HELENA — Some Montana hunters and sportsmen’s groups are taking aim at what one described as a "California-style" proposed ban on certain lead-containing hunting ammunition on dozens state-owned lands.
"This is a fad that has spun out of California," said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Associa-tion, a Missoula-based gun rights group. "It is just nonsensical. Somebody should have had the good sense to squelch this when it was first suggested."
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has tentatively proposed banning lead shot for all migratory bird and upland game bird hunting at Montana’s 72 state-owned wildlife management areas.
The department is gathering public opinion on the ban until Jan. 22, and a decision will be made about going forward — or quashing — a formal rule at the commissioners’ February meeting in Helena.
Federal law has long outlawed lead shot for hunting waterfowl, like ducks or geese, because such birds may eat the shot and some have died of lead poisoning.
The state of Texas has launched an investigation into the effects of lead shot on doves, a popular game species there where an estimated 40-50 million doves live.
Montana’s proposed ban did not grow out of worries for doves, said Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for the department. While doves are hunted here, they are much fewer in number than the more popular species of pheasant, grouse and Hungarian partridge.
There’s nothing to suggest lead shot poses any risk to those or any other upland game bird species, Aasheim said. Montana’s tentative ban was proposed only to be "consistent" with the federal ban and other lead shot bans on certain tribal lands.
"We’ve got restrictions on using lead shot for waterfowl and do we take the next step on the wildlife management areas?" he said.
Aasheim also stressed that the ban was very tentative and proposed more like a "trial balloon" to see where Montanans stood on the issue. There are no "biological reasons" to ban lead shot on the areas, but people simply may not like it, Aasheim said and commissioners want to know about it.
So far, Aasheim said, most of the comments have been negative.
Marbut said forcing hunters to use steel shot or other lead alternatives could result in more bird deaths. Lead shot allows hunters to reliably kill birds from a greater distance. Steel shot is "less effective," Marbut said, meaning that more birds might be hit, but not killed, and evade the hunter only to die later of their wounds.
"I think it will make hunting more expensive and more difficult," he said. "It was done in California, where there’s much more of an anti-hunting sentiment."
Irv Wilke, president of the Billings Rod and Gun Club, said his group also opposes the ban.
"There’s no justification for it," Wilke said. "It just doesn’t make any sense."
Wilke said the feared the ban might portend other anti-hunting measures to come.
"In my mind, it’s just another way, unfortunately, to let the anti-gun folks get a step in Montana," he said. "Once we ban something then they’re going to say, ‘Hey, Montana has already admitted that lead shot is bad. Next they’ll come after the lead bullets in our hunting guns. It’s unacceptable.’ "
California has banned lead in all bullets.
Wilke also said alternatives to lead, like steel shot, are more expensive.
A check Wednesday at a Helena gun store showed that some lead-containing shotgun shells sell for as little as $7 or $8 a box, while some steel shot sold for $35. However, a gauge-to-gauge comparison showed that similar hunting-grade shotgun shells made with lead cost $11, while a steel-containing shells sold for $18.
And not every hunter is against the idea. A hunter at Helena’s Capital Sports and Western, who asked not to use his name, said many wildlife management areas are near water and are already covered by the federal ban on lead.