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Oregon Tests Waters On Lead Ammunition Regulation

Bullet casings on the floor of the indoor range at Tritac Shooting Solutions in Salem, Oregon.

Bullet casings on the floor of the indoor range at Tritac Shooting Solutions in Salem, Oregon.

Danielle Peterson / Statesman Journal

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking hunters to share their opinions about lead ammunition in a survey being mailed out this month.

The use of lead ammunition has become a national issue because of the effects of lead on wildlife and also on human health, said Ron Anglin, wildlife division administrator with the department.

Last year, California passed a law banning the use of lead ammunition for all hunting in that state beginning in 2019. Other states have adopted voluntary measures encouraging the use of ammunition made from alternative compounds. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been petitioned to ban the use of lead in ammunition on a national basis.

“A lot of times, stuff that happens in California frequently (ends up happening) in Oregon,” Anglin said.

While there is no active drive in Oregon proposing regulation of lead ammunition, the department wants to be prepared should the issue come up, Anglin said.

“We want to make sure that if questions are being asked, that we as an agency have a good feel of what the hunting community thinks so that we can respond with what our hunters are telling us,” Anglin said.

A random sample of 4,200 Oregon hunters will be queried in the mail survey about lead ammunition. Oregon has an estimated 250,000 hunters, and the survey will include every region of the state.

The wildlife department plans a similar survey later of non-hunters in Oregon, Anglin said.

The California Legislature passed its law banning lead ammunition to protect endangered California condors, according to Dana Sanchez, an Oregon State University Extension wildlife specialist who is helping with the survey. Condors and other raptors can become ill after scavenging on animals that have been killed by lead bullets.

Anglin said several instances of lead poisoning among Oregon birds of prey have been documented in the state.

“We’ve had some cases documented in Eastern Oregon and in the Portland area where raptors and eagles have been sick and have been brought into wildlife rehabilitation areas,” he said.

“When they’ve done blood tests on them, they found high levels of lead. But we don’t know what the source of those levels was.”

In south Eugene, the Cascades Raptor Center sees one or two instances of lead poisoning a year, out of nearly 200 raptors seen at the center, Executive Director Louise Shimmel said.

“It’s the scavengers — the eagles, the soaring hawks like redtails, the vultures and ravens — that are going to go for gut piles of things that were shot,” Shimmel said.

Many birds with lead poisoning “will have a sub-lethal dose of lead,” she said. “It’s enough perhaps to slow them down or make them a little less responsive.”

The wildlife agency, in conjunction with OSU, is sending out its questionnaires to hunters whose names have been pulled at random from the state’s hunter licenses database. The survey will cost about $40,000 to conduct — and be paid from agency funds received via a federal excise tax on ammunition and firearms used for sport hunting.

The final report is expected to be completed sometime next winter.

The topic appears to be a sensitive one to some Oregon hunters and hunting advocates.

Anglin acknowledged that “it’s a divisive issue” to many in the hunting community.

While there are no Oregon laws that regulate lead projectiles, there has been a federal ban since 1991 on using lead shotshells, the ammunition used in shotguns, to hunt waterfowl — which includes Oregon ducks such as pintails and mallards. In years since the ban, steel and other variants of shotshells have come onto the market.

One reason the issue is contentious for many is that alternatives to lead-based bullets are much more expensive, said Ralph Nauman, president of Environ-Metal. The Sweet Home-based company makes HEVI-Shot, a no-lead, nontoxic brand of shotshells made of copper, nickel and iron.

Environ-Metal has tried in the past to manufacture and sell bullets without lead, but discontinued the line more than a decade ago, Nauman said. One challenge is finding another metal that has properties — such as density and mass, for example — that are comparable to lead. Tungsten is one potential substitute, but its price has kept it from catching on in bullet manufacturing, Nauman said.

“It’s not easy,” Nauman said. “It’s really difficult in the bullet world to come up with something that can compete with lead for technical reasons as well as for cost reasons.”

National ammunition manufacturer Remington sells copper-based rifle bullets, but Nauman and others who declined to be quoted said copper-based bullets are several times more expensive than lead-based ammunition.

“There are (other materials that could be used), but they are just unbelievably expensive,” Nauman said. “Outside of the toxicity, lead would be the ideal ballistic material — it’s cheap, it’s everywhere and it’s easy to form.”

The state doesn’t track sales of munitions based on material type, which is another piece of information that the wildlife agency hopes to learn through its survey.

“We’re interested to know what types of ammunitions that people use,” Anglin said. “Do we have people who all on their own have decided to switch to a different alternative?”