Anti-Hunters Petition to Ban Lead-Based Ammunition

Anti-hunting activists, cloaking themselves as conservationists, have been working at the state and federal levels to reduce sport hunting by seeking a ban on the use of lead-based ammunition. Leading the “Get the Lead Out” campaign is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a radical animal rights group that falsely portrays itself in television ads as a mainstream animal care organization.1

In early June 2014, HSUS, along with eleven other organizations and five alleged hunters, filed a fifty-page petition with the Department of Interior (DOI) requesting that the DOI promulgate a regulation stating: “The use of nontoxic ammunition shall be required when discharging any firearm on any land owned, managed, administered, or otherwise controlled by the National Park Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” The petition is available at: HSUS incorrectly claims that the ban on lead-based ammunition will affect

160 million acres of public land managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Actually, the NPS manages 84.6 million acres while the FWS manages 96.2 million acres (mostly wildlife refuges) for a total of 180.8 million acres or about 7.5% of the national acreage.

The other anti-hunting wildlife organizations that signed onto the petition were The Fund for Animals, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, the South Florida Wildlife Center, the Chocolay Raptor Center, the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, the Northwood Alliance, and the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.

The petition is crammed with pseudo-scientific statements, junk science, and citations to studies that showed higher lead levels in consumers of wild game killed by lead ammunition as well as raptors that supposedly feed on gut piles. Yet there is no documented case in this country of a hunter or anyone else dying or becoming ill from eating game killed with traditional ammunition. The Iowa Department of Health has tested blood lead levels of residents for fifteen years; if lead in venison was a serious risk, it would have surfaced by now in the 525,000 youths and adults that have been screened. Although studies by North Dakota and Minnesota found elevated levels of lead in the blood of persons who ate venison killed with traditional ammunition, the North Dakota study also found that “some individuals with substantial wild game consumption may have lower blood lead levels than some other individuals with little or no wild game consumption.” In short, the study was inconclusive for showing that game killed with lead ammunition constituted a public health danger if consumed. Other studies have found hardly any lead content in whole pieces of meat as compared to ground meat.

When the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services released the results of its study in 2008 regarding human consumption of venison, it could only conclude that there was an “indeterminate” public health hazard from the harvest of 500,000 deer because elevated blood lead levels had not been confirmed among consumers and the measured lead content in venison varied greatly. But that did not stop the agency from recommending a transition to non-lead (often referred to as “green” or “non-toxic”) ammunition, despite the lack of strong evidence proving a threat to public health.

In 2009, the Toxicology and Response Section of the Michigan Department of Community Health could not “conclude whether eating lead-contaminated venison in Michigan could harm people’s health because it is difficult to predict the impact of eating lead-contaminated venison on a child’s blood-lead level without knowing what other lead exposures a child may have.” (Emphasis added) In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated in 1989 that “[b]ecause of industrialization, lead is ubiquitous in the human environment.” One study discovered that the average blood level of 14,000 tested Americans was 2.58 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, whereas 10 mcg/dl for children and 25 mcg/dl for adults is considered high. In the North Dakota study of persons who consumed game killed with lead-based ammunition, no one tested higher than 10 mcg/dl and the average was 1.27 mcg/dl, according to the CDC.

It is not too much of a stretch to interpret the Michigan study as suggesting that elevated lead levels in condors and bald eagles might not be solely caused by ingesting bullet fragments or lead shot, if any. To support their emotional case, anti-hunting organizations invariably showcase a photo of a prostrate bald eagle, with rumpled feathers, allegedly dying of lead poisoning. Then they claim that the iconic birds’ survival is severely impacted by lead-based ammunition. Yet the FWS has stated that breeding pairs increased by 724% between 1981 and 2006. Moreover, bald eagles are no longer listed as an endangered species. Scientists who have argued for banning lead-based ammunition have merely assumed, not proved, that elevated lead levels in raptors were caused by ingesting bullet fragments and lead shot from dead game. After all, lead is a natural part of the environment.

Thirty-three hunting, shooting, and conservation organizations subsequently addressed a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on July 23, 2014, that stated several points repeated in this paper. The letter concluded by calling the HSUS petition “quite simply an attempt to drive hunters, and subsequently recreational target shooters, off of Federal public lands. It is unnecessary, has no basis in sound science and should be rejected by the Department.”

Make no mistake, HSUS’s main goal is not to protect wildlife but rather to end hunting. Twenty-four years ago, HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, while director of the Fund for Animals (with which HSUS later merged), declared, “We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States. We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.” (Full Cry Magazine, Oct. 10, 1990). The regulations sought by HSUS would actually reduce wildlife and their habitats through the loss of license fees, and 11% excise taxes on firearms and ammunition (which have so far raised over $7 billion in support of wildlife conservation since enactment of the “Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937) because many hunters cannot afford the non-toxic ammunition.

