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Monday, August 24, 2009

Get the Lead Out

When mourning dove hunting season begins next week—in most states except Iowa and Michigan which have resisted the entreaties of the gun lobby, and nearly all of the Northeast where the gentle songbirds have long been protected—hunters will once again discharge enormous amounts of toxic lead shot into the environment.

Mourning dove hunting season begins next week in most states.

The soft, heavy metal has been known as a toxic substance for, oh, more than 2,000 years. Lead has been banned from water pipes, paint, gasoline, glass, pottery and a host of other items in order to protect people, especially young children.

But hunters—at least some of them—have held out. The most backward thinking of the bunch continue to spew lead shot and lead ammunition by the ton across our precious outdoors, and argue for the “right” to do so.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that in lieu of meaningful action on lead it wants to open yet another tedious nationwide inquiry into hunters’ views about it. That’s too bad because the incremental process of ridding our environment of extraneous lead has already dragged out for too many years.

A nationwide ban on lead shot in migratory waterfowl hunting was adopted in 1991 after biologists estimated roughly two million ducks died each year from ingesting spent lead pellets.

California recently banned lead shot in endangered condor territory because condors were dying of lead poisoning. These majestic birds who are struggling for their very survival on the planet were doing only what comes naturally to condors, eating leftovers—that is, eating the gut piles that hunters leave behind. Except that these gut piles contained lead from ammo. And surely they were also eating carcasses of animals who were wounded by hunters and left to die.

Some 23 states require nontoxic ammunition on more than 1.3 million acres of hunting areas and game habitats. These prohibitions were prompted by the devastating lead toll on an estimated 100 bird species, including bald eagles.

Last year, lead-contaminated deer meat was removed from food bank shelves and pregnant women were warned against eating such meat. More recently, Delaware announced regulations prohibiting hunters from using lead shot while dove hunting.

Really, what more needs to be said? There are plentiful nontoxic alternatives, which are only fractionally more expensive.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that for its next move, it wants to conduct a “National Mourning Dove Hunter Attitude Survey on Nontoxic Shot.” These songbirds are the most heavily hunted migratory bird in the nation. And the agency says that attitudes of dove hunters will “help us make nontoxic shot policy decisions.”

Gauging the opinions of dove hunters can’t be a bad thing—it just doesn’t seem necessary in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence that cumulative lead deposits pose a significant risk to ground-feeding mourning doves and to other wildlife that directly and indirectly ingest toxic shot, including birds of prey and other animals who scavenge on downed birds.

For every dove shot and bagged, hunters discharge an average of eight shots according to a long-term study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Densities of greater than 860,000 pellets per hectare have been reported in dove fields, which are usually crop-growing soils. 

You’d think that hunters themselves would be clamoring to stop the systematic poisoning of our environment—which only diminishes their supply of game birds and other animals. After all, are they conservationists or just willful polluters?

While many rank-and-file sportsmen would gladly pay a couple dollars more for a box of nontoxic shells, the hunting industry leadership—like the National Rifle Association and U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance—again stand in the way. These are the same groups, according to Ted Williams, who protested the ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, and called it “the latest scalp in a well-organized, scarcely recognized series of flanking attacks upon the right to keep and bear arms.” Despite the doom-and-gloom rhetoric, hunters know two decades later that was a good decision for waterfowl, and didn’t lead to the end of duck or goose hunting.

What’s good for the goose is good for other birds, too. The new Obama Administration needs to turn away from old habits and not allow the wishes of hunters to delay sound scientific management of our precious outdoors. A good start would be to cancel this unimportant hunter survey and just get the lead out for the sake of fish and wildlife—and everyone who cares about our wildlands.


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