As proof that any gun-related issue is too hot for the National Park Service, a suggestion by Grand Teton National Park officials that lead ammunition used by hunters could pose a health threat is being condemned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The problem as park officials see it is that lead ammo can lead to wildlife poisoning when predators and scavengers come across discarded game, and even to human poisoning through bullet fragments that wind up in packaged game meat, a scenario which the park says has been documented. As a result of these situations, officials from the park and the National Elk Refuge issued a release in which they encouraged "hunters currently using lead ammunition to make a voluntary switch to non-lead ammunition during the 2009 elk and bison seasons" on refuge and park lands.
Lead is an environmental toxin well known for its capability to directly impact wildlife. Recently, more attention has been directed to lead poisoning of animals that consume carcasses shot with lead bullets from center fire rifles, such as those commonly used in big-game hunting. Studies by Craighead Beringia South, a local non-profit research institute based in Kelly, Wyoming, reveal that during the fall hunting season, lead levels spike in the blood of ravens and eagles in the Jackson Hole valley. These and other studies have shown that fragmented bullets often stay in the discarded remains of wild game and subsequently enter the food chain as they are consumed by other animals. Lead poisoning can result when wildlife species ingest the toxic material.
Recent documentation of lead bullet fragments found in packaged game meat has also raised concerns that this may serve as a potential source of lead contamination in humans. One of the goals of the voluntary non-lead ammunition program is to raise awareness about the potential risks of lead ammunition so hunters can make informed decisions when selecting hunting ammunition.
Hogwash, responded the firearms group, which has a bone or two to pick with the park (and no doubt with California officials, who have a lead-shot ban) over whether traditional lead shot leads to unintended lead poisoning in either wildlife or humans.
"While we're not opposed to voluntary measures, we maintain there is no need for them," said Steve Sanetti, president of NSSF, the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry. "The firearms industry supports science-based decisions about wildlife management. Under current regulations, there is no scientific evidence showing that the health of wildlife populations and humans is at risk from the use of traditional ammunition."
Earlier this year, the National Rifle Association added its voice of condemnation, saying the Park Service stance on lead ammunition "is a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of people who will want to hunt in the 60 parks that are open to hunting. This plays directly into the hands of radical anti-hunting organizations like the Humane Society of the US which is advocating that hunters be banned from using lead ammunition."
As for the Shooting Sports Foundation, the group said it was more than willing to work with Park Service officials on an educational campaign to teach hunters how to keep their lead shot from harming anyone.
In a release of its own, the group said "educational messages can help inform hunters about options related to voluntary measures, such as how to choose alternative ammunition and how burying game entrails can reduce the chance of scavenger birds ingesting fragments from spent bullets in game carcasses.
"Hunters were the first conservationists and are second to none in their support of and concern for wildlife," said Mr. Sanetti. "Surveys have shown that hunters are agreeable to taking voluntary measures, and our educational efforts in California to promote the burying of entrails was successful. We would like to work with NPS on this."
According to the group, the "use of traditional ammunition does not pose a health risk to human beings, a fact underscored by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on North Dakota hunters who consumed game. The study showed there was no reason for concern over eating game taken with traditional ammunition. There has never been a documented case of lead poisoning among humans who have eaten game harvested with traditional ammunition."
Earlier in the year, the Park Service announced a ban on traditional ammunition that applied to park personnel involved with culling sick and wounded animals and indicated it would consider widening the ban to all hunters. The firearms industry and conservation groups criticized the ban in a press release, calling it "arbitrary, over-reactive and not based on science."
"In some areas today, wildlife management is being driven by fear of litigation, not by science," said Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general counsel.
With hopes of stopping the Park Service in its tracks, Mr. Keane said his group was "calling on Congress to step in and provide the necessary oversight to prevent any unilateral actions by NPS on this issue. To date, the NPS decision-making process has not been transparent and based on sound, thorough science."
Keane also expressed concern over the cost to hunters forced or coerced into purchasing alternative ammunition products. "Non-traditional ammunition is expensive and about doubles the cost of a box of bullets," he stated. "In these difficult economic times, imposing voluntary or mandated restrictions on the use of traditional ammunition will serve to keep people from hunting and have a negative impact on the Pittman-Robertson Conservation Fund."
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of every box of ammunition and each firearm goes to the Pittman-Robertson Fund, which is the keystone for state wildlife conservation projects, the group said.