According to HSUS’s playbook entitled “The HSUS Lead-Free Campaign: A Strategic Offensive to End Suffering and Destruction Caused by Lead Ammunition,” the organization has “intentionally chosen to concentrate first on banning the use of all lead ammunition for hunting in California and pursuing a ban on federal lands owned by the Department of Interior in order to build momentum for the campaign and to spur change within the various ammunition manufacturers and state wildlife agencies.” The HSUS petition did not arise from concerns about public health safety or wildlife health. Its genesis resides deeply in the HSUS goal to eliminate hunting.

In 2007, with the use of flimsy studies, HSUS persuaded the California Legislature to pass the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act that requires use of non-lead rifle and pistol ammunition when hunting big game in areas used by the California condor in southern and central parts of the state. In 2013, the legislature amended the Act to phase out all lead ammunition by 2019 for hunting any wildlife in California. The draconian ban has never been supported by any scientific evidence showing that the levels of lead found in condors or dead bald eagles resulted from ingesting lead bullet fragments or shot contained in gut piles.

Gun rights and hunting groups have attacked the California law as an effort to ban hunting. They have been vindicated by the revelation that FWS’s California condor recovery coordinator, John McCamman, withheld release of the agency’s 18-page report, “California Condor Recovery Program, Project Update and 2011 and 2012 Lead Exposure Report” until after the legislature passed the final version of the bill on September 10, 2013. The report showed that there had been little change in the condors’ blood levels despite the 2007 ban on use of lead ammunition in condor areas. Trying to salvage the Obama administration’s lack of transparency, an FWS spokesman, Scott Flaherty, said, “It’s a scientific fact that lead poisoning is a leading cause of death in condors.” While that may be true, a plethora of California condor studies have not established as a scientific fact that the source of the birds’ lead poisoning is traditional ammunition.

As shown below, the HSUS petition is not the first attempt of anti-hunting groups to severely restrict hunting by making common types of ammunition unavailable and requiring hunters to buy expensive alternatives, a situation that would force many hunters to forego hunting altogether. Indeed, surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that 36% of California hunters stated that a ban on traditional ammunition would cause them to stop hunting or hunt less because of the increased cost of alternative ammunition, thereby causing a loss of jobs and state and local tax revenue. There is also no alternative ammunition available for about half of the calibers used by hunters.

In March 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other groups filed a 107-page petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate lead bullets and shot used in hunting and shooting sports (target, trap, and skeet shooting) as well as fishing sinkers under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which, the CBD well knew, exempts ammunition. A few weeks later, without bothering to print its response in the Federal Register, the EPA rejected the petition because it was substantially similar to another CBD petition filed in August 2010 that the EPA had quickly denied for lack of jurisdiction. When the CBD challenged the EPA in court, the judge mainly dismissed the appeal because the U.S. Supreme Court, in City of Arlington, Texas v. Federal Communications Commission, had held in May 2013 that courts should give an agency broad deference to determine its jurisdictional authority. Although the EPA has not decided whether to deny the 2012 petition’s request to ban lead fishing sinkers, it denied a similar petition in November 2010.

Less than a month ago, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission rejected, by a 5-1 vote, a petition by an anti-hunting activist and part-time raptor rehabilitator to ban use of non-toxic ammunition by hunters. The petition based its arguments on the raptors admitted in the past year to a facility run by the Birds of Prey Foundation. It offered no evidence of collateral damage to the state’s wildlife populations caused by using traditional ammunition and, of course, underestimated the effect of such a ban on access to affordable ammunition. The majority of the petition signers were non-residents.

The HSUS petition, relying on emotional arguments and sketchy studies, is a backdoor attempt to persuade the Department of Interior to indirectly curtail hunting on public lands. While various state agency studies have found elevated levels of lead in persons who consume game killed with traditional ammunition, no state or federal agency, including the CDC, has documented a single case of illness or death linked to lead poisoning caused by eating such meat. If the petition is granted, it is only a matter of time before the HSUS petitions for the same restriction on all 500,000,000 acres of land (one-fifth of U.S. surface land) managed by the DOI. It would heavily impact Nevada because the BLM manages almost 48 million acres in this state, or about 68% of the total acreage. HSUS is in this fight for the long term. So should be hunters and the real conservationists.

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The DOI was scheduled to take action on the HSUS petition by November 1 but, as yet, no decision has been reached. If you want to protect your hunting heritage and rights: (1) call the Department of Interior at (202) 208-3100; (2) e-mail the DOI at; or (3) mail Secretary Sally Jewell, Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20240, and ask the DOI to deny the HSUS petition.


1 HSUS staff and state directors attend state wildlife agency meetings and, HSUS claims, serve on state boards and commissions. It is an effective organization, having won 30 of its 42 ballot initiative campaigns. HSUS has enormous, mostly liquid, financial resources of over $200 million. Yet less than one percent of its budget is donated to local pet shelters, far less than it funnels into its pension plan. Still, a majority of Americans believe that HSUS is a pet shelter umbrella group that contributes most of its money to local organizations that care for dogs and cats. With so much money available, HSUS cannot be outspent but it can be defeated, as shown most recently in its unsuccessful campaign to effectively end bear hunts in Maine by bankrolling (with $2,500,000) a ballot initiative that, if passed, would have outlawed the use of dogs, traps, or bait.