Research concerning the poisoning of waterfowl by lead shot has been conducted by conservationists, ammunition manufacturers and state fish and game departments throughout most of this century. Briefly described, here's the problem: It's estimated that American hunters deposit 3,000 tons of lead pellets annually in lakes, ponds and marshes across the country. In waterfowl habitat where the soil is relatively hard and the water shallow, birds invariably ingest these pellets while feeding. It is believed that in the U.S. at least 6% of the waterfowl ingest at least one lead pellet each year. The mortality rate from lead poisoning is thought to be 2% to 3% of the fall population of all species, and that means that between 1.6 and 2.4 million ducks die each year.
The search for a non-toxic substitute for lead has been going on for more than 30 years. The many materials tested have included lead with non-metallic coatings, lead coated with various non-lead alloys, lead alloyed with other metals, water soluble lead, lead-glass beads and lead-iron shot. But each of these was found to have a toxicity equal to or greater than that of lead, and it became clear that steel would be the only suitable substitute.
Finally, on March 20, 1976, Secretary of the Interior Thomas Kleppe announced a plan for the progressive implementation of rules stipulating the use of steel shot. It was to be required at designated areas of the Atlantic Fly-way in 1976, in areas of the Mississippi Fly-way in 1977 and in areas of the Central and Pacific flyways in 1978.
It all sounded reasonable enough on paper. But hunters immediately began to complain. Their objections were that steel shot costs more, that the harder steel shot would ruin the barrels of their shotguns and that steel shot isn't as efficient as lead and would result in fewer birds bagged and more birds crippled.
There's some truth in the first of these claims. Steel-shot shells can cost as much as 50% more than lead-shot shells, but for the average duck hunter, the extra amount spent on steel-shot shells would increase his total annual expenditures on the sport by only 4%. Besides, the price of lead is rising faster than the price of steel and the technology of manufacturing steel shot is still new, so it's reasonable to assume that in a few years steel shot will become economically competitive and as equally available as lead shot.
According to every study I've seen—and I think I've seen 'em all, dozens of them over the years—the other complaints so often made by hunters have been found to have no substance.
Most early research comparing the crippling rates of steel and lead shot was conducted in laboratories or took the form of semi-controlled field studies. Recent studies have been undertaken under actual hunting conditions and have substantiated the findings of the earlier tests—that there's no significant difference in the crippling rates of lead and steel. If anything, tests prove that steel is actually more efficient. Despite this, hunters persist in their prejudice against steel. In a 1978 study conducted at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California, hunters made negative comments about shells they used that they thought held steel shot, when in fact the shells held lead. And they praised shot that they'd been told was lead—but was actually steel.
The arms and ammunition industry has studied the effects of the harder steel shot on gun barrels and concluded that modern American-made single-barrel shotguns with full chokes, the type of guns used by the majority of duck hunters, showed no damage from steel shot that would have any measurable effect on performance.
One might reasonably think that when a sufficient number of hunters had been made aware of the above facts, the steel-shot regulations would've gained popular acceptance, been implemented on a broader scale and finally accomplished what they were designed to do. Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case, because state politics, not concern for poisoned ducks, became the primary consideration in the lead-steel dispute.
For decades, conservationists and thoughtful sportsmen have worked hard to get politics out of wildlife management decisions that should be based on a knowledge of ecology and the environment. That they haven't succeeded is clear enough when it comes to the federal steel-shot regulations. As the rules were expanded to encompass more westerly fly ways in 1977 and 1978, some states objected. In addition to the arguments already cited, they claimed that birds weren't dying from lead poisoning, that the Federal Government wasn't responsive to state biological data and that, therefore, steel-shot areas were being designated haphazardly. Because of the complaints by the states, the Senate added what has become known as the Stevens Amendment to its 1979 Interior's appropriations bill. This amendment effectively took the authority to enforce steel-shot regulations away from the Federal Government and gave it to the states.