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Battle brewing over woods and waters

August 21, 2010
By Joe Hackett, Enterprise Outdoors Columnist

There is a major social and political battle brewing and it is about to strike in the heartland of our nation's longest-held sporting traditions. The furor is viewed by one side as a direct attack on the Second Amendment, concerning the right to bare arms. Furthermore, the effort is complicated by the fact that a federal excise tax on the sale of all fishing and hunting equipment is the major funding source for national conservation efforts.

The issue is seen from the opposing side as an environmental issue that concerns the health of humans, animals, birds and fish. It has the potential to fractionalize user groups and will likely bring about a vicious polarity that will cause a deep and lasting divide between the environmental and the sporting communities.

The first salvo, of what looks to be a long and bloody battle, was fired across the bow of the flagship of traditional sports last week. The event that drew first blood was a formal petition filed with the Environmental Protection Agency that requests a ban on the use of lead in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle by a consortium of environmental groups including the American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Article Photos

Authorities in Iowa estimate that in 2009, more than two dozen bald eagles died from exposure to lead statewide. Most of the birds were believed to have ingested lead from bullet fragments found in the remains of big game carcasses.
(Photo — Fish and Wildlife Service)

"(The) petition is the most significant move in two decades," according to Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's long past time to do something about this deadly - and preventable - epidemic of lead poisoning in the wild. We've taken lead out of gasoline, paint, water pipes and other places dangerous to people. Now it's time to get the lead out of hunting and fishing sports to save wildlife for needless poisoning."

The response from the sporting community was immediate and on target, as Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) responded with a blunt comment concerning the lack of scientific evidence.

"There simply is no scientific evidence that the use of traditional ammunition is having an adverse impact on wildlife populations that would require restricting or banning use of traditional ammunition beyond current limitations, such as the scientifically based restriction on waterfowl hunting," Sanetti replied in a press release issued by the NSSF.

At the heart of the issue are both our nation's long held sporting traditions and our national symbol. The most significant driving force that catapulted the efforts to ban the use of lead in hunting and fishing equipment to the frontlines of a cross-country battle was a bald eagle.

Specifically, it was a number of dead bald eagles, and a few California condors, peregrine falcons, loons and a number of other species that were adversely affected by lead ingestion.

According to a number of scientific studies, the ingestion of lead by wildlife does not cause simple indigestion, it can also result in death.

The various environmental groups involved in the effort claim the petition was not intended to be an anti-hunting or anti-fishing attack. Rather, it was intended to protect these long held traditions.

Conversely, the numerous organizations devoted to protecting the traditions of hunting and fishing have framed their argument in terms of "taking of rights" and the distinct lack of scientific evidence.

As a sportsman, a hunter and angler, I understand the intricacies involved in the battle. More than anything, I want to be able to be allowed to continue my outdoor sporting pursuits. As a key component of enjoying the pursuits of hunting and fishing, I also seek to protect the birds, fish and other wildlife that I seek.

I know that it is a contrary concept. How can we both cherish and yet harvest wildlife? Is it any easier to understand in terms of the benefits of the harvest, the pounds of venison, the wild turkey, the smoked brook trout or the fresh salmon?

Are my actions in the field or on the water actually responsible for harming the same fish and wildlife that I so cherish? Do my actions afield endanger species such as the bald eagle, our national symbol of freedom and power?

Or is the concept driven home by an estimated 10 to 20 million birds and other animals that die each year from lead poisoning as a result of the more than "3,000 tons of lead shot into the environment by hunters every year" and nearly "80,000 tons released at shooting ranges and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fishing lures and sinkers."

It is common knowledge that there are viable alternatives to lead for use as ammunition or for angling purposes.

We've seen it happen in our own backyard when New York and Vermont banned the sale of lead sinkers and with the recent announcement that the US Army is about to "go green" by getting the lead out of the military's ammunition.

It is sort of a no-brainer. Scientific evidence has caused lead to be taken out of gasoline, paint, water pipes and a host of other items that would be dangerous to people, including the use of lead shot in wetland areas.

We also know that lead poisoning in the wild has endangered species such as California condors, bald eagles and peregrine falcons. California and Colorado have already banned lead bullets.

We rail against Chinese when they use lead to manufacture our children's toys, so why should anyone believe that it is still acceptable to use lead products in the pursuit of the fish and game that we harvest?

Most sportsmen pursue their sports for consumptive purposes. Certainly, there is little danger of exposure from "catch-and-release" angling, but there is no such thing as "catch-and-release" hunting.

From a public health perspective, even relatively low doses of lead can lead to a variety of human health problems, particularly in children. At toxic levels, lead damages nervous systems, causes paralysis and eventually death. Even at lower levels, it is known to cause a variety of sublethal effects.

"The science on this issue is massive in breadth and unimpeachable in its integrity," explained American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick in a recent press release asking for "prudent step to safeguard wildlife and reduce unacceptable human health risks."

It will be interesting to watch and see how the battle lines are drawn. The effort to ban lead will surely cause a huge divide among our nation's sporting and environmental communities. The name calling and finger pointing has already begun.

However, in reality, science should and likely will trump the largely emotional aspects of the argument. Sportsmen and women cherish their outdoor pursuits, but more than anything they cherish the fish and game that keeps drawing them back to the woods and waters.

Eventually, I hope everyone comes to understand the importance of this issue.



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