Lead alternatives are here

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jamie Drake, The Enterprise

Chances are, if you like to fish or hunt, you’re carrying around a fair amount of lead in your ammo or tackle box. But that might change over the next few years.

Former President Barack Obama and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already tried to outlaw lead for ammo and fishing tackle. On his last day in office, President Obama proposed a basically symbolic ban to be implemented by 2022 on all federal lands. President Donald Trump’s administration quashed that directive almost immediately. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed the ban on his first full day in office.

Still, the winds are a-changing.

Already lead shot for waterfowl hunting has been banned in the United States for more than 20 years. But the scope might be widening.

There’s been a recent push from environmentalists, nature enthusiasts and policy-makers to ban all lead ammo and tackle. They argue that the threat posed to wildlife that accidentally ingest lead shot and sinkers is too great to ignore.

For certain, many species of birds suffer from lead poisoning each year. Loons, eagles and other raptors have been especially hard-hit, and natural resources departments across the U.S. have taken notice. Many now track the number of lead poisonings and fatalities that affect wildlife in their state.

Pennsylvania has been keeping records for years. One-third of all eagle deaths are attributed to poisoning, with lead being the most common toxin. Lead poisoning can be successfully treated, but unfortunately by the time an affected eagle is taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center for care, usually too much lead has been absorbed for the treatment to be effective. And with more eagles now living in the wild, there’s been an uptick in the number of eagles poisoned by lead.

Therein lies the rub. Individual wildlife fatalities are tragic events, but populations, overall, are not suffering perceptible declines due to lead poisoning. Take, for example, eagles.

Eagle populations have rebounded across the U.S. In Pennsylvania, where there were just three active bald eagle nests in the 1980s, today there are more than 250 nesting pairs. The bald eagle was removed from the state’s threatened species list in 2014.

Because overall populations of wildlife are not adversely affected by lead poisoning, currently there is no scientific reason to impose any additional restrictions on lead ammo or tackle besides existing bans that are already in effect. But Assemblymember Dr. Bill Quirk, PhD (D) from California believes otherwise.

He introduced a bill to the state legislature last month to ban all small lead fishing weights from California. And there’s a good chance it will become law. A lead ammo ban is already on the books in California, with the final stages of the ban to take effect next year.

The response to Quirk’s proposed ban was what you’d expect — a lot of outcry from lobbyists, sportfishing organizations and recreational fishermen. They argue there’s no scientific reason to make changes to existing regulations. And because many lead replacements are costlier, they argue the ban will shut people out from fishing and hunting and have a “devastating” effect on tourism, jobs and license sales.

I’ve always used lead sinkers and haven’t yet noticed any alternatives for sale at the mom-and-pop stores where I usually buy my bait and tackle. But I’m willing to switch to something safer if alternatives that work are available. It’s always painful to open our wallets, but I did a little checking around to see if the cost argument holds water.

I did my comparison shopping on Cabelas.com. A pack of 50 ¼-ounce lead egg sinkers costs $5.99. The same style and weight made of steel costs $4.99 for 24. That’s about double the price for non-lead sinkers, but we’re just talking about a couple of bucks. A few dollars more each year for sinkers isn’t going to price anyone out of their much-loved hobby.

Let’s compare prices between lead and non-toxic shotgun shells. In Maryland, waterfowl and coot hunters are required to use non-toxic shot. While there aren’t that many non-lead alternatives for other hunting applications, the options have grown considerably over the past couple years.

On Cabelas.com, a shopper can purchase a box of 25 lead Winchester 12-gauge pheasant-load shells for $19.99. A similar box of 25 Hevi-Shot non-lead pheasant shot for $25.99. Again, that’s a difference I can’t see making too much of a difference for the average hunter.

This push to switch to environmentally-safe options sounds like an opportunity to me. Rather than cling to the past and try to tread water for a few years under the current administration, we should look forward and embrace change for the better.

Fishermen and hunters are often the first to inform the public they are fighting on the frontlines of conservation. When non-lead alternatives are available and the cost isn’t prohibitive, let’s show our compassion and concern for the well-being of wildlife by making a voluntary choice to use products that are best for the natural world.