Toxic Shot Syndrome: New Interior Secretary Bows to the Gun Lobby

Lead bullets | Photo: Dave Gough, some rights reserved
Wildlife rescuer holds terminally poisoned bald eagle | Image: Dwickish
Wildlife rescuer holds terminally poisoned bald eagle | Photo: screen capture from video by Dwickish

Commentary: Imagine that the American landscape was contaminated with a toxic substance. Imagine that this substance could cause heart attacks, strokes, memory loss, kidney failure, and reduced intelligence. Imagine that it was in our rivers and streams, in some of the food we eat, and even — at times — in the air.

Now imagine that scientists universally agreed that we should reduce the amount of this substance in the landscape, but that an industry-funded disinformation campaign, similar to those concerning climate change and cigarette smoking, muddied the issue for voters. And to cap it all off, imagine that the majority of times people spread this substance over the landscape, they were doing so for fun.

That pretty much sums up the situation with regard to lead ammunition used in hunting in the United States. And our newly minted Secretary of the Interior just did his part to make sure the contamination continues.

On his first day in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed a directive, issued on the last full day of the Obama administration by Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to ban the use of lead ammunition and fishing gear in National Wildlife Refuges starting in 2022.

That directive has since been scrubbed from the USFWS website, but we’ve saved a copy for you here

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke | Photo: Tony Llama
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke | Photo: Tony Llama, public domain

If lead is a problem, why the delay in banning lead ammo until 2022? That’s to give the ammunition industry time to make alternatives more widely available, which will bring down those alternatives’ price, which for a while was significantly higher than lead. That’s changing. Around 30 states have either enacted their own bans on lead ammo, or are considering doing so. Some are partial bans applying only to state lands or other specific hunting locales; some, like the California ban taking full effect in 2019, prohibit use of lead ammo anywhere in the state.

Those bans create a market for alternatives, and demand will increase production, which will increase supply, which will reduce cost. Not that cost of ammunition is anything but a convenient political talking point. A 2011 study by USFWS found that ammunition accounted for very little of a typical hunting expedition’s costs, with transportation, food, and lodging making up the bulk of expenses. That’s especially true for hunters of large game, who might shoot a dozen bullets in the course of a year.

Nonetheless, disinformation campaigns such as the National Rifle Association’s “Hunt For Truth” continue to push the economic argument against bans of lead ammunition, which they refer to as “traditional” ammunition. They also challenge the consensus among actual scientists that lead ammunition poses a threat to either wildlife or public health.

But that consensus is pretty solid. Wildlife biologists have determined that consuming a single lead bullet fragment from a carcass or gut pile, or ingested accidentally while browsing for vegetation, can fatally poison birds ranging from loons to California condors. A study of ravens in Wyoming found that half the birds studied during hunting season had blood lead levels twice as high as the level the Centers for Disease Control defines as full-blown lead poisoning for human children. And one of the birds most often at risk, due to its habit of scavenging, should be instantly familiar to Americans, even if they've never been attacked by one at a photo op.

A single lead bullet can fragment into several ingestible pieces large enough to endanger a condor or a bald eagle when they pick through hunters’ gut piles. That means that if even if hunters were using a few single bullets here and there, individual animals could still be at risk. But we’re not talking just a few bullets. Each year, something like nine billion rounds of lead ammunition are sold in the United States. That’s billion with a B. That’s enough ammunition for former Vice President Dick Cheney to shoot every single American man, woman, and child in the face 27 times.

Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting for years, and the regional and state bans for upland hunting mentioned above ought not to be affected by Zinke’s gift to the gun lobby. It’s likely that even the all-powerful NRA won’t be able to suppress actual science forever.

But Zinke’s act, coming on his first day on the job, serves as a signal of his likely approach to managing the Interior Department. Looks like he’s more interested in defending people who would damage the environment than in defending the environment itself.

Banner: Dave Gough, some rights reserved

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