WASHINGTON — Making life better for fish and wildlife and the people who hunt them lies at the heart of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, the bill that covers everything from habitat conservation to transporting bows through national parks, which is likely to be approved by the Senate on Monday.
Although the bill enjoys broad, bipartisan support, some environmentalists are not happy with it. The bill ensures that lead can continue to be used in ammunition, which they say poisons some wildlife, and it specifically says that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot regulate components “used in shot, bullets and other projectiles,” such as bullets and fishing tackle.
The wording aimed at the EPA is so broad that opponents of the bill say it could block the agency from regulating, for example, perchlorate, a component of explosives and rocket fuel that has been linked to thyroid problems in children and pregnant women and has been found in drinking water in 35 states.
And, in this grab bag of a bill, there’s the issue of polar bear trophies. The federal government banned the importation of polar bear pelts four years ago, when it listed the species under the Endangered Species Act. The Sportsmen’s Act, however, allows a one-time importation of 41 polar bear trophies killed in Canada by U.S. hunters before 2008.
Those trophies — tanned skin and claws, skull and the traditionally prized penis bone — have been in cold storage in Canada.
The Sportsman’s Act, authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a collection of 17 provisions that would seem to have something for everyone.
The bill would boost the amount of available funds for conserving fish and wildlife along with their habitat, and expand opportunities for hunters and anglers to target wild species. It would make it easier for the federal government to buy land to improve access to public lands for hunters and anglers.
The bill also would raise the price of duck stamps — proceeds of which help fund wetlands protection — for the first time in two decades and allow the interior secretary to re-evaluate their price every three years. Maryland, Louisiana and other coastal states would be eligible for funding to eradicate nutria, or swamp rats.
The measure also would reauthorize several federal programs and institutions that work to protect wildlife, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a program issuing stamps to raise money for elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, marine turtles and great apes.
But a dispute has emerged over the provision on lead. The Center for Biological Diversity and other advocacy groups have pushed unsuccessfully for the EPA to ban lead in hunting and fishing equipment.
Lead is a significant component of ammunition, as well as some fishing gear: At least 14,000 tons of lead is introduced into the environment every year by U.S. hunters and anglers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lead shot and tackle left on the ground or in waterways are consumed by birds and other wildlife, often with deadly results.
The EPA has rejected the center’s petition twice on the grounds that the Toxic Substances Control Act includes a provision excluding some gun-related items from agency controls. The agency is fighting a lawsuit filed by the group in federal court.
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the senator crafted the bill’s language to ensure that the agency would not bow to outside pressure. In 2010, Murphy said, “acting on behalf of many concerned Montanans, [Tester] asked the EPA not to pursue consideration of banning lead ammunition — an overreaching restriction that would affect the rights and freedoms of law-abiding Americans.”
Senate Democrats, including Barbara Boxer, Calif., said in a statement that while the bill “has many good provisions,” it also “includes two provisions that threaten public health and could set back wildlife conservation efforts.”
The other contentious provision is the one-time importation of polar bear trophies, authored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Boxer and Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg, N.J., and John Kerry, Mass., had authored amendments aimed at tweaking the bill, but no amendments will be considered when the bill comes up for a vote.
The dispute presents an awkward moment for environmental groups, several of which worked hard to ensure Tester’s re-election this month.
Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned why the Senate would vote on the bill, which has not been subject to a full hearing and committee markup.
“There is simply no justification for making any of these changes to our nation’s chemical control law [the Toxic Substances Control Act], and particularly for rushing it forward without the benefit of any scrutiny or comment by the Senate itself or members of the public,” Rosenberg said.
An aide to Tester said the measure would have no effect on the EPA’s current work on whether to establish limits on perchlorate exposure. The EPA declined to comment on the matter, noting that the administration has endorsed the bill.
Backers of the legislation say it would boost the economy as well as foster conservation by promoting outdoor recreation.
Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said critics were misinterpreting the bill’s environmental impact. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead ammunition in waterfowl hunting in 1991, he noted, and could take further action if needed.
“It shouldn’t be controversial for anybody,” Fosburgh said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service, not EPA, is the proper place to regulate lead … There’s a genuine fear of an EPA overreach on this.”
Fishing and hunting groups have resisted a total phaseout of lead in their gear, mainly because non-toxic metals are much more expensive. Gordon Robertson, vice president of the American Sportfishing Association, noted that lures made of steel and tungsten are more costly, and steel is less malleable. He added that the elemental lead in lures is less toxic than other forms of the metal.
National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the prospect of requiring non-toxic bullets nationwide is “a very grave concern of ours. Banning commonly-used ammunition would make it difficult for common people to hunt, and it could alone make it cost prohibitive.”
But Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said lead exposure kills 20 million birds annually in the United States and poses a threat to the endangered California condor, which feeds on dead animals.
That species nearly went extinct 25 years ago before the launch of a captive breeding program. There are now 232 California condors in the wild, 204 of which live in the American West.
California banned the use of lead shot in the condor’s range four years ago. Since then, just three have died in California, but lead exposure rates continue to be high in Arizona. In that state, the flock’s annual lead poisoning rates from eating poisoned carrion have ranged from 31 percent to 95 percent.
Millions of other birds are poisoned each year because they eat lead shot, mistaking it for gravel.
“You don’t have to slow down a single hunter,” Suckling said, adding that a lead ban would also benefit less-imperiled birds. “This is a perfect example of what you can do proactively to ensure you have abundant wildlife and prevent animals from becoming endangered.”
Even if Tester’s bill passes as expected, it remains unclear if the House will approve it before adjourning for the year. The lower chamber has passed its own version, which includes some additional controversial provisions, such as one that could bar the president from declaring new national monuments. Given the time constraints, the House would either have to accept the Senate measure or reconcile the competing bills very quickly.
Fosburgh said that while some people might want to alter Tester’s bill, it represents the best chance at securing a conservation win before the 112th Congress ends.
“This is the bill everyone can live with,” he said. “Everyone claims they’re friends of the sportsmen. We’ll see.”