Senate calls a foul on Sportsmen's Act


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

With a highly anticipated majority, the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 passed the Senate this week. No, wait, it totally didn’t.

The high profile bill (S. 3525), which was authored and championed by Jon Tester (D-MT) would, among other things, increase access to public lands for hunters and anglers. It was seen as a safe bet with broad, bi-partisan support after having passed two procedural votes in the Senate earlier this month (by margins of 92-5 and 84-12).

The Act, which combines 16 separate Senate and House bills, has a lot going for it in terms of conservation. The package supports a bunch of historically effective programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Image courtesy Tom Koerner, USFWS

Those programs don’t just protect wildlife and habitat, and therefore the places recreationists like to go, they bolster the economies of states and the nation in a big way. Outdoor recreation contributed $646 billion in direct spending to the U.S. economy last year, according to the Western Governors’ Association. Failing to support these measures is also a kick in the shins to local economies and employment.

S. 3525 was upset this week when the Senate Budget Committee’s top Republican, Jeff Sessions (R-AL), called a point of order claiming the Act violates Senate spending rules. He was talking about the provision in the bill which increases the cost from $15 to $25 of Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps (commonly known as “Duck Stamps”) which are the licenses required annually for hunting migratory waterfowl. That suggested price hike technically violates a 2011 budget agreement intended to prevent such fee increases. A motion to waive that point of order failed by 10 votes and, thus, the Act was sunk.

Sessions' eagle eye observation of Senate spending rules is not, of course, what it appears on the surface. Rather, it's a thinly-veiled attack on Sen. Tester (who just defeated his Republican rival in a heated Senate race), and a secondary swing at conservation spending. Sen. Sessions may as well be walking around with a bullhorn barking to sportsmen and environmentalists that their support of Sen. Tester did not get them what they want.

But a big loser here is wetlands conservation. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar generated by the sale of Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or to lease wetland habitat for protection within the National Wildlife Refuge System. It is a highly effective way of protecting our natural resources. Dozens of groups that represent tens of millions of hunters and anglers supported the price hike. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost bump would ultimately reduce the deficit by $5 million.

Wetlands of the 66 Ranch in Montana. Image courtesy Montana Wetlands Legacy Project

It’s unlikely the Act will be resurrected in this lame duck Congress (an especially fitting moniker in this case) with so few legislative days remaining. But, despite the short-term loss for conservation programs, bringing back the legislation in the 113th Congress, after a period of debate and refinement, may be for the best.

While dozens of conservation-minded groups supported the Act as-is, many more opposed at least two aspects of the multi-pronged bill. The first is a provision that would allow hunters to import trophy polar bears hunted in Canada several years ago into the U.S. (they are currently prohibited to do so by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). It’s an odd point of debate given the hunters killed the bears before they were declared a federally threatened species. Opponents of this item fear it would set a bad precedent for trafficking in endangered and threatened species. I’m sympathetic to the argument but it’s just wrong to hold these hunters to the letter of a law which post-dates their activity.

It’s the second controversial provision that gives me pause. Current language in the Act denies the federal government (read the Environmental Protection Agency, a conservative bugaboo) the authority to ever regulate the amount of the lead in ammunition and fishing tackle. We’ve known for a very long time that lead entering the food chain through discarded ammo and fishing sinkers is detrimental to many species including condors, bald eagles and loons. It’s for this reason that lead shot was banned for hunting waterfowl in 1991. It is still legal for hunting game birds and mammals, and for fishing.

Just how much lead are we talking about? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, millions of pounds of lead end up in the environment every year from hunting, fishing and shooting sports. The USGS estimates that about 400,000 lead shotgun pellets accumulate per acre, per year at frequently used hunting fields. While roughly 8.8 million pounds of lead fishing sinkers are sold each year in the U.S. the environmental effects of those on aquatic and terrestrial systems have not been studied adequately.

The health effects on human who ingest fish and wildlife acquired with lead tackle also need to be studied more thoroughly. A recent study [PDF] by the U.S. Center for Disease Control showed that consumers of hunted venison have 66 percent more lead in their bloodstream than non-consumers, a result that was troubling to the medical community.

Despite the tiresome rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, this issue is not on the slippery slope of Second Amendment rights. Regulating lead in hunters’ and anglers’ gear—which may mean changing not the amount of lead in bullets but the type of bullet—should be studied and debated. Until the impacts of lead from these sources is better understood, an amendment to a future Sportsmen’s Act removing the lead exemption is necessary.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of original Duck Stamp courtesy USFWS

Image of lead shot in eagle's body courtesy American Veterinary Association.

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