Conservation Begins With Wildlife

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One of the issues that keeps coming up in the argument about banning lead ammunition is that substituting non-toxic materials for lead will drive up the price of ammunition, making it more difficult for the “average” gun owner to indulge in his hobby, be it hunting or target shooting.  There are even the usual conspiracy notions floating around the Internet that the effort to prohibit all lead ammunition is just another example of how the “elite” is looking to get rid of guns by pricing ammunition out of everyone’s budget.

Americans have been arguing about hunting and environment since the founding of the country.  Once British rule disappeared, many of the Colonial regulations and laws that governed hunting no longer applied, and many of these laws were repugnant to Americans because they represented a holdover from the English tradition that allowed only the upper classes to engage in outdoor sport.

But opening hunting to everyone, particularly commercial hunters, resulted in the depletion or extinction of many species.  As early as the 1840s, white-tail deer and wild turkeys were disappearing, then the passenger pigeon and the heath hen became extinct, and of course the great buffalo herd was reduced to a tiny fraction of its former size. By 1900, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts realized that management of wild game was the only alternative to the complete loss of many species and the ending of hunting altogether.

Enter two visionaries: Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.  Both were Easterners, Ivy Leaguers, elitists in every sense of the word.  Both were also captivated by wilderness and both purchased Western cattle ranches in 1884.  Grinnell had his first taste of the outdoors when he accompanied General George Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 (he wisely declined Custer’s invitation to take part in the 1876 expedition.)  Roosevelt’s father founded the Museum of Natural History in New York City and Theodore explored the Adirondacks as a teenager and also purchased a Western cattle ranch in 1884.

Grinnell, editor of Forest and Steam magazine, founded the Audubon Society in 1886.  The following year, Grinnell and Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club.  At this point, America’s foremost naturalist, Grinnell, and America’s foremost outdoorsman, Roosevelt, created the modern conservation movement. And what did these two men share besides a love of wilderness?  They shared a love of hunting.

Most of the original conservationists were hunters – Roosevelt, Grinnell, Audubon, Olmsted, Parkman, Pinchot.  Even Thoreau considered himself to be an “outdoorsman” (I am indebted to John Reiger for this information.)  Whether it was the establishment of nature sanctuaries, or the saving of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, or the creation of forest preserves, hunters instinctively understood the connection between preserving habitat and protecting animals.

These hunters turned conservation-activists also understood something else; namely, that to strike a balance between survival of animals on the one hand, and requirements of hunters on the other, both wildlife and hunting needed to be managed.  And management meant enlisting government at every level – local, state, federal – because wild animals, birds and fish all migrate. So an alliance developed between hunters, conservationists and government agencies that resulted in the creation of the National Parks System, the Migratory Bird Act, the Duck Stamp Act and the Robertson-Pittman Act which so far has pushed more than $2 billion into conservation and hunting programs.

This alliance no longer exists due to the polarization of the gun control debate.  If the NRA and the NSSF believe that the Federal Government is a threat to law-abiding shooters, they aren’t about to align themselves behind programs that might enlarge the ability of government agencies to control access to guns.  At the same time, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon believe that only the federal government has the resources to control environmental threats arising from new technologies for energy extraction.

Right now there is a hot contest in California (A.B. 711) over whether to ban all lead ammunition.  The NRA and its hunting allies like Boone & Crockett and Ducks Unlimited oppose the measure; the Audubon Society and its allies are promoting the ban on lead ammo in California and elsewhere.  These groups should not be fighting one another.  They should be sitting down together, acknowledging their common heritage and history, and finding ways to make sure that what Roosevelt and Grinnell said 125 years ago still holds true today: Conservation Begins With Wildlife. 

Let’s Get The lead Out Of Ammo


                  The reason the NRA wins in Washington is because their opposition isn’t organized.  The opposition only comes to life when a terrible tragedy (Sandy Hook) occurs, and as soon as the posturing and pleading comes to an end, support for more gun control quickly disappears.  The NRA, on the other hand, never misses an opportunity to remind its members that the 2nd Amendment right to own guns must be constantly and continually defended.

                The problem is that people who support gun control usually don’t own guns.  But they do own something else.  What they own, and they share this ownership with gun owners by the way, is the world in which we live.  Whether we call ourselves environmentalists, preservationists, naturalists, ecologists, bird-watchers, tree-huggers, or just good, old-fashioned lovers of the outdoors, the number of people who support and enjoy the beauties and wonderment of nature dwarfs the NRA’s membership by far.

And now it appears that, for the very first time, these folks may be gearing up to challenge the NRA’s monopoly over discussions not about guns per se, but about the ways in which they are used.  I am referring  to the legislative battle in California over Assembly Bill 711 which bans all lead ammunition within the state. Previously lead ammunition was prohibited in areas inhabited by the California condor and certain other flyways; now environmentalists are attempting to extend the prohibition state-wide.

As expected, the NRA is using a combination of scare tactics (‘they’re really after your guns,’) pseudo-science (‘more animals die from road kills than from lead shot,’) and economic Armageddon (‘thousands of jobs are at stake,’) to spearhead the anti-711 crusade.  But the NRA’s campaign isn’t about what kind of ammunition will be used to shoot at game or targets per se.  It’s about who will set the terms and the tone for any discussion about guns.

The NRA has been very successful in making sure that government regulation over the gun industry, particularly the regulation of products, is minimal at best.  They know that if California bans all lead ammunition, that the regulatory virus will spread.  The country was settled East to West but new things tend to move from West to East.  Remember where half-and-half first started messing up coffee?  Remember a guy named Reagan?

The problem isn’t the lack of alternative, non-toxic materials.  The problem is the lack of communication between the two sides.  For example, we have banned lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, and nobody who wants to be taken seriously in any discussion about public health would question the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on protecting children from exposure to lead.  Manufacturing lead ammunition creates the second highest consumption of lead, the 65 million metric tons used in 2012 ranking only behind the amount used in the manufacture of batteries.  But ammunition manufacturers have been petitioning the ATF for years without success to create realistic rules governing ammunition components that would allow non-toxic materials to be substituted for lead.

Here’s a real opportunity for the two sides to sit down, put the vitriol aside, and come up with a plan that satisfies both the public health risks of lead exposure on the one hand, and the ability of the ammo manufacturers to utilize non-toxic substances on the other.  And it wouldn’t have to involve any government regulation at all.  One of the NRA’s favorite symbols is our beloved bald eagle.  That bird lives today in great numbers because naturalists and environmentalists fought a long and difficult battle to get rid of DDT.  Why can’t we get together and do the same thing with lead?

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