Using a canoe or her 10-foot-Zodiac boat, Martha Jordan has scooped up hundreds of sick or dead trumpeter and tundra swans from Judson Lake in northwestern Washington, the site of one of the worst known cases of lead poisoning among wildlife.
According to her count, at least 2,700 of them have died or needed to be euthanized since 1999 after eating lead from ammunition left in the wild by hunters. Jordan, a 62-year-old wildlife biologist from Everett, wonders why the federal government won't help more of the birds live by banning lead in ammunition.
"I live with the results of lead shot," she said. "I live it, I breathe it -- and it just sickens me when people continue to use it. ... It's pretty heartwrenching for everybody involved. I don't want to do this. I don't want to spend my time picking up dying swans. We pick them up every year. It's a constant, chronic problem."
In a move opposed by many hunters, Jordan, along with 100 organizations in 35 states, wants the Environmental Protection Agency to ban or severely limit the use of toxic lead in hunting ammunition.
In a petition filed with the agency last week, the groups said that up to 20 million birds in the United States die each year after nibbling on bullet fragments, including swans, golden and bald eagles, mourning doves, California condors and more than 70 other species.
Lynn Tompkins, executive director of the Pendleton-based Blue Mountain Wildlife agency, told the Herald banning lead in all types of ammunition will eventually happen but not until more people are educated on the devastating effect lead poisoning has on wildlife.
"Nearly half the eagle population (in Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington) is affected by lead ammunition," she said. "Because they're birds of prey, they eat the varmints that have been killed with lead bullets and that's how they get poisoned."
She added that young children also can be vulnerable to lead poisoning by eating meat shot by hunters using lead ammunition.
"Lead poisoning affects the nervous system and though adults are probably not vulnerable to it, children and pregnant woman can be. Banning it is a great idea," she said.
For Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, it's a "national tragedy" and one that easily could be prevented. The nonprofit group, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., is leading the effort for a federal clampdown, saying it's a logical progression after the EPA moved to reduce lead exposure in drinking water, paint, gasoline, toys and batteries.
While acknowledging that it would be more costly, they want hunters to use nontoxic ammunition. Miller said that non-lead bullets are now available in each state, with more than a dozen manufacturers marketing hundreds of varieties and calibers made from copper, steel and other metals. The proposed ban would not apply to ammunition used by law enforcement or the military.
Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and an opponent of the proposed ban, called it a "job-destroying effort" and said proponents of the ban have turned to the EPA "because they know that Congress will protect the Second Amendment and sportsmen's interests" in defending the use of traditional ammunition.
"The ban on lead bullets would not only increase costs for hunters, sport shooters and fishermen, but would devastate the outdoor sportsmen and recreation industries that thrive in rural America," Hastings said, responding in a statement to questions about the issue.
Jordan bristled at such an argument.
"We've taken lead out of every other thing in our lives, or most everything, and we know that it's a toxic substance," she said. "And we know that lead is toxic to all life. Why is it that in the name of a recreational sport we allow lead to be spewed out onto our lands -- public and private -- and pollute it so that wildlife of all kinds and shapes can die and we can contaminate the soil? ... There is no need to continue to pollute our world, my world, everyone's world."
The EPA rejected a similar request from environmental groups in 2010, saying it lacked the authority due to an exemption for ammunition approved by Congress when it passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. And opponents of the proposed ban predict that they will win again this year.
Hastings said it makes more sense to leave the issue to state agencies that better understand local conditions. And he said that since there's no credible evidence that species are threatened at the national level because of exposure to ammunition, a national ban would be counterproductive.
In Washington, Jordan, who heads a group called the Washington Swan Stewards, is happy that many hunters are choosing to buy nontoxic ammunition and some farmers are insisting that hunters use it if they hunt on their land. In addition, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission bans the use of lead ammunition for all upland game hunting on the state's pheasant release sites.
w Herald reporter Dori O'Neal contributed to this report.