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California Becomes First State to Ban Lead Hunting Ammunition

More than 60 species of birds, including some endangered species, are at risk of lead poisoning from ammunition and fishing tackle. Photo credit: Pen Waggener/Flickr

Gov. Brown (D-CA) signed historic legislation Friday that will protect the state’s condors, eagles and other wildlife from lead poisoning by requiring the use of non-lead ammunition for all hunting by 2019. By signing Assembly Bill 711 California becomes the first state in the country to require the use of nontoxic bullets and shot for all hunting.

“California has taken a historic step to protect its wildlife from lead poisoning,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Switching to nontoxic lead ammunition will save the lives of eagles, condors and thousands of other birds every year—and, importantly, will keep hunters and their families from being exposed to toxic lead. It’s great to see California lead the nation in getting lead out of the wild.”

The bill requires the state Fish and Game Commission to issue regulations by July 1, 2015, that phase in use of non-lead ammunition for hunting of all kinds, including game mammals, game birds, non-game birds and non-game mammals. These requirements must be fully implemented statewide no later than July 1, 2019.

Nationwide, millions of non-target birds and other wildlife are poisoned each year from scavenging carcasses containing lead-bullet fragments, eating lead-poisoned prey, or ingesting spent lead-shot pellets, mistaking them for food or grit. Spent lead ammunition causes lead poisoning in 130 species of birds and animals. Nearly 500 scientific papers document the dangers to wildlife from this lead exposure.

Scientists, doctors and public-health experts from top universities around the country recently called for a phaseout of lead hunting ammunition, citing overwhelming scientific evidence of toxic dangers posed to people and wildlife.

California began phasing out lead hunting ammunition in 2008 to protect critically endangered California condors due to continued lead poisoning in the state’s three reintroduced condor flocks. The Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act and state regulations required hunters to use non-lead ammunition for all hunting within the central and Southern California condor range. Those regulations demonstrate that hunters statewide can easily transition to hunting with nontoxic bullets. In fact, there has been no decrease in game tags or hunting in central and Southern California in the five years since those regulations went into effect. Neighboring Arizona has refused to require nontoxic ammunition for hunting, despite an epidemic of lead poisonings and deaths of the Grand Canyon population of endangered condors.

A coalition of 268 organizations from 40 states has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for nationwide regulations ending the use of toxic lead hunting ammunition. Conservation groups filed suit in 2012 when the EPA refused to act. A federal judge dismissed the case in May on technical grounds but did not rule on the substance of the claim: whether the EPA should regulate lead ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Conservation groups are considering appealing the ruling.

national poll released earlier this year found that 57 percent of Americans support requiring the use of nontoxic bullets for hunting.

Lead is an extremely toxic substance that is dangerous to people and wildlife even at low levels. Lead exposure can cause a range of health effects, from acute poisoning and death to long-term problems such as reduced reproduction, inhibition of growth and damage to neurological development.

Studies using radiographs show that lead ammunition leaves fragments and numerous imperceptible, dust-sized particles of lead that contaminate game meat far from a bullet track, causing significant health risks to people eating wild game. Some state health agencies have had to recall venison donated to feed the hungry because of dangerous lead contamination from bullet fragments.

There are numerous commercially available, nontoxic alternatives to lead rifle bullets and shotgun pellets. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991 and there are more than a dozen approved non-lead shot types. More than three dozen manufacturers market non-lead bullets in 35 calibers and 51 rifle cartridge designations, with superior ballistics, accuracy and safety.

A recent study deflates any argument that price and availability of non-lead ammunition preclude switching to nontoxic rounds for hunting; researchers found no major difference in the retail price of equivalent lead-free and lead-core ammunition for most popular calibers.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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