Following D35’s death from lead-poisoning, we decided to write a round-up of federal and state laws governing toxic ammunition. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a complex topic. Let us know if you spot any incorrect information! This blog was written on February 16, 2021.
In 1991, the USFWS ruled that ducks, geese, swans, and coot must be hunted with non-toxic/unleaded shot on all land and water inside the United States. Requiring non-toxic shot did not negatively impact waterfowl hunting, but did prevent ducks, geese, and many other animals from ingesting lead shot or feeding on lead poisoned animals and carcasses containing shot.
Why didn’t the Service phase out lead everywhere? Waterfowl are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, an international treaty that gives the US Government jurisdiction over management and protection. The Service doesn’t have blanket jurisdiction over animals that aren’t protected by federal law or international treaty. In 2017, the Service issued an order phasing out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on national wildlife refuges, but incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned it.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service classifies ducks, geese, swans, doves, pigeons, cranes, rails, coots, gallinules, woodcock, and snipe as migratory game birds. It outlawed the use of lead ammunition to hunt migratory waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans, and coots) after estimating that lead pellets killed about 2 million ducks every year. A survey of ducks on the Mississippi Flyway found that the ban on lead shot reduced lead poisoning deaths of Flyway mallards by 64 percent.
The Service also protects waterfowl by prohibiting toxic ammo for all game harvest in federal waterfowl production areas and wildlife refuges with large waterfowl populations, such as the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
Unfortunately, most current bans do not protect bald eagles, condors, or anything else that feeds on carcasses and gut piles, and waterfowl are still succumbing, albeit at a lot lower level, to toxic shot and lead tackle.
What can I do?
We often get asked ‘What can I do?’ by people who are tired of seeing beloved bald eagles die from a completely preventable cause. It’s a big issue, but we can make a difference!
- We know beyond the shadow of a doubt that lead poisons people and wildlife. Using lead ammo and tackle? Make the switch to unleaded. Already made the switch? Let people know why you did.
- Connect with local groups that are working for wildlife conservation and health. California’s non-toxic law was supported by a coalition of 80 animal protection, public health and environmental organizations, local governments, more than 100 California veterinarians, and dozens of scientists. Stay informed and inspired by others who share your concerns and feelings!How do you find people that share your concerns? A lot of places have local friends, alliance, and affiliate groups. These could look like like river alliance groups, hunting and fishing affiliated groups, conservation organizations, or ‘Friends of…’ groups. Ask around, check with local and state parks, or do a little searching to connect with them. We will also continue to post about this issue here and on Facebook. We are hopeful that the Fish and Wildlife Service will issue another order phasing out lead ammo and tackle for hunting and fishing on federal land and water.
Toxic Ammo Regulation By State
Again, federal law requires hunters to use non-toxic ammo for harvesting ducks, geese, swans, and coots on all the lands and waters of the United States. Several states have extended non-toxic regulation to all migratory game birds, while other have selected specific species and/or areas to protect. California has the most comprehensive ban in the United States, but many states – I’m looking at you, home state of Minnesota – have very limited bans and no bans on the use of lead tackle. In addition to the regulations listed here, several states have published guidelines on how to reduce the risk of accidental lead exposure from game meat. In my opinion, this is a de facto recognition of the harm that lead can cause.
I’ve done my best to produce an accurate snapshot of regulation as it stands now, but please let me know if I am wrong about your state. I listed states in alphabetical order.
Alabama: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for Sandhill Cranes.
Have you heard of the Mobile River Basin? It is the fourth-largest river basin in the country and the most biodiverse river network in North America. Check out the Alabama Rivers Alliance for more information on protecting Alabama’s Rivers: https://alabamarivers.org/.
Alaska: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammo is required for migratory game birds, for muzzleloading shotguns, and for all hunting on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
The Yukon Delta NWR is renowned for the millions of waterfowl and shorebirds that migrate from across the globe to breed on the delta. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great video about it here: https://youtu.be/4yyMEoqG0jA.
Arizona: No ban
Non-toxic shot is required for waterfowling per federal law, but Arizona has no additional bans in place. The Arizona Game and Fish Department encourages the use of non-lead ammunition and gut pile removal in Arizona’s condor range. The AGFD offers free non-lead ammunition to hunters drawn for hunts in the north Kaibab National Forest and the Arizona Strip. Hunters who use lead ammo and pick up gut piles are entered into a prize raffle.
The north Kaibab Forest borders the north rim of the Grand Canyon and is contiguous with the Arizona strip, which lies north of the Kaibab. Both areas are condor habitat.
