The use of lead ammunition and lead tackle in hunting and angling is a contentious issue, with the primary concern being the potential effects on wildlife. However, to this date, there has been no documented evidence that sportsmen’s use of lead has had significant deleterious impacts on wildlife at the population level in the United States, despite the ongoing use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle since Europeans arrived in North America. Bans on such lead products can cause a decrease in crucial conservation revenue for state fish and wildlife agencies and decreased hunting and angling participation. Therefore, these bans should only be considered at such a time when a state’s respective fish and wildlife management agency finds irrefutable scientific evidence that lead is having a detrimental population-level impact on a particular species.
Over the years, legislators, sportsmen, and the outdoor industry continue to be faced with a number of bills directed at reducing or eliminating lead ammunition and fishing tackle. If lead ammunition or fishing tackle were to be banned today, manufacturers would be required to retool their facilities all at once, which is a costly and time-consuming process that would cause an increase in consumer prices and a potential shortage of both non-lead ammunition and tackle, further exacerbating the significant increase in ammunition prices and low availability for lead ammunition experienced in recent years. As technology advances, the availability of non-lead alternatives is increasing, however many alternative metals do not perform as well as lead and can be prohibitively expensive for many hunters and anglers. These financial impacts have the potential to create barriers to participation, which would cause fewer sportsmen and women to enjoy these time-honored traditions. State fish and wildlife agencies could also see a reduction in revenue from decreased hunting and fishing participation because a majority of their revenue is derived from the American System of Conservation Funding through the sale of sporting licenses and excise taxes. A sharp decline in the number of hunters and anglers visiting these states each year could also lead to significant, local economic impacts in many states. This decline will be significant, considering that in some states, over $1 billion per year in economic activity is generated from hunting and angling alone.
In 1991, due to waterfowl population health concerns, the federal government officially banned the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting. This mandate was handed down out of concern for waterfowl ingesting spent lead shot in small, confined wetlands. Yet, there is still no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that lead caused the population-level impacts to America’s migrating waterfowl. In 2013, California became the first state in the nation to pass legislation banning the use of lead ammunition for all hunting purposes, which was fully implemented in July 2019.
Likewise, the use of lead sinkers in fishing has also become a contentious issue. Although exact figures are not currently available on the amount of lead that sinkers add into the environment each year, approximately 80% of the fishing weights and tackle sold are lead sinkers weighing a half ounce, or less.
In 2000, New Hampshire became the first state to implement a ban on lead tackle. The primary concern surrounding the use of lead sinkers is the potential effects on waterfowl, like the loon, that ingest whole pebbles, or inadvertently, small lead sinkers, to aid in the digestion of their food. Although some individual loon deaths have been linked to lead fishing sinkers, there has been no documented evidence that lead fishing sinkers, of any size, have a detrimental impact on local or regional loon populations. In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, loon populations are either stable or are increasing across the nation.
In July 2015, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC), despite protests from California’s angling community and a lack of scientific evidence suggesting that fishing tackle is a source of these threats, declared fishing tackle to be one of the top seven most significant threats to Californians and their environment in its departmental priority plan. The effect of this plan could create onerous regulations on fishing gear leading to bans on commonly used tackle, and/or drive up the cost of purchasing it exponentially. This, in turn, would likely reduce angler participation in California and would ironically have a negative impact on revenue directed to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to support their mission of protecting and enhancing the state’s fish and wildlife resources.
Points of Interest
- Any ban on the use of lead ammunition and/or tackle will likely have a significant negative economic impact on a state’s fish and wildlife agency revenue, as well as its economy.
- The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a study of hunters and others that have consumed game, allegedly containing lead shot fragments, to determine whether they have an elevated level of lead in their blood that can be attributed to the ammunition used to harvest the game. Indications of the CDC study released by the North Dakota Department of Health (DOH), which is participating in the study, show none of those tested had unsafe blood lead levels. The readings were far below the level considered elevated for a child (10 micrograms per deciliter); let alone the level for an adult (25 micrograms per deciliter).
- On August 3, 2010 and March 13, 2012, a petition was submitted to the EPA to ban the production and sale of lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle which argued that lead ammunition and fishing tackle should be regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Both petitions were denied.
- On February 21, 2013, CA AB 711, was signed into law in California which requires the use of non-lead ammunition for the taking of all wildlife with any firearm, and was fully implemented on July 1st, 2019.
- Fish and wildlife agencies in Arizona, Oregon and Utah have adopted voluntary programs which provide hunters with incentives to utilize non-lead ammunition or carry entrails from harvested animals out of the field in certain areas.
- New York and Vermont have banned the sale of lead fishing weights weighing one half ounce, or less.
- Massachusetts’ Fisheries and Wildlife Board, Maine’s SB 268 (2013), and New Hampshire’s SB 89 (2013), have all banned the use and sale of jigs and sinkers weighing one ounce or less.
- Alternative metals (such as tungsten, steel etc.) for small split shots (a half ounce or less) are available, but they are considerably more expensive.
- In 2015, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) proposed regulations to the DNR Commission that would ban the use of lead shot for upland game on certain Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in the state. On January 19, 2017, the outgoing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director implemented a ban on the use of traditional lead ammunition and fishing tackle on USFWS lands. In March of the same year, after meeting with representatives from sportsmen and wildlife organizations, the newly-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned the ban by issuing Executive Order 3346.
- In recent years, Minnesota, New York, Maine, Washington, and Oregon have all introduced legislation to prohibit the use of lead ammunition for hunting purposes or in certain areas, or have proposed an outright ban on the sale of lead ammunition and tackle.
- In February of 2021, a new study was released suggesting that although bald eagle populations have been steadily increasing in recent years, lead exposure has caused the populations to increase at a slower rate than they would have otherwise – renewing calls for statutory bans on traditional lead ammunition.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently entered into settlement negotiations with activist litigants over a lawsuit regarding the use of traditional ammunition and lead on more than 3 million acres of federal land. In September, 2022, FWS issued a final rule which opened new hunting and fishing opportunities, but it also phased out use of lead ammunition by 2026 on some lands.
In an effort to prevent the far-reaching implications lead ammunition and tackle bans would have on conservation funding, legislators should explore and support preemptive legislative and/or regulatory mechanisms to ensure changes in the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle are prohibited, unless valid scientific justification is presented. Furthermore, such language should clearly specify that if it is scientifically determined that lead-based ammunition or fishing tackle is having a negative population level impact on a species, either locally or regionally, only reasonable regulations to that area, or for that specific species should be implemented.