Lead Ban Chronicles – The Heart Of The Question?

May 4, 2013

Lead Ban ChroncilesThe lead ammo issue is getting hotter by the moment in California.  Odds are fairly high that the statewide ban (AB711) will pass into law before this year is out, requiring the use of “lead-free” ammunition for all hunting in the state.

Elsewhere, the effort to ban lead doesn’t seem to have gained momentum, but it certainly hasn’t died off.  Public relations efforts by well-funded organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity are getting pretty heavy coverage around the country… or at least their press releases are being reprinted, often as “articles”, by several newspapers and blogs.

I’ve addressed the arguments pretty thoroughly (I think)… probably to the point of serious redundancy.  Maybe my regular readers are tired of seeing it.  So I’m not going to go down that same road today.  This afternoon I kind of stumbled on a different path.  I think I stumbled onto it before, but stopped shortly past the trailhead.  I don’t know the answer, or even if there is one.  But I think there’s a valid conversation here.

In a recent column in the High Country News, intern Sarah Jane Keller writes a bit about the lead ammo issue and at one point poses this question.

After so many years and dollars have been spent trying to bring the condor back to the landscape, the question is: What will it take for people to change their behavior, and stop using lead ammo in the bird’s range?

To me, this brings the whole discussion back to where it started.  The focus is (or was) the survival of the California condor.  The argument is that the continued use of lead ammunition for hunting in the condor’s range poses a significant threat to the success of restoration efforts.    Unless this behavior changes, it is possible that wild, free-ranging condors may never be returned to their ancestral habitat.

And this raises a few questions of my own.

First of all, whose idea was it to bring the condor back to the landscape and why?

The first part of this is a pretty simple question, but the second part is a little more problematic.  But someone should ask.  What was the purpose of restoring a bird whose ecological niche is, to all intents and purposes, gone?  There’s not much question that condors evolved to scavenge mega-fauna… big animals.  They fed on dead sea lions and whales, elk, deer, and bison.  Later, they fed on the carcasses of cattle and sheep as their habitat was settled and most of the native species declined or disappeared altogether.   Those food sources are very rare now, and it’s a fair argument that their scavenger role of removing carrion is now efficiently supplanted by smaller scavengers such as buzzards and ravens.  I think it’s telling that one reported source of lead poisoning in condors is the consumption of coyotes and even ground squirrels that were shot by hunters.  Their traditional food sources are practically gone.  Is there really an ecological need to restore this huge, sight-hunting scavenger… is it some esoteric, aesthetic thing… or is it purely an emotional effort to assuage the guilt that humans are largely responsible for their demise in the first place?

When lead ammo was banned for the hunting of waterfowl, while the debate was extremely contentious, the over-arching goal aligned with the goals of hunters.  We were seeing a large-scale, nationwide decline in waterfowl populations (mostly due to other causes than lead toxicity), and efforts to restore those populations garnered fairly wide support from the people who would be most impacted in either case.  The fact that lead was also implicated at that time in the deaths of bald eagles, which were then endangered, added weight to the argument to switch to lead-free alternatives.  Across the country, bird lovers, scientists, conservationists, and waterfowl hunters were generally united in their desire to reverse this decline.    And again, it must be noted, that none of this was uncontentested… many hunters strongly resisted and argued against the science and the agenda of the ban.  The tone and arguments were not dissimilar to some of the arguments we’re hearing today.  Nevertheless, the ban was passed, state-by-state at first, and then federally.  Eventually Canada banned lead as well.  And the truth is, lead toxicity in waterfowl dropped by over 75% after the first six years, and has likely dropped even more since then.

I should add here, at risk of digression, that switching from lead to lead-free ammunition was a relatively easy process for shotgun ammo manufacturers.  Unlike rifles and handguns, for which there are scores of variations on bore and chamber diameter, shotguns basically come in a small handful of gauges.  Of those, modern U.S. waterfowlers most commonly utilize three… 12ga, 20ga, and 10ga.  Three others basically complete the selection of American shotgun bores:  16ga, 28ga, and .410.  Once a replacement for lead shot was devised, it was a fairly simple matter of loading it in one of these six chamberings.  I remember switching just ahead of the law in North Carolina, and although the lead-free shot cost more than the lead (and still does, generally), I was able to pick up ammo for my 20ga at any local shop, and supplies/varieties of 12ga offerings were even more plentiful.  This is not to understate the original challenge of finding a functional substitute for lead shot, but to point out that acceptance of the lead ban for waterfowlers was made easier because alternatives were more readily available.

