• Ken Perrotte

Feds Renew Effort to Ban Lead Ammo -- New Hunting Proposals for Refuges Outline Prohibition

Updated: Jun 10

Note: This article originally appeared in my May 12, 2022 outdoors column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Update: Here is link to NSSF position on this attempt to outlaw lead ammunition on Refuges

I've used solid copper bullets on many hunts, owing to their performance with big game, but new bonded lead-core bullets are performing similarly well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released draft hunting plans for multiple National Wildlife Refuges, including some in Virginia. Contained in the proposals are steps to phase out hunting with lead ammunition. Such restrictions were previously related solely to waterfowl at most locations.


For example, the Chincoteague and Wallops Island NWR Draft Hunt Plan published May 2 states, “For both refuges, the use of non-lead ammunition for proposed new hunting opportunities (raccoon, opossum, fox and coyote, plus rabbit, squirrel and migratory game birds at Wallops Island NWR) will be required upon implementation of this plan in 2022.”

The document adds that using non-lead ammunition for deer initially will be voluntary. After a four-year phase-in period, it becomes mandatory in 2026. “This phase-in period will allow hunters time to adapt to the new regulations without diminishing deer hunting opportunities on the refuges,” the plan reads.


Banning lead ammunition has been an agenda item for several special interest groups for years. During the Obama Administration’s last week in office, then Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe issued a directive curbing the use of “nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to the fullest extent practicable” on the agency’s lands and waters by January 2022. That edict was rescinded on incoming Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s first day in office.


National Shooting Sports Foundation Public Affairs Manager Mark Oliva called Ashe’s edict “devoid of science,” not only overturned but “excoriated by the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee when they examined how this was done without stakeholder input or public notice.”


The Chincoteague and Wallops Island draft plan indicates federal staff met with representatives of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources with the lead ammo ban part of the discussion. A follow-up letter, signed by DWR Director Ryan Brown on Dec. 12, 2020, acknowledges federal interest in phasing out lead ammunition on the Potomac River NWR Complex, the Eastern Virginia Rivers NWR Complex, and the Great Dismal Swamp NWR within the next five years. The letter states, “The DWR supports your intent to adopt hunting regulations that may include non-lead ammunition requirements on select FWS refuges in the future.”


This week, Brown clarified DWR’s position related to lead ammunition, noting that the term “support” in the December 2020 letter means “not object to” phasing out lead ammo only on the properties specified in the letter, due to the special concerns identified for those properties.


“First, big picture wise,” Brown wrote in response to an emailed query, “DWR does not support banning lead ammunition for hunting. While we are very aware of the discussions surrounding impacts of lead to wildlife and have spent a lot of time becoming knowledgeable on the topic, in my three years in this position, a general ban on lead is not something that we have ever considered.”


Brown shared that he contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service to express concern that the Chincoteague and Wallops draft plan included a statement seeming to indicate that DWR supported a lead ban there. He asked if the draft could be corrected.


“Our letter didn’t address Chincoteague and Wallops,” Brown said. “In informal email comments to FWS staff sent in advance of publication of the proposal, I also asked for more dialogue with the Northeast Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies directors on the subject of lead ammunition phase outs, since I’m hearing discussion of this topic from others as well.”


Brown said he plans to engage fellow state director members of NEAFWA and AFWA about this issue.


Science – or Not?

Driving the continued push for a ban is a belief that eagles and other scavengers are susceptible to lead poisoning by ingesting lead fragments or pellets in the tissues, including gut piles, of animals killed or wounded with lead ammunition. Some studies used X-rays of shot animals to assess bullet fragmentation; others assessed cuts of meat or lead-blood levels.


Proponents of lead bans tout these studies, some limited in scope, along with emotional arguments furthering their cause. Others believe the research is flawed and call for more definitive testing, especially with modern, bonded lead hunting bullets which don’t tend to fragment.

Article written by Virginia deer biologist - some say newer bonded bullets do not create lead fragmentation issues.

Matt Knox, DWR deer program manager, even penned an article (above) called, “The Case for Copper” in the 2018 Virginia Wildlife Deer Forecast.


Personally, I enjoy shooting copper ammo like Barnes MZ Expanders in my muzzleloaders or the now discontinued Remington Copper Solids in my shotguns. The ammo is expensive, but I judged the hunting performance worth it. For me, it was about performance, not concerns about lead. In South Africa in 2021, I used a Hornady 300-grain DGX cartridge, with a copper-clad steel jacket bonded to a lead core to take a Cape buffalo. These bullets expand to 1½ to 2 times their original diameter. They have a rated velocity of 2,344 feet per second at 100 yards with a potent 3,660 pounds of energy at that same range. Energy at the muzzle is a whopping 4,713 pounds. The other Hornady option is the 300-grain DGS cartridge, a solid, flat-nosed round with a copper-clad steel jacket and high antimony lead core. It is designed to hit hard and resist bullet deformation and deflection. These bullets showed no sign of fragmentation.

Oliva said NSSF opposes banning traditional ammunition on public lands without scientific evidence that it poses population risks to wildlife. “While NSSF supports opening and expanding hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuges, this plan is an attempt to bait and switch hunters,” Oliva said. “Hunters will be allowed greater access to public lands they should have been able to access for years but will be restricted from using the ammunition of their choice without sound scientific evidence to support such a ban.”

Hornady InterBond bullets feature a solid, one-piece lead core that won't separate. The bonded design ensures the bullet achieves controlled expansion with virtually no fragmentation. The core never separates from the jacket.

Oliva believes lead ammo bans are, basically, attempts to limit hunting. Alternative ammunition is often unavailable or in limited supply and considerably more expensive, pricing some hunters out of their pastime. Oliva said a comprehensive, definitive study is proposed related to bonded bullet performance and fragmentation. Until such a study can be completed, he said NSSF urges all hunters to voice their position during the public comment period and demand that National Wildlife Refuges produce policies based on sound scientific data.


So far, refuges beyond Chincoteague and Wallops Island with proposed bans on lead ammo include Canaan Valley, West Virginia, Rachel Carson and Great Thicket, Maine, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie has also phased out lead tackle for fishing.


The affected refuges are seeking public review and comment on the draft plans. The plans will be available at least a 60-day comment period. Links are currently available to both access and comment on the refuge’s website home pages. The documents are also expected to be made available in the Federal Register.


The Chincoteague site is fws.gov/refuge/chincoteague. Send comments via email to HuntFishRuleComments@fws.gov with 'Chincoteague NWR' in the subject line. They may also be mailed to the refuge.


For more good info: Richard Mann offered a solid, quick tutorial about jacketed, bonded and solid metal bullets in Field and Stream in July 2021.

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