fishing knives for eighty years (since 1936).  I’m pretty sure my first fillet knife sported that recognizable, light, wood handle and leather sheath.  It made sense as a “first” fishing knife, since it was not only inexpensive, but it was extremely durable.  I don’t remember where or how I finally lost that thing, but it survived years of harsh use in the saltwater environment.

I’ve graduated to a “professional” knife at this point, with the white, “comfort-grip” handle and stainless blade, but it’s still a Rapala… and it’s still affordable.

I was intrigued to get an email a couple of weeks back, informing me that Rapala is now adding the Classic Birch line of hunting knives to their long list of quality products.  Even better, they offered to send me one to check out.

Rapala drop point in handThe new line includes several classic designs:

  • 3.75″ Drop point (MSRP $34.99)
  • 4.5″ Clip point (MSRP $34.99)
  • 3.75 Gut hook (MSRP $39.99)
  • 4.5″ Skinner (MSRP $34.99)
  • 3.5″ Caping knife (MSRP $34.99)
  • 3.5″ Bird knife (MSRP $29.99)

While I’d love to get my hands on all of these, I could only pick one, so I asked for the drop point.  That’s the design I personally prefer for all-around work, and the 3.75″ blade is a handy size for anything from squirrels to hogs.

I’d love to tell you I put it to work right away, but the truth is that there’s nothing around here for me to skin right now.  Still, I did play with it around the kitchen for a bit.  The edge on the sample they sent me is wicked-sharp, which is no surprise for the Rapala knives (made in the same J Marttini factory in Finland that produces their classic fishing knives).  The wooden handle is rough, and almost feels unfinished.  However, after messing with it for a few minutes, I realized it gives me a really sure grip, even under water (in the sink).  I can’t wait to get this thing bloody, but that probably won’t happen until September or so.  You can bet I’ll report back on how it performs in the field as soon as I get the chance.

Browning Blackout 6VI’ve also been holding onto a new headlamp, the Browning Blackout 6v.  This particular light is part of Browning’s Black Label Tactical line, and it’s definitely built to take a beating. Instead of the plastic body that most of the consumer headlamps offer, the Blackout comes in a waterproof (to a meter) aluminum body.

If you’ve followed the Hog Blog for very long, you know I’ve got a soft spot for quality headlamps, and I’m always looking for the best thing I can get my hands on.  I’ve tried out a bunch of lights over the years, and while most of them were pretty good, I had yet to test one that I thought was suitable for blood trailing.  That’s sort of my grail, when it comes to this sort of thing, and I’d sort of decided that my bar might be set a little high.  I have seen a couple that would probably work, but those exist on a higher plane than I do as a simple blogger, so getting a test unit has been an exercise in frustration.  Even if I could test them, I think that the $250 – $300 price tag would dampen the enthusiasm of most hunters.

The Browning, though, at an MSRP of around $99, advertises a 730 lumen output and the pure, white light definitely looks bright enough to show blood on the ground.  Again, since nothing is currently in season, I haven’t been able to really put this to the test, but walking around the yard at night, this thing cuts right through the dark to show incredible detail.  The Blackout is a spot beam, and not adjustable, but that suits me fine.  It also offers two lower settings to conserve batteries, as well as a green mode to preserve night vision… which can be really nice when going into the stand in the wee early darkness.  I also think it’s going to be great in the canoe or kayak when duck season rolls around.

Are there downsides?  Sure, a couple…

The light is a little bulkier than I’d prefer for a headlamp.  It extends about 2.5″, and weighs almost six ounces.  That’s not really a lot, until you’ve worn it for a couple of hours.  Maybe I’m sensitive, but it starts to make my head hurt.  It does fit nicely over my Stetson, though, and is a lot more comfortable worn that way.

The lithium, CR123A batteries are a little pricier than AA or AAA, but this light does need the extra power to achieve that bright beam.  According to the literature, I should see about 3 hours of use at full power, though, and that’s pretty good.  A comparably bright, high-end ($275) headlamp runs down in about half that time.  On the lowest setting, it’s supposed to give me 48 hours of continuous use.

