Target shooters worry about ban on lead shot

These are ominous times for muzzleloader enthusiasts, upland bird hunters and perhaps even trapshooters.

Those gun-related pursuits -- all of which entail the use of lead-based ammunition -- could find themselves between the crosshairs as Washington state agencies and legislators move inexorably closer to banning the use of lead in ammunition.

In April, the state wildlife commission extended its ban for lead shot at roughly half its hunting sites where pheasants are released to include the other half by 2011.

Commissioners also asked Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff to look into including a nontoxic (lead-free) shot requirement as part of the WDFW's general land-use rules on its nearly 1 million acres.

The state Department of Ecology is close to unveiling its lead chemical action plan, which will call for the agency to work with the WDFW and other stakeholders toward reducing the use of lead-containing products where "safer alternatives" are available.

In many circles, these developments will be applauded as humane, a logical next step to the federal ban on lead shot in the hunting of waterfowl, which would swallow lead pellets among the small stones they ingest to aid in the grinding of food in their gizzards.

That ban, which became nationwide in 1991, has been credited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with preventing the lead-poisoning deaths of millions of ducks and geese.

For muzzleloaders and lead-shot users, though, nontoxic alternatives are already available. However, they are largely considered either prohibitively expensive (bismuth or tungsten) or profoundly ineffective (steel).

A bismuth shotgun shell sells for about $2, compared to a standard shotgun shell, for which a box of 25 goes for $5 to $6.

"You've got guys who go out routinely on a weekend and shoot four (25-shot) rounds of shot," says longtime hunter Jim Pearson of Yakima. "So you're looking at someone spending $200 to shoot clay birds if they're shooting bismuth or tungsten or one of those substitutes."

Mandating those alternatives would have a profound impact upon the Yakima Valley Sportsmen's trap club and the Pomona range in Selah, says club president D.J. Blankenship.

"With the hunters, they're talking about bismuth and other things," Blankenship says. "If they tried to do that with trapshooting, we'd be right out the door."

Steel shot is also more expensive than lead -- though still far cheaper than the other alternatives -- but doesn't have the weight and loses its velocity far more quickly.

"If you put a ping pong ball and a golf ball in your hand and threw them as hard as you could, they're both about the same size and start at the same velocity, but the ping pong ball is going to end up in the dirt while the golf ball is still flying," Pearson says. "Same thing as the difference between steel and tungsten or lead."

Requiring nontoxic shot "could be the end of shooting ranges, period," says Tom Perry of Yakima, president of the Hunters Heritage Council, a political-action entity representing some 45,000 members in nearly 50 organizations.

"How many people are going to go out and shoot skeet with bismuth or tungsten matrix? Shooting ranges are barely hanging on as it is," Perry says.

Holly Davies, the technical lead on the DOE's lead action plan, says hunters and trapshooters are overreacting.

"People are very emotional about choosing what ammunition they want to use," Davies says. "We don't have the authority to ban lead ammunition, (but) people were responding to us as if we were banning lead ammunition in three weeks.

"The (agency's) recommendation is we should work with stakeholders on voluntary steps."

Those would include recycling the lead at shooting ranges, as is already periodically done at the Pomona range.

"Some outdoor shooting ranges recycle lead and some don't," Davies says. "If you don't, eventually it becomes a hazardous waste site."

Muzzleloaders wouldn't seem to have anything to worry about, at least for the moment. All of the WDFW or DOE references calling for a move to nontoxic ammunition refer to "lead shot" -- which any shooter knows refers to the smallish pellets fired from a shotgun. But people like Perry and Pearson of Yakima foresee a time when somebody in a courtroom or legislative session will take that to mean any lead-based projectile -- including a muzzleloader round.

"They're trying a back door into outlawing all types of lead shot," Pearson says.

Bill Essman of Ellensburg, a former state wildlife enforcement officer, disagrees with the wildlife commission's apparent intent to extend the ban on lead shot to include upland bird hunters.

"A pheasant hunter is allowed three birds, and if he's a good shot that's three shots," he says. "Then you've got target shooters shooting hundreds and hundreds of rounds (at places like the Durr Road and Sheep Company sites), and they're not restricted," he says. "That doesn't make sense to me."

Still, based on the national trend, it may be only a matter of time before such a law is in place.