The core point is, it was not a hugely difficult ordeal for waterfowl hunters to switch to lead-free ammunition.  Even more importantly, they switched because there was something in it for them… more waterfowl.

Now let’s look again at the California condor.

Most Americans were completely unaware that this bird was on the brink of extinction in 1987.  Many Americans still know nothing about the bird today, and of those who do know, very few have ever actually seen one in the wild.  It’s fair to say that most never will, even if the restoration program is successful.

The effort to save the condor wasn’t a big, national topic.  It was actually a fairly small group of environmentalists, bird lovers and scientists who thought they should capture the remaining wild birds and try to nurse the population back to health.  The initial efforts were largely funded by private organizations, with nominal involvement of the federal government.  Again, despite the occasional special on nature-oriented television or PBS, the majority of Americans (including hunters) knew nothing about the restoration programs.  Many still don’t.

Now the program is going in earnest, with both private and federal money.  Suddenly, hunters are being told that the ammunition we’ve been using since the evolution of the firearm is no longer acceptable because it may cause the condor restoration program to fail.  I don’t think it’s an unfair question for them to ask, “why should we?”

Why wasn’t this risk assessed before the first condor was released back into the wild?  Why wasn’t this dialogue started, on a wide scale, before there were a bunch of zoo-bred birds flying around CA and AZ, dining on hunters’ deer, pig, and elk carcasses?

If I were planning to implement a program on federal land, I’d have to develop and complete a study on the program’s impacts to the environment.  I’d have to know what flora and fauna my activities might put at risk, and I might have to mitigate those risks.  If my activity impacted an endangered or threatened species, I’d have to jump through a series of additional, exhaustive processes and procedures to mitgate that impact or my project would have to be cancelled.  With this in mind, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that, before releasing an endangered or threatened species into the wild ecosystem, a similar set of studies and reports should also be completed, and risks addressed and mitigated before the project goes forward… especially considering that the species is being released right back into the same habitat conditions that nearly brought it to extinction in the first place.

I know that hindsight is 20/20, and I understand that you can’t go back in time.  There are something like 200 California condors loose in the southwest, and no one is going to put them all back in cages.  And personally, I’d love to see the restoration program succeed.  I have no problem modifying my behavior if that meant the opportunity to see condors flying free over some of my favorite hunting areas.  I think a lot of other hunters would agree.  But you can’t possibly expect all hunters to feel the same way, especially when they’re basically being forced to support a program that they were never asked about and that they never asked for.  And the truth is that there’s nothing in it for them.

It sounds selfish.  In a lot of ways it is.  But is it unreasonably selfish?

But here’s another consideration… is it unreasonably selfish for a subset of a relatively small group of individuals to insist that their passion to return this bird to the wild is more important than the desires of hunters to have relatively cheap and available ammunition for the pursuit of their passion?

Remember.  All of the condor restoration folks aren’t calling for a lead ammo ban.  Many support voluntary behavioral changes, including but not limited to switching to lead-free ammunition.  While I have no doubt that all of them would love to see lead ammo go the way of the dodo, they recognize that this needs to be a personal decision based on a hunter’s own situation.

I believe it’s something to think about.


8 Responses to “Lead Ban Chronicles – The Heart Of The Question?”

  1. Neil on May 5th, 2013 10:57

    Thanks for the information on the lead ammunition issue. I don’t tend to comment much on it, because I mostly agree with your views on this issue.

    The larger question of Condor sustainability is problematic, both for the condor, but also for sportsmen. The survival of the condors has so been linked to lead ammunition in the minds of many people- which is certainly a factor but absolutely not the only factor- that it’s eventual demise might be easy to scapegoat. As you point out, the more significant issues of broad sweeping changes in habitat may be much much greater than lead particulates. Lead ingestion may only be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s a lot easier to blame a relatively small group of people than our entire civilization. I don’t think this means either I or you are minimizing the importance of lead, but long after lead is an issue the condors are likely to be on life support. One point that I’ve read (that you also pointed out) in the same studies implicating lead is that the birds are now effectively dependent on gutpiles and non-game carcasses for survival.

    I don’t mind shooting lead free. I already do. A significant part of my diet is wild harvested and while I don’t think it’s a major factor it’s something to think about. As a Californian, I can’t help think how much more you’d get hunters and ranchers on board using a carrot approach, like Arizona, vs. the stick, such as in supposedly progressive California. One creates a sense of involvement and stewardship, and the other animosity and resentment.