Like many of the high-powered LED lamps, the Browning gets really hot after a short time.  I mean really hot!  I didn’t really notice the heat while I was wearing it around the house for about an hour, until I reached up to turn it off.  I learned real quick to be cautious, and make sure I avoided touching the lens or the front cap.  It will get your attention.

Overall, though, I think this light is a winner.  At $99 it’s not cheap, but compared to the cheaper headlamps I’ve tested, I think the Browning will last as long as you can keep up with it.  That’s the catch with all of these small pieces of equipment, though… they’re easy to lose.  Other than that, as far as I can tell, the only thing you can do to hurt it is to leave the batteries in too long and let them start to leak.

As always, I’ll follow up on both of these items as they get more time in the field.  I can say that I like both of these products enough to plan on using them this coming season.

Lead Ban Chronicles – New Lead-Free Gear Preview

February 8, 2016

Lead Ban ChroncilesA few weeks back, at SHOT, one of the new products I was particularly hot to see was the Iron Rig decoy weights.

I know, “decoy weights?”

Well, the thing about these weights is that they’re lead free.  Not only are they lead free, they’re being advertised as lead free, which means it’s not just an afterthought.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and talking about the lead issue, but my focus (like many other writers) has been on ammunition.  The thing is, fishing tackle has been an ongoing topic in efforts to remove lead from the environment.  Push aside the politically driven arguments for a moment, and consider that an emphasis on fishing tackle makes total sense, since lead is arguably more ubiquitous in fishing than it is in hunting (and there are far more fishermen than hunters).

Before you break your neck trying to follow my train of thought, I bring up fishing because waterfowl hunters have, for ages, used fishing weights to anchor our decoys.  And these weights are almost always made of lead.  Hence, any regulation that affects the use of lead in fishing tackle will impact waterfowl hunters as well.

How likely is a ban on lead fishing weights in this country?  It’s hard to say, but if I must prognosticate, I’d say a national, general ban is still a long ways off.  However, on an incremental level, I think we’re already seeing it start.  Some states, including California and Washington, are already making moves to prohibit the use of lead (of any kind) in sensitive waterways.  The Federal agencies overseeing wetlands and wildlife are also looking at restrictions on lead in the waterways they manage.  It’s not unreasonable to expect some lead tackle prohibition in National Parks, National Monuments, and possibly National Forests in the relatively near future.

On my only full day at SHOT, I had a chance to have a nice chat with Jena Muasher and Scott Griffith, the marketing team for Big Game International.  One of the first things I asked was what drove the decision to produce a lead-free decoy weight.  The general response was that the company saw the “writing on the wall”, and wanted to get ahead of legislation that would restrict the use of lead weights.  More specifically, they pointed to California regulations that appear to be on track to eliminate the use of lead tackle by 2019 (a contentious issue, of course, but not an issue on which I’m particularly well-informed).

So, why cast iron, decoy weights?

The simple answer is that it was an easy choice.  As Scott explained to me, the goal was to make changes that did not reduce performance.  Cast iron is heavy and relatively easy to cast in the sizes and shapes that are used for decoy anchors (it’s more of a challenge for smaller fishing tackle, which is another issue).  It’s also inexpensive, relative to lead, which actually enables a lower cost to the hunter.

Unfortunately, the weights available for display at the show are simply prototypes, so I wasn’t able to carry a handful home to test out before our season ended this year.  However, Scott and Jena told me the plan is to start getting these to market by summer, and promised to get some out to me to try out.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how these things hold up in the salty environment where I do much of my hunting (NC coastal salt marshes and brackish rivers).  You can bet I’ll be letting you know how it all pans out.

 

 

Lead Ban Chronicles – AZ Lead Ban Lawsuit Back On The Table

January 14, 2016

ILead Ban Chroncilest’s been quite some time since I did one of these.  I hope I remember how.

Actually, the lead ammo issue has been simmering quietly along for a while now.  It’s boiled up occasionally in Minnesota, where the discussion has ebbed and flowed (I love mixing metaphors), but the state is apparently moving steadily toward a ban on lead ammo for all hunting on state wildlife areas.

