It is hard to believe that something so small could cause such a large controversy. But the debate surrounding the composition of the shot used by American duck hunters has developed into a divisive issue among wildlife managers, conservationists, and the nation's roughly 2 million waterfowl hunters.
The decade-long controversy involves the concern that the lead shot used by most duck hunters is contributing to a high rate of lead poisoning of ducks and other waterfowl. The ducks are said to swallow the spent shot that accumulates in marshy areas where ducks and other waterfowl feed. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, some 2 million waterfowl die each year from lead poisoning.
Some evidence suggests that even bald eagles are being affected through secondary lead poisoning as a result of eating ducks that have died from lead poisoning or by ingesting the lead pellets embedded in duck carrion.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the nation's largest conservation group and a pro-hunting organization, has petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service for an immediate ban on the use of lead shot in six counties in Midwestern and Western states in an effort to protect eagles and waterfowl from lead poisoning.
The petition seeks to require the use of nontoxic steel shot by hunters in those areas. The group is also calling for the establishment of similar nontoxic-shot zones in 89 other areas nationwide by next year.
The NWF recommendation is based in part on finding 13 eagles that died last year as a result of lead poisoning. There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 eagles living in the lower 48 states year round.
The Fish and Wildlife Service responded Friday on the eagle issue with a proposal that a ban on lead shot be enacted in five of the six counties identified as problem spots by the NWF. The government proposal would also delay the imposition of the ban until next year rather than making it immediate, in an effort to give hunters and suppliers an opportunity to gear up for the change in regulations.
In addition, the government says it plans to step up research efforts in 14 counties in 11 states to determine the scope of lead poisoning among eagles in those areas.
Lead poisoning became a major issue in the hunting community in the mid-1970s , after a federal study estimated that between 1.6 and 2.4 million waterfowl died annually from swallowing lead shot.
Under the administration of former Interior Secretary James Watt, the issue was apparently put on a back burner. There are indications, however, that senior Interior officials under Interior Secretary William Clark are now committed to working toward an eventual resolution of the longstanding dispute.
While most duck hunters are concerned about the effects of lead poisoning on the waterfowl population, many feel that the problem has been overstated and understudied. Some hunters complain that the lighter steel shot is not as good a projectile as the traditional lead shot. They say it ends up only wounding many ducks that would have been killed outright by lead shot.
These hunters suggest that more birds are being crippled as a result of the use of steel shot than are dying as a result of lead poisoning.
Lead shot is already banned in some sections of 32 states, and two states have banned its use completely.
There will be an estimated 75 to 80 million ducks, geese, and swans in American marshes this fall. Hunters are expected to kill roughly 15 million waterfowl. In addition, an estimated 5 million birds will be crippled by hunters during the October-to-January duck-hunting season, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scott Feierabend of the NWF says that in the process of duck hunting, some 3, 000 tons of lead shot are sprayed across American marshes each year. ''We have a documented, demonstrated toxicant being poured out year after year,'' he says.
Efforts to obtain a nationwide ban on lead shot have been hindered as a result of the so-called Stevens Amendment, which requires individual approval on a state-by-state basis prior to enactment of lead shot regulations. The measure, which was sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, is under fire by Interior officials, including Undersecretary Ann McLaughlin, who is working to have it lifted.