The handwringing over the use of traditional ammunition is reaching a fever pitch. Animal rights groups grabbed on to a recently-published study by The Wildlife Society to again press for conservation policy changes that would ban the use of traditional lead-based ammunition for hunting in America.
Their evidence appears to be based on the study’s abstract that hypothesized that the use of traditional ammunition is hampering the recovery of the American bald eagle population. These groups contend that if hunters used more expensive alternative ammunition instead of traditional lead-core ammunition, there would be more bald eagles for all Americans to enjoy.
Headlines designed to catch the readers’ eye played into this, including one that read, “Lead ammo poisoning threatening bald eagle population, study says,” published in The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-focused news outlet. It often publishes policy-heavy news reports and is on the radar of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Beyond the Headline
The problem is that the headline is completely wrong. Anyone reading beyond the headline and a few quotes from the Cornell University researchers that authored the study, as well as unsubstantiated claims that eagles ingest lead fragments from carrion of harvested wild game, might have seen the telling admission that the study actually says there’s no evidence that the hypothesis is valid.
Buried in Page 13 of the 18-page study is the following:
… disturbances to stable stage structure (Stott et al.2010), which constitute the second key inference of this study: despite the depression in the long‐term growth rate, the difference in abundances of eagles between groups during the 3‐decade timeframe was biologically negligible.
In other words, there’s no evidence that there’s any difference in biological outcomes in the 30 years the study examined between hunters using traditional ammunition and if the use of traditional ammunition was banned. The difference in the bald eagle populations is negligible between the control groups and the two theoretical groups in the study that don’t even exist.
This isn’t an argument against the science. This is agreement with the science.
Public conservation policy decisions must be based on the best science available and the science of wildlife management is based on managing wildlife populations. Special interest groups seized a narrative at the opening of this study that a fictional group of bald eagles would have shown a greater recovery rate if the use of traditional lead ammunition was banned. The study itself discredits this.
Here are facts that are indisputable. American bald eagles are at the healthiest levels in decades. Bald eagles recovered from just 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to 71,400 nesting pairs by 2019.
Bald eagles were removed from the Endangered and Threatened Species Lists because they have achieved such a remarkable recovery. The use of traditional ammunition by hunters has been a constant during when eagle populations struggled and throughout their remarkable recovery – a controlled variable. It didn’t cause the decline and it isn’t hindering the recovery.
The Hill, which published this dire warning claiming bald eagle recovery is in a precarious position because of hunters using traditional ammunition, is the same news agency that published an article nine months earlier that exclaimed bald eagle populations quadrupled in just 10 years.
Hunters are often maligned by special interest groups in these arguments, but that’s a false narrative. Hunters are the original conservationists. The firearm and ammunition industry pays an excise tax into the Wildlife and Sport Fishing Restoration Program, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson excise tax. These funds are specifically set aside for wildlife and habitat conservation and recovery.
Since 1937, fund contributions have topped $14.7 billion. The Department of the Interior announced that $1.5 billion is being distributed to states for conservation programs in 2022, of which $1.1 billion was derived from the excise taxes paid by firearm and ammunition manufacturers as well as archery product manufacturers.
Those taxes are supported by recreational target shooters, hunters and anglers purchasing firearms and ammunition. Those funds generated by the manufacturers have aided the recovery of Rocky Mountain elk, whitetail deer, antelope, wild turkey, waterfowl and even bald eagles.
Last year, there were over 18.5 million background checks for gun sales and another 21 million a year before that. Ammunition manufacturers are working around the clock to meet the demand of these gun owners, recreational shooters and hunters who are getting back into our woods, fields and marshes. That means more funds for more wildlife and habitat restoration.
That’s a deep sigh of relief for America’s wildlife and America’s national symbol.
Larry Keane is SVP for Government and Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.