Interestingly, the topic has also been pretty heated in the U.K., as “environmental” groups have been pushing a strong line of rhetoric targeted at confusing/convincing non-hunters/shooters.  It’s largely based on the same unfounded or over-hyped arguments that we heard here in the U.S., pointing at the “risk” of lead shot poisoning humans and even the groundwater.  Likewise, the counter-arguments focus on the centuries of lead ammo use vs. the absence of related cases of lead poisoning in game consumers.  As they have pointed out, there’s more lead in the typical bottle of beer than there is in a pheasant or grouse killed by lead shot.

Of a little more interest here in the U.S., it looks like an appeals court is going to allow the Center for Biological Diversity (and crony organizations) to go forward with a lawsuit against the US Forest Service in  Arizona.  The suit charges that the Forest Service is failing to protect the endangered California Condor by refusing to ban the use of lead ammo on Forest Service lands.  The suit was denied earlier, because the plaintiffs were unable to show that the use of lead ammo harmed them personally, but the appeals court sees it differently.

This is sort of a big deal because of the amount of hunting land managed by the US Forest Service in Arizona.  Probably most notable is the Kaibab National Forest, which is one of the premier, big game hunting destinations in the U.S.   It may be extraneous to note that the widespread, voluntary use of non-lead ammo in this area by hunters has already resulted in an apparent reduction in lead-poisoning cases for scavengers like the condor and eagles.

It’s also important because if this suit is successful, it opens the doors for similar suits across the condor habitat, including Oregon and Utah.  It may also provide ammunition for lawsuits in other states, although without the banner of an endangered species for leverage, I can’t say how it will play out.

In much older news, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) back in October.  Does this sound like a win for sportsmen?  On some levels, I think so.  Secreted away in the language of this Act is a provision that clarifies, once and for all, that the EPA does not have authority to restrict or control ammunition components (e.g. lead).  That should close the book on the CBD’s efforts to sue the EPA to ban lead bullets.  Of course, this act has nothing in it that limits the powers of other state or federal agencies to regulate ammunition.

Stay tuned.  After the SHOT Show (next week!), I should have a little more news on the lead front…

Lead Ban Chronicles – NSSF Fires Back At CA Lead Ban

April 13, 2015

Lead Ban ChroncilesOnce again, I found myself (albeit briefly) on the horns of a damned old dilemma.  To share this video here or not, that is the question.

The answer is, of course, obvious.  There it is, right down below these words.  I shared it, the same way I’ve shared some video and articles from the other side of the discussion (if you could call it a discussion).  I shared it because it is part of the whole, and if I’ve asked for your opinions on the other posts, it’s only fair to ask for your opinions on this one too.

But let’s be clear.  Sharing this video here does not necessarily mean I am in lockstep with the NSSF or the NRA when it comes to this topic.  Some of you who’ve been around a while know that already, but if you haven’t followed the Hog Blog, I’m telling you now.

I believe that, in the long run, we need to be skeptical of any special interest group’s involvement in such a politically charged issue.  In the same way so many of us want to challenge “sketchy” statistics, or thinly constructed arguments from our opponents, we really need to hold our “allies” equally to account.

So, now that I’ve totally primed you with preconceptions, have an objective look at the video, and let me know what you think.

Lead Ban Chronicles – Research Shows WV Vultures Carrying High Lead Concentrations

April 8, 2015

Lead Ban ChroncilesLet me preface by saying that the article in question doesn’t necessarily present any new information, especially as it relates to hunting with lead (or lead-free) ammunition.  In fact, it clearly states that an additional source of the lead is most likely the coal-fired power plants in the area.  But that’s the part that I find interesting… that the article does bring in additional sources of lead besides hunters.

Beyond that, as you can see in the comments, I found the article to be lacking some information that I thought would have been pertinent, such as whether there was an apparent impact on vulture populations in the area, or even if the vultures studied died from lead toxicity (or related causes).

Here’s the lede, such as it is..

A new study out of West Virginia University finds that lead poisoning in vultures is way more prevalent than expected. Researchers say the source of the lead is ammunition and coal-fired power plant emissions – prompting one researcher to liken vultures to the canaries miners once used to gauge if a coal mine was safe or not.

Give it a read. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lead Ban Chronicles – No Lead Ammo On CDFW Lands In 2015

April 2, 2015

Lead Ban ChroncilesThis is a reminder for the California hunters out there.

If you’ve been paying attention to the lead ban regulations, you’ll know that 2015 marks the phase-in of the statewide ban on hunting with lead ammo.  This year’s change will impact hunters using any of the lands managed by the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

You can read a bit more about this in Ed Zieralski’s article in the San Diego Union Tribune.

Good luck!

Lead Ban Chronicles – Golden Eagles And Lead Video

March 20, 2015

Lead Ban ChroncilesI’ve debated how to present this, and I decided the best thing to do is just put it up here without my input for now.  Some of you who’ve been sort of following my discussions on this topic probably have an idea of what I think, but for the moment, I’m curious about what you think after watching this short video

Doesn’t matter if you agree with it or if you find fault, if you learned something or not, I’m really curious to get some other takes besides my own.  I will say that I had to allay my initial knee jerk reaction and pay attention to what the guy is actually saying.  I think that is the most productive approach.

So view on, and respond if you can spare a moment.

Lead Ban Chronicles – Texas Parks And Wildlife Lead Shot Vs Steel Shot For Doves

December 17, 2014

Lead Ban ChroncilesA couple of weeks back, I posted up the results of the TPW research into the effectiveness of lead shot vs. steel shot for dove hunting.  Some of you have probably heard the arguments that steel doesn’t kill birds as cleanly as lead, and this has been an ongoing rationale for the argument against steel shot requirements.  Unfortunately, the empirical evidence to support or refute this argument has never been available.

Until now…

TPW has completed a study to provide that evidence, and the results were published.  Along with publication, the TPW offered a webinar for interested parties to understand the study and the results (I couldn’t attend due to commitments to my day job).  I’d love to see more of this kind of communication from other organizations involved in the lead ammo discussion… particularly from organizations that are not specifically aligned, based on special interests (in other words, I’m not really interested in presentations from the Center for Biological Diversity, HSUS, or the NRA).

It’s a very long, and not very exciting video, but there’s a lot of really good info here.  If you plan to go out and talk about lead free ammo, either pro or con, I feel like it’s pretty critical that you follow stuff like this to inform your comments.  If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at the very least, give the TPW study summary document a thorough read.

Here’s the video.

 

Lead Ban Chronicles – Was There Dirty Dealing In CA Lead Ban Legislation?

December 4, 2014

Lead Ban ChroncilesI’ll be honest.

When I received  this notice (video autoplay warning) in my news feeds, I hesitated to share it here.  In fact, I held off, initially, because I really wanted to see this reported in another, more reputable outlet.  I don’t think anyone would argue that the Washington Times doesn’t employ a strong, conservative bias.  Hell, they even manage to tie Obama to the issue in the headline.  But two days after the “story” broke, I still haven’t seen it show up anywhere else.  I’m not necessarily surprised that the piece didn’t make the Evening News, or the NY Times, but even the NSSF, mentioned prominently in the article, hasn’t written anything in the news releases, or even on their blog (as of this morning, there is a link to the Washington Times article.).

So, I don’t blame anyone for reserving a bit of skepticism in regards to the accuracy or the importance of this story.  But after reading it through a couple of times, I can’t help thinking it’s worth putting out here, if for no other reason than discussion.

So here’s the lede:

A pro-hunting group is up in arms after obtaining emails that it says indicate that a federal official withheld critical data on lead blood levels in the California condor until after gun control advocates in the California state legislature used the iconic bird’s plight to help push through a law last year to ban lead ammunition.

The gist of the story is that the US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had compiled research showing that, despite five years of the lead ammo ban in the CA condor “zone” (2007-2012), the cases of lead toxicity had not declined.  The article goes on to suggest that, while this research was available as early as April of 2013, it was not released until after the legislature passed the bill to the Governor’s desk in September.  It also references an email thread which suggests that the paper was intentionally held back, so as not to influence the decision of the legislature.

Now, on the surface, that actually seems pretty damning.  If the study clearly demonstrated that a lead ammo ban was not helping the condors, then it would certainly have been helpful to some of the legislators in their decisions to pass the bill (AB711) into law.  A decision to withhold it from the legislature until after the debate definitely gives the appearance of an effort to subvert the process (despite the protestations of the USFWS spokesman quoted in the article).  If this is true, it is a bad, bad thing.

