Thursday, October 29, 2015

California and the rural way of life: Part II - Statewide ban on lead hunting ammunition

As I discussed in my previous post, many rural Californians (and rural people in general) distrust their own government and feel that they are not being represented by those in power (see here for Part I and links to other posts on this topic).  This is the second installment in a series of posts that focus on some of the complaints rural Californians have with the state government.  This post will focus on how the new statewide lead hunting ammunition ban in California is changing the rural California hunting culture.

In 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned the use of lead ammunition for hunting (see article here).  The law goes into effect this year, 2015, for state owned lands, and by 2019, the ban will be implemented statewide (see here).  California, unsurprising to many, was the first state to impose such a ban.  This new law was an extension of the pre-existing ban on lead ammunition for hunting in the territory of the endangered California Condor.  In addition to the ban on lead hunting ammunition in condor habitat, California also has had a ban on using lead ammunition for hunting waterfowl since 1991.  The statewide ban on lead ammunition was passed, according to Governor Brown and Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who proposed the legislation, because lead ammunition from hunters posed a threat to wildlife, the environment, and hunters' health (see article here).  I will discuss their reasoning below.  However, the Fish and Wildlife director is able to suspend the ban if the federal government outlaws non-lead ammunition due to its armor piercing capabilities, thus protecting citizens' ability to hunt in the state. 

The gripe that most people have with this ban is not grounded in a belief that an overabundance of lead in the environment can never be problematic.  Rather, for many, the issue is that people who are in opposition to this new legislation don't believe that there is a risk of overabundance of lead from hunters in the majority of the state's environment.  In places where there are issues with lead, hunters have no problem with changing the way they hunt.  For example, all of the hunters I know are perfectly fine with a ban on lead for waterfowl hunting.  Waterfowl hunting is generally stationary, as hunters usually hunt in a stand or blind for the day.  One group can potentially fire well over a hundred rounds a day into wetland areas (assuming a lot of missed shots, and plenty of birds).  In state wildlife areas, blinds can be filled three days a week for the entire season (15 weeks).  Over many years, a substantial amount of lead can build up in these areas and can cause serious environmental concerns.  Hunters want to continue to hunt waterfowl, and they understand that in order to have a sustainable population and a healthy environment, they must protect the birds' habitat.

In the case of the California Condor, most hunters are willing to sacrifice lead bullets in order to preserve this endangered species.  Since the 2009 reintroduction program, 23 condors have died due to lead poisoning (see here).  This is a considerable number considering the number of condors in California at the end of 2014 was just 128.  The total number of California Condors in the wild and in captivity is only 421 total (for a breakdown of populations, see here).  Groups such as the Ventana Wildlife Society educate hunters about problems arising from lead ammunition in condor territory and sometimes provide free non-lead ammunition to hunters making the switch from lead to copper.

This new law assumes three things: that a ban on lead hunting ammunition benefits the environment, human health, and wildlife.  I will discuss each assumption separately.  First, the state assumes that lead ammunition fired into the environment causes an overabundance of lead in the areas in which it is fired, which causes lead contamination.  This may be true in specific places that are used very frequently (like duck blinds), but most of these areas already have a ban on lead to prevent such problems.  When hunting larger game, the problem of over-accumulation does not exist as it does with waterfowl hunting.  The number of bullets fired during deer season is low when compared to duck hunting, and the area in which people hunt can cover hundreds of square miles.  In fact, many California big game hunters never fire a shot all season except for target practice, which under the new law is perfectly legal. 

The state asserts that lead fragments in wild game meat are a danger and health risk to humans that consume it.  Lead bullets can fragment when entering an animal.  Studies have shown that these lead fragments can be found in processed wild game meat (mostly ground deer meat).  However, there is no evidence that any person has ever gotten lead poisoning from eating wild game meat (see here).  Further, lead shot that is used to kill birds does not fragment.  The shot can easily be removed when cleaning the bird.  Even if one is missed, it is easily detectable when biting into the meat and can be spit out causing no harm to the person who found it (as long as they don't bite down too hard).

The state also assumes that this ban will benefit wildlife.  The argument is that when a hunter kills an animal, the gut pile left behind contains lead fragments (or an intact bullet).  When scavengers, such as coyotes, vultures, hawks, and eagles eat the gut pile, they ingest some of the lead.  This, in turn, can cause some animals to get lead poisoning (see articles here and here).  Additionally, in areas that are heavily hunted, birds such as doves, geese, and ducks can pick up lead shot when foraging, and this shot can wind up in the gizzard of the birds (the gizzard is the organ that grinds up the seeds/plants that the animals eat).  Birds will eat rocks to help with the grinding process and can easily mistake lead shot for rocks.  However, consumption of lead does not always end with lead poisoning or death. 

