This is part 1 of a 2-part series, Mislead on Lead. See part 2, Pushing back on lead ammo and fishing tackle misinformation.
Hunting and fishing have a science denial problem. Special interest groups are misleading hunters and anglers—some of the country’s proudest conservationists—into poisoning wildlife. Hunters are also being misled into risking the health of their families and recipients of donated meat. Even small amounts of lead affect nearly every organ in the body; impacts include permanent changes to the brain and miscarriage.
EHN investigated hundreds of claims from webpages, documents, and testimony, and found that groups including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), and the National Rifle Association (NRA) spread misinformation and engage in science denialism most of the time they communicate about lead ammunition or fishing tackle.
Lead in hunting and fishing
Lead poisoning of wildlife from ammunition has been documented for more than a century. Raptors and scavenging birds that eat the remains of hunted animals are poisoned by lead fragments embedded in carcasses. Waterfowl and terrestrial game birds, especially species with a muscular gizzard to grind their food, are poisoned by spent lead gunshot. Species impacted include doves, condors, eagles, and vultures.
Lead fishing tackle is well-established as a leading cause of death for common loons and swans, and poses a risk to more than 70 other species of North American wildlife. Nearly 4,400 tons of lead fishing tackle are lost every year in U.S. waterways, according to estimates.
When hunters or anglers see lead poisoning in wildlife for themselves, it can have lasting impacts.
Matthew Freer works at Cornell University, conducting chemical analysis on the livers of eagles that are found dead. He told EHN his use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle permanently changed after finding lethal levels of lead in the eagles’ livers: “I said, ‘I’m not doing it anymore. I’ll still hunt and fish, but I’ll do it more conscientiously.’ I want my children to be able to enjoy the outdoors, and if they want to go hunting, not to worry about getting poisoned or poisoning something else.”
But most hunters and anglers will never witness how lead impacts wildlife, and a science denial campaign is being waged to make sure they keep using it.
Science denial campaigns aren’t really about science. They’re usually about regulation. Cognitive scientists identify science denial by a group of strategies used to create the appearance of a legitimate debate on a matter of scientific consensus.
The tobacco industry used these strategies to undermine proposed health policies, and their campaign created an enduring playbook. Five categories of denialist techniques are recognized: fake experts, cherry picking, impossible expectations, conspiracy theories, and logical fallacies. EHN found all these tactics in messaging from groups aiming to keep hunters and anglers using lead.
Groups engaging in denialism include the NSSF, the firearm industry trade association; the NRA, which functions as a corporate lobbying group for the firearm industry; and the CSF, an organization that provides support and guidance for three distinct caucuses operating at both the federal and state level: The Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, the Governors Sportsmen’s Caucus, and the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses.
Fake experts and cherry picking
In this tactic, fake experts are presented as experts, yet represent views inconsistent with well-established knowledge. Tobacco giant Philip Morris used fake experts to claim that second-hand smoke is safe to breathe. In the case of lead ammunition, the tactic is used to claim that fragments of lead ammunition—often made from recycled car batteries— are safe to eat.
EHN reported previously that lead ammunition can contaminate hunted meat and increase the blood lead levels of humans who consume it. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “there is no identified threshold or safe level of lead in blood.” Scientists have linked lead ammunition to human blood lead levels ranging from less than 5 to more than 70 micrograms per deciliter.
In April 2021, the CSF wrote a letter to the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in opposition to a lead ammunition ban. What appears to be a quote from a scientific source indicating that lead-contaminated meat does not pose a human health risk is actually an article in Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine. In claiming lead ammunition is safe to eat, an NRA-run site also references a report that is not peer-reviewed, not written by toxicologists, and inconsistent with scientific literature on eating lead.
This strategy also attempts to discredit established experts. In October 2020, an article on NSSF’s website warned readers not to believe the findings of a peer-reviewed study on lead-contamination of hunted meat. Given Harper, co-author of the study published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, told EHN that NSSF’s characterization was “filled with much misinformation.”
In attempts to discredit the entire body of evidence on eating lead-contaminated meat, the CSF, NSSF, and NRA repeatedly cite the same study and misrepresent its findings. This cherry picking allows misinformation campaigns to selectively focus on data that supports what they want—in this case, continued use of lead. Big Tobacco used the same strategy.
The tobacco industry’s PR campaign insisted on nearly impossible criteria for “sound science” and dismissed the scientific consensus as “junk science.” An internal industry memo strategizing how to portray smoking to the public once famously explained, “Doubt is our product”.
Despite scientific consensus statements to replace lead ammunition and scientific reviews recognizing fishing tackle as a serious environmental problem, the CSF writes in their 2021 brief for policymakers that efforts to regulate lead ammunition and fishing tackle “are generally not based on sound science.” The “sound science” term is also used by the NSSF and NRA.
The tactic is part of a larger category of creating impossible expectations.
However, the scientific consensus on replacing lead ammunition does not hinge on demonstrated population-level impacts or wildlife management; it is based on the “…overwhelming evidence for the toxic effects of lead in humans and wildlife, even at very low exposure levels.” Scientists who study the impacts of lead ammunition have concluded “no more evidence is required. The same rationales that were used to remove lead from gasoline, paints, and household items should be applied to lead-based hunting ammunition.”