But how big of a deal is this, really?  What will be the outcome of this “scathing” expose?  It’s hardly likely to overturn AB711.

Personally, I see a couple of things here.

First, a major part of the rationale for expanding the lead ammo ban statewide was to make the localized (“condor zone”) ban more effective.  This suggests that, at least on some level, legislators and ban proponents recognized that the localized ban wasn’t working, because condors aren’t constrained by arbitrary lines on a map.  By that line of reasoning, the study by the USFWS would likely have only strengthened the resolve to expand the ban.

And the fact that condors were still showing up, regularly, with lead toxicity would not have been news in Sacramento.  While the USFWS report may have been the official, sanctioned document; preliminary studies, independent research, and anecdotal evidence have shown the same results consistently since the original lead ban was implemented.  In CA, condors were not getting any better despite the lead ammo ban.  We already knew that.

The question that arose, or should have arisen, is why wasn’t the ban working in CA, when voluntary lead mitigation measures appeared to be having significant success in Arizona?  What’s different in the implementation of lead mitigation tactics?  What’s different in the environment/habitat?  What’s different in feeding habits and sources?  Those are big questions.  My guess is that the real condor researchers are looking into these very issues, but that has not really been part of the public debate.

I have my own ideas, of course.  I don’t know a lot about the areas of AZ where the condors are living, but what I’ve seen of it suggests that big swaths are comprised of largely uninhabited, often pristine country.  Outside of the short, big game seasons, most hunting in the condor areas is limited to upland birds, and maybe a bit of small game.  Many (but not all, of course) of these hunting areas include controlled access and fairly significant law enforcement activity by both State and Federal agencies.  And, of course, a big swath of condor territory is not accessible to (legal) hunters at all, as it is part of the National Park System.

Overall, this suggests (to me, at least) that lead ammo is probably a significant source of lead in the condor’s environment.  Thus, by reducing the lead used by hunters, it makes complete sense that the exposure for condors (and other raptors/scavengers) would be reduced as well.  The program works… and it didn’t even require a law to do so.

On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time hunting and exploring the areas that make up the CA Condor Zone.  To begin with, the area abuts some of the largest, densest population centers in the country… Los Angeles on one end, and the SF Bay Area on the other.  The land in between is distinguished by a mix of old ranches and homesteads, mines, and gas and oil extraction, and agriculture… along with a few areas that are veritable wastelands of ruined land, salted to death by over fertilization and bad agricultural practices.  Hunting is a year-round activity in this area, including approximately three months of deer hunting, upland bird and waterfowl, extensive varmint shooting (ground squirrels, coyotes, etc.), and feral hogs.  Most of the land that is not privately owned, consists of lightly patrolled State and National Forests with multiple, uncontrolled access points.   Besides lead ammo (which I know is still commonly used in the area, let’s be honest), the potential sources of environmental toxins, including lead, are myriad.

In other words, reducing the lead ammo used by hunters in the California environment appears to have nominal impact on the survival of the condors because there are so many other potential sources.  Passing a law won’t change that, and extending that law doesn’t accomplish much either.  But that’s moot.  With some minor adjustments, it’s a done deal in CA anyway.  At this point, the only thing left to do is become actively involved in the implementation discussions.  There are still many open issues, particularly in regards to availability (For example, what are they doing about rimfire ammo?).   CA hunters need to stay active and vocal.  It may seem like beating a dead horse won’t make it get up and run, but you might be able to slide it across the ground a little further away, before it starts to stink.

So, if anything, this story is a cautionary tale.  If the article and its implications are accurate, it means that the challenge ahead in other states will be to hold government sources closely accountable (which we should be doing anyway).  Even if the decision to withhold the report was well-intentioned, it was wrong.  And if it were intentional… well, that needs to be proven and the USFWS personnel responsible need to be held to a whole different level of accountability.

But, then again, I have questions about the article itself that probably aren’t going to get answered.  Where is the full email exchange?  What else did it say about why the paper wasn’t released?  There’s a whole story here that isn’t being told, and without it, I can only put limited stock in what I read in this article.

Anyone out there in the Interwebz know more about this (factually and empirically)?

 

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