Feature Article: Lead Ammo Ban

Lead ammunition will not be allowed for any hunting in California after July 1

BY JIM MATTHEWS/Special to Western Outdoor NewsPublished: Jun 13, 2019

SACRAMENTO — The 260,000-plus hunters in California will be required to use non-lead ammunition for all hunting beginning July 1 this year. This is true for all hunting — from big game to upland birds to varmints. Under legislation passed in 2013 by the California legislature (AB 711), lead ammunition for hunting was banned and the Department of Fish and Wildlife was given five years starting in 2014 to phase in the complete ban.

Ostensibly, the phase-in was so ammunition makers could meet the demand for all types of non-lead hunting ammunition this ban would create in the marketplace, alleviating the availability and backlash nightmare an instant ban would have created.

CALIF. HUNTERS ARE bracing themselves and preparing for life without lead ammo starting in a couple weeks. That goes for all hunting, this after smaller bans have been rolled out in recent years.

Over the past four years, lead hunting ammunition has been banned in steps. It was banned for all hunting on state wildlife areas and ecological reserves, for bighorn sheep (all dozen or so tagholders each year), for all game birds except doves and quail, and for all small game hunting. This year, the lead ban will include all big game statewide, and it will be the first year that all quail and dove hunters will be required to use non-lead ammunition.

Big game, doves and quail are the hunting activities with the most participation in Califor­nia, and there has been concern that the demand for non-lead ammunition statewide will cause shortages, but most retailers have been ramping up the supplies and inventory of non-lead ammunition they stock and should have non-lead ammunition available most of the popular calibers and gauges.

That does not mean that everything is rosy. There will be problems.

Some hunters will face difficultly finding the correct non-lead ammunition for their firearms. With the recent statewide requirement that all ammunition sales be made in face-to-face, over-the-counter purchases, the state has effectively ended mail order ammunition purchases. Specialty non-lead ammunition in less popular centerfire hunting calibers or non-standard shotgun gauges and legal shot types will be hard to find. It is also technically illegal to buy this ammunition out of state and bring to California. This will place an incredible burden on retailers as thousands of hunters across the state scramble to have local dealers order legal, non-lead ammunition.

Enforcement of the lead ban is going to be a problem on two counts. First, the fines are outlandish. A hunter found in violation will face a $500 fine for a first offense. That is true even if the that violation could be as simple as having a single lead round in a shooting vest or pocket mixed with non-lead ammunition — a round that was overlooked when a hunter was going into the field. A second offense will cost a hunter between $1,000 and $5,000 and the risk of losing hunting privileges for life. Those fines are more than fines for deer poaching, in many cases. Second, according to the DFW, wardens will have the authority to inspect all ammu­nition in a hunter’s possession while in the field. That isn’t a problem, but if the warden can’t make a deter­mination if the hunter’s ammunition is non-lead, the warden can confiscate the ammunition for further analy­sis. This is a clear violation of search and seizure laws.

The lead ban is extremely unpopular with hunters across the state, largely because it was passed by the legislature under false pretenses: The legislators said the bill was necessary to protect all the state’s wildlife from exposure to lead, but especially condors.

How We Got Here: The Condor Guise

However, there was already a lead ammunition ban in place throughout the range of condors. What was not reported during the debate on the statewide lead ban was simple: The condor zone ban had done absolutely nothing to improve the plight of the Cali­fornia condor. There continued to be deaths of the big birds due to lead inside the condor zone, even after lead was banned there. So, the proponents of the bill con­tinued to blame hunters. We needed a statewide ban to protect condors because hunt­ers are not complying with the local ban, they said. Everyone was still using lead, they said.

Well, no. All the accusations were blatant lies. There was research showing that background lead levels in resident golden eagles and vultures in the non-lead condor zone dropped to zero. While there is no science to suggest hunter’s lead left in gut piles and carcasses was impacting either eagle or vulture populations, or even causing significant bird deaths, the testing of these birds proved hunting compliance had been exceptional. The DFW also said, with data collected through warden contacts and surveys, that compliance has been nearly 100 percent. The ban had been great for eagles — so good that none of the tested birds had lead any longer. But it was doing nothing for condors, which continued to have high background levels of lead.

Do you know there has never been a condor food study done? Never. After millions of dollars spent on research and field studies, we have no scientific papers on what condors eat or where they feed. Nearly all of them have radio transmitters, but there has never been a food study done. So where are they getting the lead? What are they getting it from? The scientists mostly still blame hunter lead for all the lead problems, even though the evidence for that contention is not borne out by data.

So the lead ban is not about condors.

Is a Lead Ban Still a Good Idea?

In hindsight, even some hunter apologists argue, “that maybe the lead ammunition ban is a good thing to protect those eagles and vultures and probably other scavenging animals.” But the science simply doesn’t support that.

