When California announced that it would become the first state to ban hunting with traditional lead ammunition, the response from gun owners and hunters was as swift as it was bleak.
There wasn’t enough alternative ammunition available, they said, and the options that did exist were so expensive that thousands of hunters would stop hunting and, as a result, cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue from hunting permits. The argument was that the desire to reduce lead exposure to wildlife had outpaced the market’s ability to meet demand.
But as the first day of the ban came and went last week, state regulators called these concerns unfounded, noting that more manufacturers are selling lead-free options.
“I have had no problem getting it,” said Clark Blanchard, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and an avid hunter. Blanchard said lead-free options for common ammunition sizes – such as .30-06 and .270 caliber for big-game rifles and most sizes of shotgun shells for hunting birds – are easy to find on shelves at sporting goods stores and online at wholesale websites.
It’s just that you’ll shell out more money to buy it.
Lead-free ammunition typically costs one and a half to two times as much as lead ammunition, which hovers around $1 per round or less. To save money, Blanchard started recycling ammunition by reloading used casings with fresh gunpowder. This, he estimates, has cut his costs in half.
“Whether you have bad feelings about it, or think this is just another burden for hunters, I think folks will comply and be just fine,” he said, adding that many hunters already have switched to lead-free rounds. “They don’t want to risk feeding their families lead.”
The ban is far from complete, however, and is littered with exemptions that allow hunters to continue using lead ammunition. Arrows and pellet guns are not covered by the law, for example, but often are used to hunt certain animals such as turkeys.
July 1 marked the start of a four-year rollout of the state’s ban. The changes are limited in scope and currently cover the roughly 1 million acres of land owned by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as the hunting of a single species of bighorn sheep found in a few remote areas in the southeastern part of the state. Bighorn sheep were singled out in the first phase because of how few hunters will be affected. Through the end of June, the state had issued 14 permits to hunt the animal.
Hunting with lead ammunition remains legal on private property, federal forest land and areas owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which together comprise the bulk of the state’s hunting areas.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said the main reason the ban won’t be enforced uniformly across the state until 2019 is the pushback from hunters and the gun industry, which culminated in a failed attempt to repeal the ban earlier this year. The new rules don’t cover shooting ranges, which have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent months after The Seattle Times revealed repeated violations of lead exposure levels at gun ranges around the country.
Currently, 39 companies make ammunition that is certified by the state as containing less than 1 percent lead by weight. Included among them are major manufacturers such as Winchester Ammunition, Remington Arms Co. LLC and Hornady Manufacturing Co.
Longtime hunter Ed Bradley hasn’t tried any of them. And he doesn’t plan to, since the vintage double-barreled shotgun he purchased in 1965 to hunt birds can’t shoot steel ammunition that – unlike traditional lead rounds wrapped in plastic – can damage the barrel of the gun.
Bradley, 73, was one of many who wrote letters to state officials protesting the ban after he researched the cost of alternatives that didn’t contain lead or steel. He found a company in Texas that sold boxes of 25 nontoxic shotgun shells online for $75.
“I was shocked,” said Bradley, a retired electrician who lives in Temecula, about 60 miles north of San Diego. “I’m used to paying $5 or $6 for a box of traditional rounds on sale. It’s outrageous. I would have absolutely no problem conforming to all of this if there was a reasonably priced alternative.”
Most nonlead rifle ammunition is made with copper, while lead-free shotgun ammunition is generally steel. Other, more expensive alternatives are made with bismuth and tungsten.
For now, the ban doesn’t apply to most of the Southern California desert where Bradley hunts for doves, quail and other birds. Once the law is expanded to the entire state, he said he won’t renew his California hunting license. Instead, he’ll likely get a permit in Arizona, where lead ammunition still is legal.
That means one less permit for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which relies on licensing fees as a revenue stream to pay the salaries of game wardens. In 50 years of hunting, Bradley said he has come across exactly one warden in the field.
“They are few and far between, and they aren’t going to be able to go around and stick a magnet on everyone’s ammunition,” he said. “It’s impossible to enforce.”
About 300 game wardens across the state are charged with enforcing the ban. Violators will be fined $500 and also could be required to pay court costs.
Lawyers for the California Rifle & Pistol Association and the National Rifle Association sent a letter to state regulators earlier this year opposing the law, arguing that it wasn’t practical.
Tom Pedersen, a lobbyist for the California arm of the National Rifle Association, acknowledges that most common ammunition sizes are readily available. The issue, he said, is getting .22-caliber ammunition, one of the most common sizes for small plinking rifles, and certain big-game ammunition favored by hunters decades ago and still used by some today.
“You can look through catalogues and see lots of nonlead options. The problem is, when you go to the store you can’t find the product. If you’re lucky, they’ll have in the morning, limit you to three boxes, and then it’s gone,” said Pedersen, who retired as head of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement branch before working as a lobbyist. “We are very concerned about supply and demand.”
Concerns over animals eating lead contained in bullet fragments dates back to 1991. That’s when a federal ban on using lead ammunition to hunt water birds was enacted after studies found that ducks were dying after ingesting lead. But the ban only applied to water birds.
In 2008, California banned lead ammunition in key habitat areas for the endangered California condor, which nearly became extinct in the early 1990s. Scavengers such as condors eat the guts left behind by hunters, putting them particularly at risk of lead poisoning.
As California’s latest ban expands in the coming years, regulators are confident concerns over the supply of ammunition will fade.
To become certified with the state, a company must email a description of every size of nonlead ammunition it sells, along with details of materials used to make the ammunition and photos of the cartridges. These photos are included in a booklet of approved ammunition that wardens to carry in the field.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has the authority to independently test the ammunition to verify what companies say, although that hasn’t happened yet, according to Craig Stowers, an environmental program manager for the department in charge of hunting regulations. As a result, all of the current alternatives have been certified by the companies themselves.
Stowers said there were only six certified manufacturers in 2008, when the state first banned lead ammunition in condor zones. Now, 39 companies sell certified ammunition with less than 1 percent lead, many with dozens of different sizes and options.
“It’s a lot better now than it was. The technology will catch up,” he said. “There’s clearly a need. We’ve created a niche market and companies are starting to fill it.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.