Groups including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) are waging science denial campaigns to keep lead products in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle.
As a result, wildlife is poisoned and human health is at risk.
Meanwhile, proponents of nonlead alternatives are divided on the path forward, fearful to address misinformation. Much has been learned about the psychology of misinformation from vaccine, tobacco, and climate denial campaigns, but these insights are largely ignored when it comes to lead ammunition and fishing tackle.
A preventable problem
“This is a one hundred percent preventable problem,” Benjamin Haywood, an environmental geographer at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, told EHN. He has also worked as a wildlife medic at Tamarack Wildlife Center in Saegertown, Pennsylvania, where many of the state’s lead-poisoned eagles are treated.
In a typical year, nonlead ammunition options are available in calibers for both small and large game hunting, with price and efficiency comparable to lead ammunition. During 2021, an ammunition shortage has hampered hunters’ ability to access all types of ammunition; the industry predicts normalcy will return in 2022.
Alternatives to lead fishing tackle include sinkers made from tungsten, stone, and biodegradable material.
Haywood described the issue of lead in hunting and fishing as low-hanging fruit when it comes to natural resource stewardship but said “it has unfortunately become part of a focused campaign motivated by identity politics and fear.”
Cognitive scientists say misinformation like this shouldn’t be ignored, and confronting it can help the public understand that they are being manipulated.
The ammunition industry is a financial backer of the CSF, NSSF, and NRA. The NSSF is the firearm industry trade association, describing themselves as the “unified voice” of the industry. The NRA has received tens of millions of dollars from the firearm industry since 2005, and functions as a corporate lobbying group for the industry. The CSF manages a network of congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative caucuses, and produces an annual report to brief policymakers on issues. The group is also financially supported by retailers of lead products including Bass Pro Shops, and firearm industry giants like Vista Outdoors, the leading U.S. ammunition manufacturer. CSF also provides regular opportunities for gun industry representatives to interact with caucus members.
“Every part of this always comes back to money—who gets the money and where the money’s going,” RC, a wildlife professional who requested EHN keep their name confidential, told EHN.
But if ammunition manufacturers stand to profit regardless of the type of ammunition in demand, why oppose a lead ban? EHN asked David Fricke, hunter and president and co-owner of Millennium Manufacturing and Lehigh Defense, manufacturers of nonlead ammunition in Pennsylvania.
“If I was a lead-core manufacturer, I’d be terrified because the infrastructures they have in can’t be retrofitted. I’d probably be encouraging the NRA, the NSSF to say this is the first step in taking gun rights away,” Fricke told EHN.
Fricke compared the switch to an automotive manufacturer converting from gas vehicles to electric. He said that many of the machines used to produce lead bullets were used in World War II. “They are still using WWII design to produce these projectiles. Highly efficient, very fast, but…there’s no way to convert that manufacturing process to nonlead ammunition.”
Fricke said that the components of lead ammunition—copper sheet and lead— are inexpensive compared to the copper bar stock required for copper ammunition. Machines to manufacture copper ammunition are also expensive, at about $2 million apiece.
And there are different production rates. “For nonlead ammunition, we produce at a rate of 120 pieces per hour. In forming a lead bullet, their rate is over 10,000 per hour. They make huge amounts of money on it,” Fricke said.
Fricke sent EHN more than a dozen peer-reviewed scientific articles about lead and nonlead ammunition that are foundational to the scientific consensus on replacing lead ammunition. This included findings of high concentrations of lead in hunted carcasses, and studies that have concluded nonlead ammunition performs just as well as lead ammunition for hunting.
“As far as hunting goes, lead has no business in current projectile manufacturing at all. It’s not needed from a performance perspective, it’s not needed from an accuracy perspective, it’s not needed to ensure a more ethical, humane killing of the animal,” he said.
The profitability of lead extends to fishing gear. Sheridan Brown is a longtime conservation volunteer and attorney in New Hampshire. He led the legislative efforts of the Loon Preservation Committee and other conservation groups in the state to pass a bill banning the sale and freshwater use of lead fishing sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce or less. Brown told EHN that national advocacy groups representing large retail chains and manufacturers of lead products are the primary cheerleaders for the continued use of lead tackle.
“They profit from the use of a cheap and toxic raw material, while wildlife and the general public loses,” Brown said.
Follow the money
The collective annual budget of U.S. state wildlife agencies in 2014-2015 was $5.63 billion, with license sales providing 35% of those dollars, according to a 2017 report. An additional 15% in funds resulted from a federal excise tax on hunting equipment including ammunition, and 9% of funds were attributed to a similar excise tax on sport fishing and boating equipment.
Unsubstantiated warnings that a transition to nonlead ammunition or fishing gear will damage these sources of funding have been effective. According to RC, actions that are perceived as threats to state agency funding, such as regulating the use of lead ammunition, are non-starters, “State agency directors and senators have whispered to me in dark rooms, ‘I’d love to do something, but we can’t.’ ”
Carrol Henderson, who recently retired after more than 40 years as Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ non-game wildlife supervisor, said that state wildlife agencies “don’t want to offend the hunters because that’s their clientele. They’ve done this dance of avoiding facing up to the lead issue.”
RC pointed to instances where state agency directors instructed staff to pore over scientific reports about lead killing wildlife in order to find errors in analysis or other excuses for inaction. “They were so afraid that they might have to do something about lead ammunition. And, of course, who’s standing in the shadows but the NSSF and the NRA saying ‘That’s junk science.’
Misinformation can cancel out accurate information. Psychological research suggests that instead of fighting misinformation with correct information, it is more effective to inoculate people with weakened versions of the misinformation they may be exposed to later. This approach stimulates “mental antibodies” to recognize common misinformation techniques.
Inoculation can even be effective for addressing polarizing issues. John Cook is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. In one of his studies, participants learned about the tobacco industry’s use of fake experts to cast doubt on the science about health impacts of smoking. This was effective in inoculating against the same approach used in climate denial.
“Because climate change is so polarizing, but tobacco is not as polarizing, I was able to inoculate people,” Cook said.
Scientists say that inoculation is a promising communication strategy regardless of whether people have already been exposed to misinformation.
Georgia-based hunter Eric Morris is a hunting instructor and host and producer of NonTypical Outdoorsman TV. He works to increase the racial and cultural diversity among Georgia’s hunters.
Like the majority of U.S. big game hunters, Morris uses lead ammunition. He told EHN most hunters—including himself—do not view the use of lead as incompatible with environmental stewardship. He said he has not seen or heard evidence of widespread impact of lead on wildlife or humans. “There are a lot of other scavengers besides birds I’d be concerned about too—the coyotes, possums, foxes. But I’m not hearing about it causing problems,” he said.
Morris said that during decades of engaging with hunters, he has encountered “two groups with strong, opposing beliefs about lead ammunition, and a third group of people who really don’t know.”
In the race to influence beliefs, inoculation appears to be far behind misinformation. EHN found that educational material available from the largest nonlead educational programs in the U.S., including Sporting Lead-Free, the North American Non-lead Partnership, and the National Wildlife Federation’s Lead-Free Landscapes do not acknowledge the existence of misinformation.
When EHN reached out to nonlead organizations and wildlife rehabilitators to ask how they respond to misinformation, the majority declined to comment.
Some explained that although they found the claims that EHN provided to be egregious, they did not want to invite smear campaigns from the NRA that would damage trust they have built with hunters. Others pointed out they could not afford to risk litigation.
The National Wildlife Federation, while implementing a program to encourage hunters to adopt nonlead ammunition, is also a financial backer of the CSF, a source of misinformation about lead ammunition. When asked about this conflict of interests, the NWF responded, “The CSF is a great partner on many conservation issues, we obviously disagree with them on this issue.”
“Everybody’s afraid,” RC told EHN. They said that the nonlead messaging currently has no offensive strategy, and is not well-funded or nationally coordinated.
There’s also little incentive to push back on anti-regulatory misinformation when the major nonlead programs in the U.S. do not pursue regulatory solutions. Instead, these education-based programs focus on a voluntary approach. The NSSF responded to EHN’s request for comment by indicating the trade organization supports initiatives that educate hunters about different types of ammunition, but is opposed to mandates.
Bryan Bedrosian, Conservation Director at the Teton Raptor Center, and Director and Co-founder of Sporting Lead-free, told EHN that blowback from legislative attempts to phase out lead are indicative of a need for more education.
“There are several examples of how regulatory action has taken the issue far backwards more than could have been envisioned. There are extremely different values in landscapes across America and having blanket statements about pro-legislation and pro-litigation is just not an avenue that’s going to be successful in many parts of the United States,” he said.
RC said these programs can only be successful if the goal is to create a favorable regulatory environment in the future. “But if you do that and say that upfront, you’re never going to have an organized voluntary program because ‘regulations are bad.’ ”
What does science say about the roles of education and regulation in solving environmental problems?
According to Thomas Heberlein, hunter, author of Navigating Environmental Attitudes, and environmental social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, social science has found that environmental problems are seldom solved by changing people’s attitudes.
“Rather than the focus on simply educating people about the same points again and again, you’ve got to explore the nexus of how hunters make decisions and how they frame the issue when they use lead ammunition,” he said. “That’s how you break this logjam.”
Heberlein told EHN that any successful regulatory solution will incorporate the social psychology of hunting. “You’ve got to have regulations … and have the cognitive support of some of the users,” he said.
“Misinformation is out there for a reason—to maintain the status quo,” Heberlein said. “People don’t want to change the way they’ve been acting. But somehow there’s a way to get them to change.”
Bedrosian said that even if this change happens one person at a time, it’s worth it.
“Every hunter that uses nonlead ammunition is another chance at an eagle not dying.”
The NRA and CSF did not respond to requests for comment.
Banner photo: Tamarack Wildlife Center treats many of Pennsylvania’s lead-poisoned bald eagles. An eagle that ingested lead, nicknamed ‘Beauty’, was x-rayed as part of her treatment process. (Credit: Tamarack Wildlife Center)