Despite evidence to the contrary, the National Rifle Association continues to deny that lead ammunition is poisonous to wildlife.
After staving off extinction in the early 1990s, there are approximate 279 California condors in the world. (Photo: Nancy Nehring/Getty Images)
For a few short days last week, the National Rifle Association posted its second “enemies list” on a new NRA-sponsored website called huntfortruth.org. Mysteriously, the website is now down, citing “scheduled maintenance” after a week in existence. Yet the list, once published, is now present in the collective conscious. On it are zoos, environmental groups, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all of whom the NRA is admonishing for their desire to ban the use of lead bullets by hunters.
TakePart first learned of the story on Wednesday, after the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that huntfortruth.org had posted the following: “Self-proclaimed environmental organizations are pushing to prohibit the use of traditional lead ammunition in hunting and recreational shooting. These radical groups are now going so far as to claim that eating wild game taken with lead ammunition is a serious health risk to hunters and families.”
The group went to say that “Anti-lead ammunition groups will not rest until all lead ammunition, and ultimately hunting, is abandoned.”
The list comes at a time when new legislation is being considered by the California State Legislature that would ban the use of lead bullets throughout the state. At present, lead bullets are banned in habitats favored by the endangered California condor.
The San Diego Zoo, along with the California Condor Recovery program, have been working to rebuild California condor populations since 1992, when the giant black birds faced extinction. When these groups, along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in, just nine remained in the wild.
According to Simmons, as scientists began doing necropsies of the dead birds, they found that many had been poisoned by lead they’d ingested either through lead shot or by ingesting the carcasses of animals killed with lead shot. As a result, several years ago California banned lead bullets in the condor recovery release area, between San Jose and Los Angeles.
Since the condor recovery program first started, says Simmons, the birds have rebounded. The California Condor Recovery program has now restored 300 to the wild. Yet, says Simmons, many are still dying, and still because of lead poisoning. “The problem is that the birds’ range extends beyond the recovery area. When they go beyond it, they still encounter lead shot, and carcasses of animals that have been killed with lead.”
Environmental groups have long known that the NRA opposes a ban on lead bullets. But the list has people like Josh Mogerman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, baffled. In an interview on Wednesday, Mogerman said, “It seems like the NRA is missing the mark. They should be firing on lead instead of zoos and conservationists. There are reams and reams of studies outlining the dangers of this stuff out there. It is toxic to people and to wildlife, so since there are better ammunition alternatives that perform as good or better than lead, why not help fix the problem? Lashing out at a beloved institution like the San Diego Zoo doesn’t really seem like a solution to me.”
Mogerman adds that the NRDC, contrary to what the NRA suggests, doesn’t want to “ban hunting.” Later, they added, “We’re not against hunting. We’re against lead.”
Mogerman also said that the lead bullet issue extends beyond the California condor. “In Yellowstone a couple of years ago they did a study that showed grizzly bears get elevated lead levels in their blood during hunting season. Eagles and swans at different times as well—definitely any sort of scavenging animal. If you have a carcass with lead on the landscape, whether it’s just been shot or has been there for a while—it’s going to cause problems for scavengers.”
The NRA has long contested that lead levels in either shot or animals shot with lead bullets are high enough to cause harm to other animals, yet several years ago, waterfowl hunters traded lead shot for steel shot and bismuth after studies showed that animals foraging on the bottom of lakes had ingested lead and been poisoned.
Another curiosity is that even if lead shot were banned, alternatives exist. Some hunters use copper shot, which the Arizona Department of Game and Fish promotes on its website. There it states that “High performance all-copper bullets are now available in most rifle calibers. In comparison to lead and copper-jacketed bullets, all-copper bullets do not fragment and are far less toxic. Scavengers like the condor are less likely to ingest one large mushroomed bullet versus many small bullet fragments scattered throughout a carcass or gut pile. Shotgun, pistol, and muzzleloader ammunition are also available in high performing non-lead alternatives. There are also non-lead alternatives for hand-loaders.”
The website also states: “Since 2005, as part of an effort to reduce lead exposure in condors, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has provided free non-lead ammunition to big game hunters in … areas [that] condors frequent most during the hunting season. Hunters have responded with an 80 to 90 percent participation rate since 2007. Thanks to the efforts of these hunters the amount of lead available to condors has been reduced in Arizona. According to post-hunt survey results, 93 percent of hunters who used the non-lead ammunition said it performed as well as or better than lead bullets. In addition, 72 percent of all hunters said they would recommend the 100% copper bullets to other hunters. This free non-lead ammunition program will continue as long as funding permits, thanks to the Heritage Fund (state lottery revenue) and the Wildlife Conservation Fund (state gaming revenue).”
Sam Paredes, with Gun Owners of California, told ABC7 News, however, that “The fact that a product is advertised does not mean that it’s available. If you go to a lot of the people that show non-lead ammunition being available, it’s back-ordered and they cannot tell you when they’re going to be able to deliver.”
The NRA did not return TakePart’s phone calls when contacted.