One of my favorite late-summer, early-fall rituals is sitting down with a cup of coffee and the latest New York state guide to hunting and trapping laws and regulations. I see this as the signal of my mental kickoff of hunting season, the start of my transition from dispassionate pre-season preparation to complete obsession. I typically start with the “Highlights of Changes” (page 4), and on this year’s list there are a couple of items that probably should come with a “trigger warning” — pun intended.
One is the reminder that in New York we’ve got new rules regarding the ownership and transfer of semi-automatic rifles, along with the “the purchase, possession, storage, and transport” of all firearms. I’m going to keep this one at arm’s length, but I will say that — if you’re not fully up to speed — the DEC’s FAQ clarifies fairly well how these rules do or do not affect hunters, including hunting related travel and transport.
The other pertains to the use of lead ammunition and its impact on wildlife. The announcement itself is not at all controversial. In fact, it is emblematic of what I would consider to be the prudent, or event the “correct,” approach to this issue: It’s a reminder that in a nine Southern Tier WMUs you can receive up to a $60 rebate for purchasing non-lead ammunition and participating in a pre- and post-hunt survey.
The DEC announced in June that it would work with the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University, U.S. Geological Survey, and Conservation Science Global to study the “reduction in bald and golden eagle deaths that can be achieved from increased use of non-lead ammunition for deer hunting.”
This effort is one of many that are being carried out by the state’s “Lead Ammunition Working Group” formed in 2020 to assess and minimize the risk posed by lead ammunition to wildlife and people. This multi-organizational, multi-disciplinary group was created to specifically address the “social, political, economic, and ecological complexity” of the use and regulation of lead ammunition.
I call this the “prudent” approach because it isn’t the only way this issue is being addressed. As this is written, Senate Bill 4976A sits in the Environmental Conservation Committee after being passed by the Assembly in April of this year. This bill would prohibit the use of lead ammunition on any state-owned lands, including state forests and state parks, as well as any land “contributing surface water to the New York city water supply.”
The use of legislation is quite obviously the more heavy-handed “regulatory” approach. The Lead Ammo Working Group is pursuing what can be called the “voluntary” approach. Both of these approaches have precedents in other states and New York State residents can watch both play out in realtime in our state.
“Regulatory” methods are exactly what they sound like: the implementation of regulations that modify the “method of take” to exclude lead ammunition. Simply put, this is a “ban” on lead ammunition. The term does require some nuance, however. New York’s bill (along with California’s nonlead ammunition regulation) is more specifically “statutory,” meaning that it will be enacted by the legislative branch of government.
As hunters and anglers, we should prefer regulations that are enacted by the agencies responsible for wildlife management, informed by the best science available. It is in the best interest of all outdoor recreationists that regulation dealing with the environment, wildlife, and natural resources is in the hands of the experts (wildlife biologists, for instance), rather than in the hands of politicians.
Voluntary approaches, on the other hand, seek to change behaviors through research, outreach, education, and other incentives. In response to California’s statutory ban on lead in ammunition when taking wildlife, Utah and Arizona enacted voluntary policies in order to try to encourage non-lead adoption within the California Condor range without legislating an all-out ban on lead ammo. The Arizona and Utah programs included widespread hunter education and communications outreach, as well as economic incentives such as vouchers for non-lead ammo and “gut pile raffles,” to encourage hunters to voluntarily adopt alternatives to lead. New York’s rebate for non-lead ammo, while specifically motivated by research, would still fall into this category of a voluntary, incentive-based program.
All of this, of course, invites the question “why is any of this controversial?”
One reason is that the science on the issue is not exactly clear cut. Proponents of lead-ammunition bans will point to proven impacts on raptors, in particular. However, studies on the impacts on other species, broader environmental impacts on things like water-quality, and impacts on human health from consuming lead in game meat have been inconclusive at best. Challengers of restrictions will highlight the uncertainty of these impacts, along with the expected economic impact to both hunters and to the firearm and ammunition industry if a hard pivot to the more expensive, less available, and arguably less effective non-lead ammunition were enacted.
Another reason is that it becomes difficult to disentangle science and policy from politics. Any outright ban on ammunition, like the state’s new laws on firearm transport and possession noted above, risk coming across as an attack on hunters and hunting (or as “back door gun control”) and inspire public backlash and resistance to something that may ultimately be net-positive to both wildlife, to hunters, and to the tradition of hunting.
In a recent discussion with Cornell University’s Krysten Schuler, Meateater host Steven Rinella put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): We teach hunters that you are responsible for that bullet after it leaves your barrel. When you use lead ammunition to harvest an animal there is a non-zero probability that your bullet will also eventually kill a raptor. This is not disputable. This is a decision that you make as a hunter: Am I willing to accept this potential collateral damage in order to continue using lead ammunition?
In thinking about this issue, I also recall the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the book “Cradle to Cradle” on the chemicals and materials used in the building industry. A key point of this work is actually quite simple and intuitive. We get in trouble when we allow substances used in our “technosphere,” i.e. industry, to cross over into the “biosphere,” i.e. nature. Lead is a “toxic metal with no known physiological functions in animals” whose biological and ecological impact is net-negative. So for me, it’s simple: We have historically used lead for hunting because its properties are conducive to the make and manufacture of ammunition and to the task of effectively and humanely harvesting animals. But, if there are better alternatives that are also economically viable, technically feasible, and practically effective along these dimensions, we should use them, rather than continue to litter the landscape with lead — even if it means that, as an individual, I never saved a single eagle.
Do we need a law to this effect? I would like to think not. I would like to think that the efforts of the New York state working group and other organizations, such as the The Peregrine Fund and the North American Non-Lead Partnership, will continue to educate and incentivize, and that the ammunition industry will get us to a place where the choice is obvious, not just because lead is bad, but because there are simply better options available. Taking a practical and voluntary approach to “minimizing” these risks while manufacturers can make more headway in the affordability, availability, and efficacy of lead alternatives, and the hunting public can make the transition in ways that are acceptable and economically viable, seems like a win-win.
In the meantime, you can get involved in several ways: