Of the more than 12,000 hunters who responded to a recent USFWS National Dove Hunter Survey, 32.6 percent said they would stop hunting doves if they were forced to use nontoxic shot, 65.7 percent opposed requiring nontoxic shot for dove hunting, 53.7 percent believe lead shot outperforms nontoxic shot and 52.3 percent think nontoxic shot mandates are an antihunting machination.
I didn’t get to participate in the survey, but if I had, I would have joined the minority on the first issue and the majority on the second and third. I’m no longer sure where I stand on the survey’s final issue. I’m still clinging to the tattered remains of my faith in our government, so I’d hate to think that the state and federal agencies to which sportsmen have entrusted the nation’s wildlife have deliberately turned their backs on the hunters who fund them. But I do know that organizations determined to undermine support for hunting seize upon and politicize issues like nontoxic shot.
I remain unconvinced, but a recent experiment conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has given me a few things to ponder. In a test conducted over a two-year span, real hunters fired about 5,000 shells, some of which were loaded with ounce and an eighth load of #7 ½ lead shot and some of which were loaded with one ounce of #6 steel shot at wild doves. Each shell was color coded, but neither the hunter nor his observer, who recorded data about the result of each shot, knew which shells were which.
The study revealed no statistically recognizable difference between steel and lead regarding shooting percentages — the hunters missed 57 percent of the doves they shot at within 30 yards and 68 percent beyond 30 yards regardless. Inside 30 yards, almost 14 percent of doves hit were wounded, but beyond 30 yards, the wounded percentage rose to 17 percent. Remember those numbers; you’ll need them later.
The rationale behind nontoxic shot is that lead is a poison that doves might ingest as they feed in crop fields where dove hunting pressure is heavy. Research papers abound on this subject, but almost all of them were written like an episode of the TV show ‘Jeopardy,’ in that the “research” starts with the answer (i.e. lead poses an unacceptable hazard) and then attempts to engineer the politically correct question.
I made a quick overview of a massive report on this subject prepared by a number of federal and state agencies, including the Missouri Department of Conservation. After blowing the chaff away, I found that while ingesting lead pellets is a very serious — and often fatal — problem for the dove involved, as a rule, it’s very difficult to get a wild dove to eat lead. Biologists in seven states performed necropsies on 4,229 dove carcasses donated by hunters and found that 106 of them had ingested lead shot — that’s 2.5 percent. Missouri’s doves are even smarter. Only two out of 574 — that’s .3 percent — were lead eaters.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, dove hunting is an entry level hunting/shooting sport for many young people, because it’s so easy to do in a relatively controllable setting. That’s all well and good, but Mom or Dad or Grandpa or some other mentor has to be able to pay the piper for the ammunition needed to bring 15 gray speed demons to hand.
The shooters in the TPWD experiment hit one dove for every 4.4 shots fired, which is almost double the national average of somewhere between seven and eight shots per bird. The “Sportsman’s Guide” web site offers 12 or 20 gauge light load lead shot for about $6.50 per 25-round box and steel shot for about $11.50 and up. Ignoring shipping fees from a web site or local sales tax, assuming our young hunter — or his adult supervisor for that matter — can match the middle of the national average, it will cost each of them $29.25 to kill a 15-bird limit with lead shot or $51.52 to do the same thing with steel.
Far too many people in the outdoor industry — and that includes wildlife agencies and media types, not just ammunition makers — seem to have forgotten that $30 is a lot of money to many people and 50 bucks is simply around the bend. If all of us spent more time educating hunters and convincing them that more open chokes and shorter shots can not only reduce the cost of a dove hunt but will also reduce wounding losses by a far higher percentage than would a feel-good shift to nontoxic shot, we’d be doing both dove hunters and doves a big service.
In addition, all of us need to be alert to any attempt to expand nontoxic shot requirements and to fight them tooth and nail. Failure to pay attention has already irretrievably lost the battle with nontoxic shot for waterfowl, leaving us with a few thousand fewer ducks succumbing to lead poisoning and tens of thousands dying from avian cholera in overcrowded refuges, while only the fortunate few can hunt them. Let’s not let that happen in the uplands.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]