WASHINGTON — 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 state, the site of one of the worst known cases ofead 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, Wash., 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.
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 non-toxic ammunition. Miller said that non-lead bullets are now available in all 50 states, 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 state, 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 bristles 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."
A partial ban is already in effect.
Since 1991, the federal government has banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting, and states and local jurisdictions have passed laws on their own. Whatcom County in Washington state, home of Judson Lake on the U.S.-Canadian border, passed a similar ban in 1989.
But environmentalists say the patchwork of laws hasn't gone far enough, noting that too many birds are still dying after eating lead that's still allowed in most places for the hunting of upland birds, small mammals, big-game hunting and target practice.
Miller said that nearly 500 scientific papers have documented the dangers to wildlife from lead exposure. In the United States, he said, 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunters each year, with another 80,000 tons released at shooting ranges.
"There are safe, available alternatives to lead ammo for all hunting and shooting sports, so there's no reasoning for this poisoning to go on," Miller said.
The 100 groups that signed the petition represent conservationists, scientists, zoologists, wildlife rehabilitators, birders, American Indians, veterinarians, even some hunters. Several Washington state groups have joined the cause, including the Rainier Audubon Society in Auburn, the Kittitas Audubon Society in Ellensburg, the Lands Council in Spokane and the Loon Lake Loon Association in Loon Lake.
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'll win again this year.
"We believe that the EPA will appropriately deny the petition yet again," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, adding that the issue of regulating lead in ammunition is "not in their sandbox" and is best left to wildlife professionals in state agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The industry's position is that wildlife management decisions should be based on sound science," Keane said. "Wildlife biology is based on managing populations, not to prevent harm to individual animals. If wildlife management becomes about preventing harm to individual animals, you will then just have made the argument to ban hunting."
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.
Anticipating another showdown with environmental groups, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill on Feb. 29 that would block the EPA from acting on the petition. Keane said the legislation, which has 164 co-sponsors, confirms the agency's role and creates an exemption for fishing tackle, as well.
Similar legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, is pending in the Senate. It has attracted 27 cosponsors. Neither of Washington state's Democratic senators have signed on, and spokesmen for Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell declined to say this week whether the senators back the bill.
In Washington state, Jordan, who heads a group called the Washington Swan Stewards, is happy that many hunters are choosing to buy non-toxic 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.
According to the petition filed with the EPA, more than 2,500 trumpeter and tundra swans died after ingesting lead shot at Judson Lake, from 1999 to 2008. While the death rate has slowed in recent years, Jordan said at least 125 deaths were recorded in each of the past two years.
After gathering up the dead swans, Jordan performs necropsies. She recalled having 236 of the birds at one "necropsy event."
"Being in a room with 236 dead swans, 70 percent of which died of lead poisoning as it turned out, is a stinky, smelly, horrid process," she said. "I weighed them: We had 4,000 pounds of dead swan. That number is rather startling to people and, you know, that's what I live with. ... We need to be using non-toxic ammunition, because the cost to society to do otherwise is enormous."
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