Environmental groups on Tuesday petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of lead in fishing tackle and hunting ammunition.
It is already illegal to use lead shot for waterfowl in places such as the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. But the groups, which include Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, want to extend this ban to all hunting and fishing.
"Shooting and fishing sports are the biggest lead exposure points to wildlife species," said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
The group and several others petitioned the EPA to outlaw lead in fishing tackle - primarily small freshwater sinkers - and in firearms ammunition.
The center said as many as 20 million birds, most of them doves, die each year from consuming lead.
Federal law banned lead shot for duck and goose-hunting in 1991. Several individual reserves or refuges have their own specific rules about the ammunition allowed.
The National Park Service last year planned to ban lead ammo later this year from all types of hunting on its lands.
"Our refuges are already complying with nontoxic shot," said Kevin Holcomb, a biologist at the sprawling Forsythe refuge, which is a year-round haven for ducks and geese. "To reduce the amount of lead in our waters - to reduce the number of birds that ingest lead shot - will help migratory waterfowl."
Holcomb said other refuges have identified environmental problems caused by an abundance of lead from ammunition. This is particularly problematic around shotgun ranges, he said.
"There are other refuges in the U.S. that have seen the effects of lead shot on birds, as well as other wildlife," he said.
Holcomb said that when he worked at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County, hunters were required to use nontoxic pellets in their shotgun cartridges when hunting quail, woodcock and other upland birds.
"As a hunter myself, I know it's more expensive to buy nontoxic shot. But new polymers react similarly to lead shot and it doesn't have the same harmful effect," Holcomb said.
The National Rifle Association, one of the nation's largest hunting advocacy groups, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Butch Sacco, owner of Butch's Gun World in Vineland, said the early nontoxic replacements for lead shotgun shells were unpopular with hunters because they had less killing power. As a result, hunters "winged" or merely injured some birds, contrary to the hunting ethos.
The nontoxic shot also was more likely to damage the rifle bore than the softer lead, he said.
Newer polymers are more malleable like lead and are more lethal. And the price came down, too, he said.
But Sacco said he is not convinced lead shot poses the same problem to forest animals as it does to ducks and geese.
"With upland game hunting, you don't have a heavy concentration of lead. There isn't enough lead out there," he said.
The EPA recognizes lead as a toxin - one reason lead was removed from gasoline and paint. Lead poisoning has been a major problem for some species, such as the nearly extinct California condor, said Pete Dunne, director of New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory.
"The condors ingested shards of lead from the carcasses of deer that were shot but not recovered," he said. "The state of California banned the use of lead bullets in the condor's range last year."
The environmental groups also targeted fishing tackle such as lead sinkers that often wind up dropped or lost on snags in creeks, rivers and lakes. Fish sometimes swallow the sinkers and, in turn, get eaten by eagles or ospreys.
Ducks and other waterfowl can eat the tiniest sinkers by mistake while foraging for invertebrates in the mud, Miller said.
Nationwide, 450 million lead fishing sinkers are produced and sold each year in the United States, according to the EPA.
"The weights that are of most concern are those used in freshwater fishing," Miller said. "Most birds that ingest lead weights are trying to find seeds or grit. They're ingesting small sizes."
George Brennan, owner of Brennan Marine Supply in Somers Point, has a large display of lead sinkers ranging in size from a pea to a potato. Shiny and silver in their sorting boxes, the sinkers looked like Christmas ornaments.
Some are as expensive at $3 or more.
Brennan said there was an environmental movement a few years ago to replace lead sinkers with steel ones. But alternative materials have not caught on among manufacturers, he said.
"If the fisherman lost a steel sinker, it would rust away to protect the fish," he said. "They didn't want the fish to eat the lead sinkers."
Brennan said he would welcome other materials, as long as they were as heavy, durable and inexpensive as lead.
"I would love to see something like that," he said. "A sinker that wouldn't hurt the environment."
The EPA has 90 days to review and respond to the petition.
Contact Michael Miller:
To read the petition: