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Among his first official acts as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke this week repealed a ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle in national wildlife refuges, saying the last-minute order issued by outgoing Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe was not needed. The earlier little-noticed order required the use of only nontoxic materials to be phased in by 2022, a measure to protect wildlife that could ingest spent shot and lost sinkers.
Under the urging of gun-rights and sportsmen industry groups, Zinke nixed the rule.
This order does not appear to affect longstanding regulations banning the possession and discharge of lead shot at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and other federal wildlife preserves in Utah.
"Waterfowl hunting takes place on [Utah's three] refuges, and lead shot has not been allowed for waterfowl hunting on the refuges, or anywhere in Utah for at least 25 years," wrote Mark Hadley, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "The lead ban had no effect on sportsmen in Utah."
The mostly symbolic order has a larger impact on fishing on any land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Zinke also signed an order promoting access to public lands for recreation.
"It worries me to think about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite," he said in a statement. "This package of secretarial orders will expand access for outdoor enthusiasts and also make sure the community's voice is heard."
Standing behind Zinke at Thursday's signing ceremony was Utah Division of Wildlife Director Greg Sheehan, who has supported voluntary measures to keep lead ammunition out of the environment.
Lead poisoning is a leading cause of death for endangered condors, which reside in southwestern Utah and are coming back from the brink of extinction. The massive scavenging birds dine on gut piles left by big-game hunters and can absorb high levels of lead from bullet fragments permeating the entrails.
Utah wildlife officials encourage big-game hunters to use steel ammunition in condor areas or haul out the deer guts, but the state has shied away from a lead ban under the belief that voluntary measures promote better compliance. Sheehan, who was not available for comment Friday, has personally collected gut piles out of the field as a gesture to promote condor protections.
The state bans lead shot in waterfowl hunting areas. Buckshot accumulates on the beds of wetlands where hunters fire 12-gauge shells at low-flying birds. Ducks and loons rooting in the muddy bottoms can swallow these pellets.
Because lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, environmental and animal welfare groups have long urged the removal of lead from hunters' and anglers' toolboxes.
"It's frustrating. There are plenty of alternatives to lead shot and lead fishing equipment. It makes sense to ban lead from the areas where there are alternatives that won't poison wildlife," said Athan Manuel, who directs Sierra Club's lands-protection program. "We were disappointed that the first thing [Zinke] does is give in to the NRA [National Rifle Association] and make a regulation that says it's OK to have poison in the hunting and fishing realm."
But where the Humane Society and Sierra Club saw smart policy in the lead ban, the American Sportfishing Association saw overreach that unnecessarily penalized anglers and hurt recreational fishing-dependent jobs.