Arkansas: No ban
Non-toxic shot is required for waterfowling per federal law, but Arkansas has no additional bans in place.
California: Full ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for taking any wildlife with a firearm anywhere in California.
California’s law was passed in large part to protect the threatened California condor. Lead was the number one mortality factor for free-flying juvenile and adult California condors. Check out the original bill in committee here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0701-0750/ab_711_cfa_20130607_092746_sen_comm.html. It’s worth a read through to see who supported it, who opposed it, and how and why the bill was written.
Colorado: Partial ban, federal lands only
Non-toxic shot is required in the Alamosa/Monte Vista/Baca National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
FWS maintains this refuge complex for migratory birds. It has a large population of waterfowl.
Delaware: Partial ban
All hunters must use non-toxic shot when dove hunting in State Wildlife Areas during September.
Why mourning doves and why September? Although most doves nest earlier, some doves are still nesting in September. Since mourning doves are particularly likely to ingest lead shot, the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife prohibits hunting during nesting season. SOAR has a paper on doves and lead shot here: https://soarraptors.org/wp-content/uploads/DoveLeadResearch2009.pdf.
Illinois: Partial ban
Nontoxic shot is required for hunting waterfowl, coots, snipe, and rail on all IDNR sites. It is required to hunt doves at some, but not all, IDNR sites.
A bill to ban hunting with lead ammunition was introduced in the legislature in 2019: https://ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocNum=201&GAID=15&DocTypeID=SB&LegId=116055&SessionID=108&GA=101. It was reworked to ban hunting with lead on IDNR land and eventually died without passing, although it could be reintroduced in the next session. If you live in Illinois and are concerned about this issue, I encourage you to follow the link and get familiar with the issue and the groups that support it.
Iowa: Partial ban
Thanks to SOAR, non-toxic ammunition is required to hunt game in all Story County conservation areas. It is also required for all game in wildlife management areas except for deer and turkey, for snipe, rail, and dove on state and private land, and for grouse, quail, and pheasant on some state land.
If you live in Iowa and are concerned about this issue, be sure to check out SOAR’s website at https://soarraptors.org/hunt-and-fish-lead-free/ and the Lead is Poison Coalition Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Lead-is-Poison-Coalition-121595381279639. Kay is a nationwide leader on the issue of toxic ammo and SOAR’s website is packed with information and resources. Your County Conservation Board is another good place to start.
Kansas: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required statewide for hunting all migratory game birds except dove and woodcock. At least 19 state wildlife areas and refuges require non-toxic shotgun loads for all game.
Kentucky: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required statewide for sandhill crane and for all migratory birds in 13 wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges.
Louisiana: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot must be used for snipe, rail and gallinule on all state wildlife management areas. Some state wildlife management areas and impoundments require non-toxic shot for harvest, regardless of game type, and others do not.
Why so many exceptions for snipe, rail, and gallinule? They aren’t classified as waterfowl by the Fish and Wildlife Service, but they are migratory game birds that often breed, forage, or gather in lakes, ponds, and marshes alongside waterfowl. States take this step on their own lands to help protect waterfowl and stay in compliance with federal law.
Maine: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for shotgun hunting upland game (other than deer and turkey) on national wildlife refuges, state wildlife management areas, and state refuges, and for migratory game birds on all state and private lands.
While researching toxic ammo bans, I learned that Maine has a hunting-related blue law on the books! Hunting is prohibited on Sunday.
Maryland: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for rail and snipe.
Non-toxic shot is required for moorhen, rail, and snipe and on some national wildlife refuges and state land.
Minnesota: Partial ban, federal land only
Non-toxic shot is required on national wildlife refuges and federal waterfowl production areas. The DNR encourages hunters to use non-toxic ammunition.
Efforts to restrict or ban lead shot and tackle have been going on in Minnesota for years. This year, at least two legislative proposals have been introduced. HF 157 bans the sale, manufacture, and use of lead tackle – really important in a state with over 10,000 lakes! Its companion bill, SF 247, does the same in the Senate. If you are a Minnesotan who is interested in this issue, follow the links, familiarize yourself with the issue, and let your legislators know how you feel.
Missouri: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for dove, rail, snipe, and woodcock on public areas with a posted nontoxic shot requirement. It is also required when hunting with a shotgun on thirty-seven conservation areas and for taking doves on 20 conservation areas.
I found it encouraging that Missouri has expanded non-toxic shot requirements from 21 to 37 conservation areas.
Montana: Partial ban, federal land only
Non-toxic shot is required for hunting on federal national wildlife refuges and federal waterfowl production areas.
