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The Goal; Protection of Wildlife, Human Health, and the Environment

A  rulemaking petition being advanced by a coalition of conservation and wildlife protection groups would require the National Park Service (NPS) to no longer allow the use or sale of lead-based ammunition or fishing tackle.

Fishing for brown trout on the Arkansas River above Salida.

Given the importance of outdoor hunting and fishing to the Colorado mountain economies of America’s wildlands, this could be a significant step. The victims of lead poisoning aren’t necessarily the targets of the lures or ammunition.

For instance, the majority of eagles, hawks, loons and grebes that die from ingested lead tackle acquire it as a result of fishing activity (e.g., ingesting a fish that has broken a line and has ingested or attached tackle, or mistaking lead weights for the small stones that they normally ingest to aid in digestion).

Lead tackle kills because after being swallowed, it goes into a bird’s gizzard. The acid and grinding action of the gizzard erodes the lead, which then passes into the bloodstream and organs and poisons the loons or grebes. Even a single small lead spit shot sinker is fatal, and will kill the bird within two to four weeks of ingesting a piece of lead fishing tackle.

In 1991, due to waterfowl population health concerns, the federal government officially banned the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting. This mandate was handed down out of concern for waterfowl ingesting spent lead shot in small, confined wetlands. But further bans on lead fishing lures and other uses of ammunition have been contentious; outdoor recreation groups usually bring up potential economic impacts on hunting and fishing in opposing further regulation.

Under the plan, the NPS would join 26 states and countries that have already banned lead ammunition. Spearheading the effort: the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

According to these advocates, the ecological stakes are profound. Altogether, more than 130 park wildlife species are exposed to or killed by ingesting lead or prey contaminated with lead:

  • Lead is a primary threat to birdlife, especially bald eagles, hawks, and other raptors, as well as other birds from loons to condors;
  • Lead fragments from spent shells remain lodged throughout the wildlife food chain;
  • Lost lead fishing tackle leads to elevated levels of lead in fish and amphibians.

Beyond the harm to wildlife, human consumption of lead-shot game poses significant health risks. For example, as we approach another Thanksgiving, scientists warn of the potentially severe and long-term ill effects of eating turkeys killed with lead ammunition.

“Banning lead from our national parks would be one of the single biggest conservation advances in a generation,” said Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal, noting that early in the Obama years, the NPS briefly announced such a ban, called “Get the Lead Out” but reversed course under opposition from the National Rifle Association and ammunition and gun manufacturers. “It is high time for our parks to ‘Get the Lead Out.'”

While most parks by law do not permit hunting, some 76 of the total 423 national parks allow recreational, subsistence, or tribal hunting. However, those parks with hunting (the largest are in Alaska) cover more than 60 percent of land within the entire national park system. In addition, more than 85 percent of parks with fish (213 in all) are open for fishing.

“The Golden Eagle, California Condor, and dozens of other species are under threat from lead ammunition and fishing tackle,” said American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Government Relations, Pesticides and Birds Campaign Hardy Kern. “Our public lands should be safe havens for wildlife, and lead has no place on them.”

“The science is clear—lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle are harmful to wildlife and human health,” stated Jacob Carter, Research Director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The National Park Service should heed the evidence, protect our public lands and wildlife, and ban lead from our national parks.”

This past September, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a phase-out of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in 18 National Wildlife Refuges.