Lead Ban Chronicles – Guest Post – AZ’s Volunteer Lead Ban Works
December 4, 2012
My friend, Dan, frequently sends me reports about his experiences (and his opinions) using various lead-free ammunition in California. He and a buddy recently had the opportunity to hunt the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, a western deer hunting mecca, and when he wrote to let me know how the unleaded ammo they used performed, I asked if he’d be willing to pen a short piece for the blog about the hunt and how AZ’s voluntary program made for a different experience. He actually sent this a little while ago, but I’m only now getting to publishing it. Apologies for that, Dan.
When things are dull and quiet, my hunting friends, seeking entertainment, bait me by saying something like “Hey, have you heard the latest on the CONDORS?” Then they sit back and watch the fireworks. That one word, “Condor”, will set me off on a rant that’s good for at least 45 minutes. My blood boils. For that reason, I was reluctant to write this guest piece. I was afraid I couldn’t be objective.
My long time hunting buddy, Chuck, knowing of my character flaw, sent me an article from the AZ Game and Fish Department about various environmental groups suing the Kaibab National Forest. The groups want the U.S. Forest Service to place a mandatory ban on hunting with lead ammunition in northern Arizona. They want the ban, in order to protect the Condor from lead.
The Kaibab Plateau is birthplace of the North American Conservation Model and the Pittman-Robertson Act. It’s the foundation of all the wildlife management plans in the United States today. The Kaibab Plateau is home to some of the best mule deer hunting in the world. The deer are HUGE. The Kaibab is a show piece. It is beautiful, it is perfect, and it is the tag to draw. It is Nirvana.
The California condor, even after years of intensive management, is still dying. It’s dying for a variety of reasons; chief among them is lead poisoning. No one disputes that. What’s disputed is the source of the lead poisoning and the approach to managing the problem.
Condors are found in Arizona and California. The same environmental groups that are currently suing in Arizona once sued in California. I hunt both states and have witnessed, first hand, each states approach to the problem.
Californian hunters were largely oblivious to the impending lawsuit and indifferent or ignorant to the plight of the condor. The Department of Fish and Game was slow and ineffective in promoting a voluntary lead-free hunt and condor education program. In short, California largely ignored the problem.
In 2007, the Ridley-Tree Condor act was passed and it established a “lead-free” zone covering much of the central California. The area is gigantic. Within the zone, big game hunters are required to use lead-free ammunition. Hunters were shocked at the law and the cost. Lead ammo was going for around $18 a box and lead-free was closer to $45. Worse, for many hunters, there simply wasn’t any lead-free ammo available in their favorite calibers. The law allowed the state to subsidize hunters by offering free lead-free ammo if funds were available. Funds were never made available.
Overnight, the Ridley-Tree Condor Act caused open warfare between hunters and environmental groups. The hunters felt betrayed, lied to and preyed upon, both by the state and the environmental groups. When blood lead tests in 2008, and 2009 indicated the ban had absolutely no effect on lead poisoning, it got positively ugly. Any hope of mutual cooperation between California hunters and environmental groups, on anything, was forever shattered.
In Arizona, the lead-free approach was much different and very proactive. There was an extensive condor education program. The hunting community was informed early, and often. The hunters were asked for their opinions and their opinions were valued. As a result, the lead free program in AZ is voluntary. If you draw a tag in the condor range, your tag comes with a condor information packet and a voucher for a free box of lead-free ammo. If you chose to use leaded ammo, you are encouraged to remove all parts of the animal from the zone. Hunters are asked to be part of the conservation program.
When Chuck drew a Kaibab tag, I went with him. I found that the state of AZ had provided Chuck with a box of lead-free ammo. Three times during our 7 day hunt, the AZ game warden stopped by our camp and provided us with an information packet and stout plastic bags to carry out our gut pile in case we used lead ammo. When Chuck got his deer, we went to the mandatory check station and there was a dumpster provided to deposit the gut pile. The biologists interviewed us on our thoughts on the lead free program and its ease of use. Arizona had achieved hunter buy-in.
Today, 80-90% of hunters in Arizona’s condor zone voluntarily use lead-free ammunition. Many Arizona hunters actively assist in the condor recovery, and are proud to do so. They’ve become willing advocates, rather than adversaries.
I wish California had been able to do that.