Nebraska: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for shotgun hunting on federal waterfowl production areas, national wildlife refuges, and some state wildlife management areas, as posted.
New Jersey: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for rail, snipe, and moorhen on all state and private lands.
Blue law or not? New Jersey forbids hunting migratory birds on Sunday, although it appears that other game is allowed. I was surprised by the number of states that prohibit or reduce Sunday hunting.
Nevada: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for hunting migratory game birds and for hunting game on all wildlife management areas.
New Mexico: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot use is required for hunting upland game and migratory game birds on all State Game Commission owned or managed areas. Outside of SGC owned lands, hunters must use non-toxic shot when hunting common moorhen, sora, Virginia rail, and snipe with shotguns. Doves, band-tailed pigeons, and eastern sandhill cranes are excluded from the non-toxic requirement.
New York: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for hunting snipe, rail or gallinule.
North Carolina: Partial ban
Nontoxic shot is required for the taking of captive-reared mallards on shooting preserves, in field trials, and during bona fide dog training activities.
North Carolina’s only extension to federal law involves shooting preserves, trials, and dog-training. Again, we seem to have a recognition of the harm that lead can do and a desire to prevent some things, like treasured dogs, from succumbing to it. North Carolina also has a hunting blue law on the books: It’s unlawful to hunt on Sundays on public lands, although military installations under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government may allow hunting on Sundays and some hunting – but not hunting of migratory birds! – may be done on private land.
North Dakota: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required statewide for sandhill crane, tundra swan, and snipe and for shotgun hunting (except turkey and big game) on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands,.
Ohio: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required statewide for rail, snipe, and moorhen. Non-toxic shot is required for any game hunting on Metzger Marsh, Mallard Club, Pipe Creek, Magee Marsh, Toussaint, and Little Portage wildlife areas.
Oklahoma: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for shotgun hunting on state wetland development units, state waterfowl refuges, and the Sequoyah and Washita National Wildlife Refuges.
Oregon: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for upland bird hunting on some national wildlife refuges and wildlife areas.
Pennsylvania: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required on the Erie National wildlife refuge.
At least two websites state that it is illegal to use lead ammo when hunting turkeys and crows. That may have been true when their list was put together and would be true on the Erie National wildlife refuge, but it is not true now that I can find. Please let me know if I am wrong.
South Carolina: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required on wildlife management areas maintained for waterfowl.
South Dakota: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for sandhill crane, snipe and tundra swan, and for small-game hunting on most state and U.S. military land.
South Dakota banned lead for use in waterfowling in 1988, before the federal government. This followed the winter of 1979, 1980, in which 4,000 sick and dead geese were found along the Missouri River. The birds fed in a cornfield near the river that was heavily hunted, and they ingested pellets that caused them to suffer lead poisoning. More here: https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/keeping-the-lead-in-efforts-to-thwart-toxic-ammo-caught-in-political-crosshairs/article_b9a97fc5-be7f-50f1-a004-2237ea60c809.html.
Tennessee: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for hunting on some wildlife management areas and refuges.
Texas: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for all game birds on wildlife management areas and federal wildlife refuges.
Utah: Partial ban
Non-toxic ammunition is required for sandhill crane and for hunting on some wildlife management areas.
Virginia: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for snipe, rail, moorhens, and gallinules.
Washington State: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for upland birds on all pheasant release sites statewide, on federal waterfowl refuges, and on some wildlife management areas.
Wisconsin: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for crows, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, snipe, rails, coot, and moorhen. Non-toxic shot is required to hunt doves on DNR-managed land and national wildlife refuges.
Wyoming: Partial ban
Non-toxic shot is required for grouse, chukar, and gray partridge on all national wildlife refuges, and for chukar, gray partridge, and all small game in the Springer and Table Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Areas.
Things that helped me learn and write about this topic
- I went to a lot of state DNR/G&F/DoW sites to get current hunting regulations. Each state is a little different, although there are some commonalities around migratory game birds. But I started here: http://www.huntingwithnonlead.org/state_info.html.
- Outdoor News is a magazine dedicated to hunting and fishing. It also has great environmental news, lake reports, a nice column for kids, the occasional interesting bird report, and your state DNR version of criminal hijinks/nutty things people do outside. Check it out here and consider subscribing if you are in one of the magazine’s states – especially if you hunt and/or fish. (If you don’t like either one, this is not the magazine for you).
- Kay from SOAR is a leader on this issue and they have a lot of great resources on their website: https://soarraptors.org/hunt-and-fish-lead-free/.