The scientific premise is that many wild animals may pick up hunter’s lead when feeding (either on spent shotgun pellets birds might think are seeds, or when scavengers/predators feed on gutpiles that may have lead bullet residue or mushroomed slugs left behind by hunters after killing game). Condors were the poster child for the argument. Their population numbers are so low that any loss of one of these birds is a blow to survival of the species. It is certain that in a couple of instances whole hunter’s slugs, likely picked from a gutpile or wounded and lost game animal, have killed condors in the past. There is little or no scientific proof that hunter’s lead is sole culprit in condors’ chronically elevated lead levels, and may never have been a very significant one.

There is also no scientific evidence that hunter’s lead is impacting the health or population levels of any other species. There is evidence that hunter’s lead may impact individual birds or mammals, even causing their death in some instances, but it is not driving population levels downward and certainly not a reason for a lead ammunition ban. For example, more eagles are likely killed by spinning wind power turbines than by hunter’s lead. There has never been a single case of a coyote dying after scavenging hunter-killed game or gutpiles, yet thousands of coyotes are killed on the state’s roadways each year. Regardless of the man-caused mortality, populations of eagles and coyotes are not declining.

The statewide ban was passed under a false premise and bad science. It would be like the legislature banning all human exposure to radiation (no more annual dental x-rays or x-rays of broken legs) because we know radiation can be bad in excessive amounts. A dumb legislative move like that would cripple medical treatments and screenings. Yet, that is what the legislature did to hunters.

How We Really Got Here

The bill was introduced and passed to placate the anti-hunting, animal rights community, which has long been playing the long game through incremental hunting bans. There is currently a bill in the legislature that would ban bobcat hunting. A couple of years ago, using hounds to hunt bears was banned. The goal is to ban all or hunting or to make jumping through all the requirements and hoops so difficult that hunters will simply give up hunting. And it’s working. In California, where there were once 850,000 annual hunting licenses sold, now we are down to just over 260,000.

The new DFW, in spite of their recent clamoring about wanting to solve the “problem” of declining numbers of hunting and fishing license holders, has been a facilitator in the process of running hunters from the sport.

Historically, the DFW has refused or been directed not to comment on legislation, unless requested by the legislature (and sometimes not even then). This long-standing rule was broken in 2013, when the current director, Chuck Bonham, supported the lead hunting ammunition ban, effectively saying the agency supported the unproven idea that lead ammunition was a danger to the state’s wildlife. Many of the state’s wildlife scientists within in the DFW were livid over the move.

Bonham has been mum on legislation since. He didn’t go to the authors of the bill that banned hunting of black bears with hounds to point out how hounds were the most effective way to control that state’s wildly growing black bear population or how it allowed hunters to be far more selective than other forms of hunting. No, he let them ban the use of hounds without a peep. Bear complaints are at an all-time high and the bear population has exploded.

Bonham has been mum on the proposed ban on bobcat hunting, never pointing out there is simply no evidence that the state’s bobcat numbers are in decline, nor pointing out that the small numbers taken by hunters could not have an impact.

Many people pooh-pooh the idea that the lead ammunition ban has anything to do with a larger anti-hunting agenda, but after July 1, the reality is that all big game hunting could be banned overnight (at least with a different administration in the White House).

The National Shooting Sports Foundation fought the California lead ban in 2013 because they could see the long-game of the anti-hunters. So, how could a big game hunting ban happen overnight in the future? The alternative metals used to make big game hunting slugs are all classified as “armor piercing” by the federal government and require a special permission to make, sell, or possess. Up until this point, the feds have not enforced a ban on solid copper bullets (the most common non-lead big game hunting alternative to lead). As the NSSF said in 2013, “this is just another Obama executive order away from happening.”

DFW director Bonham tried to say this was the reason he moved to support the lead-ban bill asking the legislators to give him the power — and a legislative mandate in AB 711 — to continue to allow lead-based ammunition if federal rule-making banned lead alternatives. That part must have been mumbled when he was talking to legislators. The only thing the legislature heard was “we support the science.” They didn’t change the bill to require the director to allow lead ammunition if all other ammunition was deemed “armor piercing” by the feds.

Do you think the anti-hunting crowd doesn’t know this? Would they have had an ear in the White House if Hillary Clinton had won the last election? We are just one just one election away from losing big game hunting in California with existing laws we now have in place.

The good news is that hunters will still be able to hunt in California this year, and for the immediate foreseeable future, after jumping through all the needless hoops to shoot non-lead. The bad news… Well, you know how the bad news headlines read. Hunters have been reading them for decades in this state.

Answers to hunters’ basic questions on non-lead ammunition and on which types and brands of ammunition will be legal for this year’s hunting season, can visit the Department of Fish and Wildlife dedicated non-lead hunting page at: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Hunting/Nonlead-Ammunition.

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