Carrol Henderson, recently retired after more than 40 years as Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ non-game wildlife supervisor, told EHN, “there’s nothing that says you have to kill enough creatures to have a population-level impact in order to stop using lead.”
These demands require spending millions of research dollars that don’t exist, he added.
Population-level impacts are also difficult to document because sick birds often hide and are quickly scavenged when they die.
Mark Pokras, a wildlife veterinarian and Associate Professor Emeritus at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, co-authored a 2019 scientific review emphasizing that lead poisoning “is killing large numbers of animals in a manner that is often prolonged, painful, and cruel.”
He told EHN that for every animal that dies of lead poisoning, there are many others that have sublethal effects.“Whether it causes heart, kidney, reproductive, or nervous system problems, there is strong scientific evidence to show that any quantity of lead can be harmful.”
Olivia Pea, a veterinarian who worked with the Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire, told EHN that lead can be an underlying cause of death attributed to collisions: “If they’re showing neurological signs, they can’t be aware of their body properly; if they’re flying, they’re crashing into things.” Dr. Pea said that use of nonlead alternatives is consistent with wildlife conservation, since they prevent needless suffering and death of nontarget species.
While the NSSF touts their support for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, they did not answer EHN’s request for their position on one of the seven principles of this model, “Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose.”
Even when scientists have been able to demonstrate population-level impacts, the CSF has denied its existence.
Loon Preservation Committee biologist Tiffany Grade described a study to EHN that she authored in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2017. “We estimated that over the years of the study, 1989-2012, lead tackle mortality reduced the New Hampshire loon population by 43%.”
The detrimental impact of lead fishing tackle on loons in New Hampshire was a crucial factor in the state’s 2013 ban on the sale and freshwater use of jigs and sinkers one ounce and smaller.
Yet the CSF state in their 2021 issue brief, “although some individual loon deaths have been linked to lead fishing sinkers, there has been no documented evidence that lead fishing sinkers, of any size, have a detrimental impact on local or regional loon populations.”
Logical fallacies and conspiracy theories
Tobacco companies described academic research into the health effects of smoking as an anti-cigarette conspiracy, the work of an anti-smoking cartel, and made unsubstantiated predictions about the impacts of proposed requirements for warning labels on cigarette packages.
This fallacy is also featured in the most prominent conspiracy theory related to lead ammunition. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action claims, “Anti-hunting groups and gun control supporters want lead ammunition banned for hunting to raise the cost of ammunition and, as a result, to dissuade people from participating in hunting and acquiring firearms for that purpose.” The CSF website places information about lead ammunition and tackle bans under the category “Anti-hunting and fishing (Animal Rights)”. The NSSF says that conclusions about the impact of lead to the California Condor are due to “anti-hunting activists”.
The tactic is effective.
Carol Holmgren, Executive Director and Principal Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator at Tamarack Wildlife Center in Saegertown, Pennsylvania, told EHN that the biggest obstacle to educating hunters about nonlead ammunition has been “misinformation about an anti-hunting agenda.”
Regarding claims that requiring nonlead ammunition will drive hunting participation down, Dr. Pokras said: “It’s demonstrably false. That argument was made in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s when agencies were considering the adoption of non-toxic shot for waterfowl, ‘Nobody’s going to be able to hunt anymore.’ It hasn’t happened.”
Henderson points out that the 1991 nationwide ban on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting actually created a guaranteed market and competition among nonlead manufacturers, increasing availability and decreasing price.
Additional evidence regarding the impact of lead ammunition bans comes from California. In October 2013, Assembly Bill 711 was signed into law, requiring the use of nonlead ammunition when taking any wildlife with a firearm. The statute’s requirements were phased in through 2019. More hunters participated in California’s 2020 hunting season than during each of the previous six seasons.
When asked for comment, the NSSF told EHN they stand by their position that efforts to ban lead ammunition are part of a larger goal to ban hunting.
New Hampshire’s 2013 ban on lead jigs and sinkers was strongly opposed by the sport fishing industry’s trade association, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), a financial supporter of CSF, who also opposed the ban.
In written testimony the ASA said the ban would “cause the cost of recreational fishing statewide to increase, thereby negatively affecting participation.”
According to the owner of New Hampshire’s largest “mom-and-pop” tackle shop, prices did increase—and so did participation.
“The cost of fishing has gone up, and the complaining increased, but at the same time, participation and purchasing increased,” Dale Sandy, owner of The Tackle Shack, told EHN. As a result of the ban, a bag of split shots increased from roughly one dollar to four dollars, Sandy said. “I don’t see people not buying it or giving up fishing because of it. True hunters and fishermen are going to be your most common-sense environmentalists out there.”
Jennifer Riley, Director of Veterinary Services at Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Virginia, is not optimistic that common sense will prevail: “We can provide all the education and science there is, but people see it as us trying to take their guns or being crazy hippies. Ultimately, it’s the animals that suffer and most humans that are eating lead themselves do not realize the damage being caused.”
The NRA and CSF did not respond to requests for comment.
Banner photo: An adult Bald Eagle found deceased from lead poisoning in 2020. The eagle was found in Pennsylvania beside a young eagle that was also lead-poisoned but survived after rehabilitation at Tamarack Wildlife Center. (Credit: Tamarack Wildlife Center)