Hunters gird for lead ban

LEAD: ALTHOUGH the start of the waterfowl hunting season is months away, hunters are already reluctantly preparing for a major change in regulations. set to go into effect this fall.

ALTHOUGH the start of the waterfowl hunting season is months away, hunters are already reluctantly preparing for a major change in regulations. set to go into effect this fall.

A Federal requirement to phase out lead shot for waterfowl hunting by the 1991-92 season starts on Long Island this year. Hunters will be required to use steel shot instead.

A ballistics seminar and shooting clinic, sponsored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to familiarize hunters with the ballistic qualities of steel, was held recently at Suffolk County Community College in Selden. The use of steel shot also will be discussed in a hunter-safety course at the Levittown Public Library and at hunting club meetings in September and October.

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The banning of lead shot is the culmination of several years of effort by the National Wildlife Federation, which says that waterfowl hunting is responsible for about 4,400 tons of lead shot deposited in marshes annually. In 1985, that nonprofit conservation organization brought suit against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that ducks and geese were dying of lead poisoning after eating lead pellets.

Because waterfowl are migratory birds, the Federal Government, through the Fish and Wildlife Service, holds the authority to regulate waterfowl hunting. States may adopt their own rules, which must be no less restrictive than Federal laws.

In 1986, the suit was dropped after the Federal Government agreed to phase out lead shot over a five-year period. The areas of the country where waterfowl were most heavily hunted switched to steel shot last year. This year’s phase bans lead shot in counties with a kill ratio of more than 20 birds per square mile.

According to Steven Sanford, a senior wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Nassau and Suffolk are among the counties that fall into this category, with ratios of 60 per square mile and 40 per square mile, respectively. These estimates derive from surveys conducted by the Federal Government.

Waterfowl eat pellets because they think they are small stones, Mr. Sanford said. Ingested stones help grind up food in a bird’s gizzard. Although lead is largely insoluble, the grinding action allows it into the bloodstream, where it affects the central nervous system. The lead is not known to hurt humans who eat waterfowl.

”It is a toxic element – it does kill waterfowl,” Mr. Sanford said. ”There is some dispute as to what percentage it really does kill. But it has been known for over 100 years that it does kill waterfowl.”

Some Long Island hunters, unconvinced that birds migrating to local waters actually suffer from lead poisoning, have criticized the ban. They also believe that the use of steel shot is less humane because it may wound, rather than kill, a large number of ducks and geese.

Don Campofranco of Centerport, president of the North Shore Water Fowlers Association, questions the need for a total ban on lead. ”Here on the North Shore we have very deep water,” he said. ”The probability of ducks’ ingesting lead shot is very unlikely.”

He also believes that steel shot will cause waterfowl to suffer. ”Steel doesn’t penetrate the bird the way lead did,” he said. ”Lead was used because of its impact purposes. It is a very heavy metal, and the density of the metal caused it to go in and kill the birds more cleanly.”

Mr. Sanford, also a waterfowl hunter and a strong advocate of steel shot, who began using it even before lead was banned, disagrees. ”Some of the hunters are maintaining that steel shot cripples more birds than lead,” he said. ”That is a very important question from our point of view as managers of the waterfowl resources. Numerous studies have been done on that very issue, and the consensus is that there is no significant difference between lead and steel.”

He said, however, that hunters will have to adapt their shooting techniques when switching to steel shot. ”The key to any duck hunter being able to shoot with steel shot is that he has to learn how to use it,” he said. ”You can’t use it interchangeably with lead. You don’t shoot it exactly the same way. You have to get used to it and you have to become efficient with it, or, initially, you probably will have higher crippling rates.”

Chuck Gilbert, a duck-hunting guide and director of the Teal Pond Farm shooting preserve in Water Mill, took a course on steel shot two years ago. He explained some of the differences between lead and steel: ”It is a timing situation that has to be changed. The lead is different, the shot strength is different, the pattern is different.”

Lead pellets, he said, form a long string of shots coming out of a shotgun barrel that at 30 or 40 yards could be six feet long. ”A guy can shoot in front of a bird, miss it totally, but because he is shooting lead shot, and there are shot pellets that are six feet away, that bird will fly into those,” Mr. Gilbert said. Some of the techniques he learned include opening up the choke (the opening at the end of the gun) and ”possibly going to a lighter shot charge where there are more pellets,” he said.

”It’s all got to do with ballistics and the way those pellets fly,” he said. ”If you’re shooting the bird within the proper range, and you shoot properly, you are going to drop that bird.”

Hunters are also worried that steel shot – which, they noted, is much more expensive than lead – may damage their guns. According to Mr. Sanford, that can be true, but not with most guns. He said that most duck hunters use relatively new, inexpensive automatic shotguns.

”They are going to be able to use the same gun they always have,” he said. ”The only other difference is the choke on the shotgun. In the ideal situation, it should be different for steel. Steel has a much tighter pattern than lead, so you are supposed to use a more open choke.”

Arms companies, he said, have refined steel shot significantly in the last few years. He acknowledged that steel shot can be damaging to older and more expensive guns.

Another issue raised by Mr. Campofranco, as well as by the vice president of his club, William Lannon, was hunter safety. Mr. Lannon, a New York State-certified hunter safety instructor, said, ”I don’t think the manufacturers have done enough research in steel shot to honestly tell you whether or not it is safe, whether the pressures have been tested on all different guns, whether or not you’re going to have a problem with exploding barrels.”

Acknowledging the higher pressures in the chamber of the gun with steel shot, Mr. Sanford maintained that, if used correctly, it is safe.

Controversy exists in other areas of the country as well. According to Scott Feierabend, director of the Fisheries and Wildlife Division for the National Wildlife Federation, the California Department of Fish and Game is suing the Federal Government in Federal District Court. A hearing date has been set for Aug. 3, and the Wildlife Federation is moving to intervene in the case.

California, he said, is seeking to prevent the Federal Government from imposing steel shot zones in the state. ”If the judge were to rule in their favor,” Mr. Feierabend said, ”how far beyond the border it would go is unclear to me.”

Meanwhile, on Long Island, some waterfowl hunters will reluctantly go along with the ban on lead shot. ”If they could show me that lead shot is what is killing these ducks,” Mr. Lannon said, ”I’ll be all for it and back up steel shot all the way. Naturally, because it is the law, I’m going to use it and I’m going to try to teach people how to use it. But I really don’t agree with what they did.”

By SUE RUBENSTEIN

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