Banning Lead Shot, Protecting Wildlife: Is There Hope on the Horizon?

A white tailed deer stands in a forest

By John McFerrin

We have known for decades, if not centuries, that lead is toxic. Over the past 50 years, we have gone to great lengths to eliminate lead exposure, banning leaded gasoline and lead paint. Most of the lead that is disposed of, whether it be leaded batteries or lead pipes, is regulated. Even the control and disposal of spent ammunition at shooting ranges is regulated. There is only one major source of lead that enters our environment unregulated: lead ammunition.

Much of the lead ammunition that enters our environment is ingested by wildlife. Lead ammunition can break into small fragments that are easily picked up by scavenging and foraging wildlife. Imagine a Mourning Dove or other ground-foraging bird, pecking around for seeds or small gravel to aid in digestion. In the course of this, it can consume lead. Predators who eat doves or anything else that consumes lead fragments are exposed. The threat extends to humans who eat animals who have been killed with lead ammunition.

The use of lead tackle threatens birds. Lead, which is discarded or otherwise enters a lake, is picked up by diving birds along with the small gravels that they use to grind food in their digestive system. As it is ground in the digestive system, it is ingested by the birds.

Hunters of game such as deer often field dress the deer they kill. Gut piles are left behind, piles which scavengers such as eagles eat. If the hunters use lead ammunition these birds ingest lead.  

The story by Cindy Ellis in the September 2023 issue of The Highlands Voice provided many examples of the results of ingesting lead. It is not an abstract problem, existing only in the minds of researchers. As the story shows, there are real birds being killed right here in West Virginia.

The problem is widely acknowledged; in its discussion of why it was proposing a ban on lead ammunition at several Wildlife Refuges, the Fish and Wildlife Service referred to multiple studies, all saying that lead ammunition and lead tackle are harmful to wildlife. There are no studies to the contrary.

Those who wish to continue hunting with lead ammunition point to the additional cost of non-lead ammunition. Some even worry that the additional cost will make hunting inaccessible to some people.

While it is true that non-lead ammunition can be more expensive than some types of lead ammunition, the cost is minor. There are many costs involved in hunting, from the cost of gear, transportation, licensing, etc. As a fraction of the total cost of a hunting trip, the increased cost of making that trip lead-free is minor.

What available data there is does not support the idea that an increased cost of ammunition would drive people away from hunting. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages lots of land; some of it allows lead ammunition. From its data, the Service reports no decrease in hunting where lead ammunition has been banned.

For multiple reasons, banning of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in all locations would be a worthwhile step forward. California, for example, has already taken that step, banning lead ammunition in 2019.  

Even if there is no currently pending proposal to ban lead ammunition in all of West Virginia, West Virginia and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service do have the opportunity to take that first step by banning lead ammunition and tackle in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Even if competing interests might be balanced differently on the vast majority of West Virginia land, in a Wildlife Refuge the interests of wildlife come first. Banning lead there would be a first step. The Fish and Wildlife Service had taken that first step before the West Virginia Department of National Resources interfered.

What is a wildlife refuge?

To understand the current controversy about the use of lead shot, it is important to understand the purpose of a federally protected and designated Wildlife Refuge, like the one at Canaan Valley. Its purpose is in its name: it is a refuge for wildlife. In the words of the National Wildlife Improvement Act of 1997, the mission of the Wildlife Refuge system “is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.’’

A Wildlife Refuge is not a park, serving the needs of people as well as birds, bees, trees, etc. It is not a National Forest, managed by the National Forest Service for “multiple uses” such as recreation, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values.

In a Wildlife Refuge, protecting the wildlife is all that matters. If protecting wildlife required that people be entirely excluded, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be entirely justified in excluding all people. If protecting wildlife required prohibiting all hunting, then the Fish and Wildlife Service would be entirely justified in prohibiting all hunting. It is the wildlife that matter; if other uses of the land can be squeezed in without impairing wildlife, they could be allowed. But the purpose of a Wildlife Refuge is to provide a refuge for wildlife.  

While the core purpose of a Wildlife Refuge is protecting wildlife, there are some uses that have been recognized as “wildlife-dependent recreation.” These are things such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, and photography, or environmental education and interpretation.

The present controversy

The purpose of a Wildlife Refuge is to protect wildlife. Starting with that purpose in mind, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to crack open the door a bit to allow in other uses, including hunting.

At Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service long ago cracked open the door and admitted hunting as an acceptable activity on the Refuge. In order to do this, it had to make a determination that hunting would be compatible with its primary mission of protecting wildlife.

In 2022, the Fish and Wildlife Service continued the process of managing to protect wildlife while allowing regulated hunting. It proposed a bunch of changes to how hunting is done at several Wildlife Refuges across the country. Most of these were uncontroversial.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did kick the hornets’ nest in one area: it proposed phasing out lead ammunition and tackle at ten Wildlife Refuges, including the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. This generated thousands of public comments. 

For West Virginia, the most significant comments came from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. It opposed all changes as they applied to Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, including the phasing out of lead ammunition and tackle.  

In response to the comments, the Fish and Wildlife Service justified the phasing out of lead ammunition and tackle with arguments, references to scientific literature, etc. It considered the comments that opposed the phasing out of lead, and, in nine of the ten Wildlife Refuges, it went ahead with its plan to phase out lead.

The exception was the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike on other Refuges, the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t argue back. It just capitulated to the comments of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and abandoned its proposal to phase out lead ammunition and tackle at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Law to the rescue?

In response to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s capitulation, the Friends of Blackwater, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Sierra Club filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They contend that the National Wildlife Improvement Act, which says how Wildlife Refuges are to be managed, would not allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore the extensive evidence that lead is harmful to wildlife. 

This is particularly true when one considers that the primary—and only—purpose of a Wildlife Refuge is the protection of wildlife. Hunting may exist on a Refuge, but only if it does not interfere with the protection of wildlife.

The case is still pending.