  2. Phillip on May 6th, 2013 19:31

    Thanks, Neil. Sometimes, it really is all about perspective.

  3. Rod Newman on May 7th, 2013 05:33

    I think you will see them also move towards somehting like the barnes MRX, and MPG green bullets I think it is a compacted tungston alloy powdered metal. I also saw an add from another manufacturer making law enforcement ammo with a powdered tungston core for indoor pistol ranges to get rid of the lead problems.

  4. Phillip on May 8th, 2013 09:18

    Rod, thanks for your note.

    And you’re right. I think we’ll continue to see evolution in “green” bullet technology. Interesting things are happening, and my experience with several lead-free bullets has been mainly positive (the exception has been some of the .22lr offerings).

    A lot of people have argued that the only way this evolution will happen on a larger scale is if broad-reaching lead bans are enacted… essentially forcing the manufacturers’ hands. I don’t completely disagree in theory, although I think that the reality still leaves a large number of firearms owners out in the cold with less common calibers/chamberings. We’re talking about a technology that has basically developed around lead for hundreds of years. In the past century, the variations have been too many to count. It’s simply unrealistic to expect the industry to address all of these variations in a reasonable amount of time. This means that, under a general lead ammo ban a wide variety of firearms will no longer be legal to shoot because there will be no lead-free ammo available for them. How big is this potential problem? I doubt anyone really knows.

    Because there’s simply no overwhelming evidence that a switch away from lead ammo is necessary for environmental or human health, and because a legislative ban would essentially remove a wide variety of firearms from legal use I do not and would not support a legislated ban.

    As far as tungsten, that’s an interesting discussion. Not that I want to open a can of worms here, but the US Army’s experience with tungsten was a little disappointing. Tungsten was thought to be more stable than lead, however in Army testing, it turns out that the material is carcinogenic and actually breaks down more easily in the soil than lead. Because of the environmental risk, the use of tungsten was suspended and they returned to lead training ammunition while other “green” alternatives are now being evaluated. I’m surprised we’re not hearing more about this in the lead ban discussion… but I don’t think tungsten has been a prime contender in the hunting bullet discussion. It is, however, a popular component of lead-free shotgun ammo already in wide use. One might jump aboard an entirely new train of thought in considering the implications here. I won’t go there right now, though.

    The indoor ranges are another issue entirely… not irrelevant to the discussion, but different. The biggest threat to indoor shooters is actually the vaporized lead from the primer (this vapor is rapidly dispersed outdoors, and less of a danger). This is managed with air filtration systems, but there’s a big effort in the industry to develop a lead-free primer. This is happening, but it’s got caveats. Most of the indoor training ammo is low-powered. Without lead to stabilize the primer charge, it is difficult to develop a safe, full-powered load for law-enforcement or sporting use. I expect that, sooner or later a solution may come along.

    Of course, lead-free, frangible projectiles also enhance safety in an enclosed environment… but the bullets were never a primary consideration as far as shooter safety. It’s another question altogether for the folks who have to work on the range equipment, as lead residue is definitely a health risk to workers. OSHA has an entire book on the topic which I believe you can find on their website, if you were so inclined. I have a copy here that I’ve referenced from time to time in these discussions.

  5. robb on May 16th, 2013 20:48

    I’m still not at all convinced that lead from bullets is the cause of lead poisoning in condors. Despite claims of isotopes etc. I don’t use lead bullet, but I don’t like being mislead.

  6. Phillip on May 19th, 2013 07:15

    Robb, if you spend some time with the research, and with the researchers themselves, you’ll find that the evidence is pretty compelling. Is lead ammo the only source of lead poisoning in condors? I don’t think so. But I think that it’s pretty hard to deny that it is, at least, a common source. I have watched condors eating on gut piles, including a couple from my own kills. Fortunately, I was using lead-free ammo at that time. I have also seen how widely lead fragments can disperse in a carcass and through the organs. So there’s no question that in some cases, scavenger birds do consume lead from ammunition when they eat hunters’ leftovers. Like many people, I have no doubt that condors are eating lead from other sources, including secondary poisoning from cattle that have ingested lead. Unfortunately, this is much more difficult to prove… not to mention that it wouldn’t suit the goals of the HSUS and other anti-hunting organizations who are pushing this legislation.

  7. Holly Heyser on May 18th, 2013 15:31

    Good points, Phillip!

  8. Phillip on May 19th, 2013 07:16

    Thanks, Holly!