Many hunters do not trust non-lead ammunition to take down animals quickly and humanely.  There is a concern that copper bullets (for big game hunting) are not as accurate and do not have the knock-down power of lead.  This can be seen over and over on internet shooting forums.  I have also heard the same thing from hunters personally.  I know several people who say they have shot deer with copper bullets and said that the deer run for a long way before they die.  The concern is that lower accuracy and allowing the animal to run a long way before it dies will lead to lost animals.  If an animal is only wounded due to a bad shot or runs a long way, some hunters will not be able to find them.  Then the animal is killed for no reason, which bothers hunters and non-hunters alike.

The question thus becomes: what is more important, letting lead kill some birds and coyotes or letting some deer and other large game die for no reason?  Assuming that copper will lead to more "lost" deer, the question is not very easy to answer (see here for a copper bullet study).  If copper is really just as good as lead, then hunters will eventually come around.  However, there seems to be a lack of understanding among the hunting community about the reasons behind the ban.

Many hunters feel that this law was thrust upon them with no effort to consult with the hunting community.  They think the bans will do little to help an issue that is not really an issue.  In fact, the organization representing California game wardens was against this law, too.  They asserted that "there is insufficient data to justify such a drastic action across the entire state."  (see here).  That statement comes from the game wardens, whose job and duty is to protect our wild game and natural resources.

Many hunters feel that there is an ulterior motive for the ban.  California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and when this law was passed, 11 other gun control measures were also signed into law (see here for breakdown of the laws).  Only seven gun control measures were vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown that year.  Many see this as a backdoor tactic to take their guns away, or at least restrict the ability to use them.  Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, significant issues arise regarding access to ammunition because of this law.

Traditionally, hunting has brought considerable revenue to rural communities, as well as a significant percentage of meat some families eat.  This new law affects the cost of ammunition, employment, rural revenue, and tax revenue (see here).  The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) released a report that found that ammunition prices will likely rise by 284 percent for centerfire rounds, 294 percent for rimfire rounds (like .22 caliber), and shotshells by 387 percent.  Ammunition is already expensive for some, and with the price increases, it will push some people away from hunting.  The NSSF estimated that the higher ammunition prices will drive 36 percent of hunters away from the sport or reduce their overall participation.  Thirteen percent of California hunters said that they would stop hunting due to the increased ammunition prices, 23 percent said they would hunt less due to the new law, and 10 percent said they were unsure if they would continue to hunt.

Additionally, non-lead ammunition is hard to find.  In fact, non-lead ammunition is not available.  I was drawn for a deer hunt on state land this year.  Due to the new law, I cannot use my rifle because non-lead ammunition is not made for it.  My options were to buy a new gun (which is expensive, especially for someone living off of law school loans), or to borrow one.  Luckily I know enough people that borrowing wasn't too difficult.  For many people, however, neither option will work.  They are then forced to stop hunting or break the law.

The NSSF report also found that the projected loss of 13 percent of hunters (51,676) would negatively impact the economy.  Many rural areas depend on hunting season for a significant portion of their yearly revenue (see here).  A decrease of this amount of hunters can have a huge impact on small rural towns.  The report found that 1,868 jobs would be lost statewide, approximately $69 million in salaries and wages, and $19.7 million in federal and state tax revenue. 

This issue is not as black and white as some would believe.  Although the new law can benefit certain wildlife species in specific areas by reducing the ingestion of lead, there are also adverse effects.  The law can negatively effect rural economies by hindering people's ability to participate in the American tradition of hunting as well as their ability to put food on the table.  Most hunters want to do what is best for the environment.  However, the state government did not appear to consider the minimal impacts lead hunting ammunition has in many parts of the state nor the negative peripheral effects the new law has on hunters and rural communities.  To most hunters and rural people, the government appears to only be concerned with what the urban environmentalists want, at the expense of the rural minority.

For more posts on hunting as part of the American heritage, see here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Daniel Quinley said...

There definitely seems to be more to the lead ammunition ban than the given reasons. For me, the sheer economic impact of banning lead ammunition is a major issue. It severely limits access to ammunition, and therefore access to hunting. In California, it seems that people who do not have access to the sport are the one's who misunderstand it--and therefore dismiss it--most. While I am in full favor of restricting the use of lead ammunition where it can build up--the waterfowl blinds are a perfect example--to restrict the use of ammunition elsewhere simply makes no sense. It costs more, it means that hunters cannot use certain calibers or firearms, and, in increasing the cost of ammunition (and other costs, such as potentially having to buy a new rifle), puts hunting as an elite sport, affordable only to the few, instead of a populist sport. This seems a tragedy to me, because it significantly restricts an outdoor activity in a state that should pride itself on outdoor recreation. And, the misunderstanding (intentional or unintentional) behind banning lead ammunition is symptomatic of the urban-dominated politics in California. I cannot imagine someone the least bit familiar with hunting actually going for the ban. Anyways, that's my two cents and my rant. Having hunted for most of my adult life, I find myself not wanting to hunt in California because of the restrictions. I can only imagine there are significant numbers of other Californians who feel the same way. And that is a shame.