On his way out the door, former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe issued an order to establish procedures and a timeline for expanding the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to conserve wildlife. The order sets forth policy to require the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle “to the fullest extent practicable” for all activities on Service lands, waters and facilities by January 2022, except as needed for law enforcement or to address health and safety issues. The order also provides for collaboration with state fish and wildlife agencies in its implementation.
In addition to continued education and research, Ashe set forth three basic steps to achieve this policy. To provide more consistency, the Service is to identify existing state, Federal or tribal requirements to use nontoxic ammunition or tackle and, through amendment of Service hunting and fishing regulations, to apply and enforce those requirements on Service lands. Second, Regional Directors must take steps to require the use of nontoxic ammunition and tackle when available information indicates that the lead content negatively impacts sensitive, vulnerable or trust resources. It also directs the Service, in consultation with National Flyway Councils, to establish a process to phase in the use of nontoxic ammunition for hunting mourning doves and other upland birds. In other words, the order is a measured plan to be implemented through collaboration, consultation and rulemaking over the next five years.
The phase-out of lead ammunition is nothing new. The Service phased out the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl starting in 1986, but rejected an alternative that would have extended to all migratory bird hunting based on insufficient data. For decades, scientific evidence regarding the detrimental effect of lead ammunition on wildlife has been mounting. A recent Service assessment concluded that numerous lines of evidence in the scientific literature point to spent lead ammunition as the primary pathway for widespread lead exposure to scavenging birds such as bald and golden eagles and the California condor in the United States, that reducing this route of exposure will result in the greatest alleviation of mortality and other adverse effects to these species from lead in the environment, and that lead can be replaced in ammunition by alternative metals that are currently available and present limited environmental threats.
Unfortunately, Ashe’s timing was terrible. Predictably, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Rifle Association characterized the order as government overreach, unchecked politics and not based on sound science. They called for the next Director to rescind the order, and Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Blake Farenthold, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and the Environment, have instructed the Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce all documents referring or relating to issuance of the order by February 13, and to provide a briefing on the Service’s outreach efforts to the states and the “sportsmen’s community” in anticipation of the order’s issuance. Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, poised to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is likely to ensure that the order is very promptly rescinded.
Waterfowl hunters have successfully used nontoxic shot for over twenty-five years. Absent further leadership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some states are phasing out lead ammunition. Hunters currently have a reasonable choice to avoid unintended harm – wildlife does not.