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September 2009 cover image hunting dog

Load Without Lead

Wildlife agencies worldwide await the results of an ­extensive TPWD study on lead shot use for dove hunting.

By Steve Lightfoot

Seventeen sets of trained eyes tracked the squadron of mourning doves riding a stiff breeze down the edge of the sunflower field in search of a prime feeding spot. As the birds crossed left-to-right 15 yards out, two shotgun reports in rapid succession sparked evasive maneuvers as birds dipped, darted and kicked in gray-feathered afterburners.

“Do you think you hit that bird?” queried the owner of one of the sets of eyes. Many of the other sets were still glued to rangefinders, mentally marking a spot in the weeds where a bird may have fallen or re-tracing the doves’ flight paths.

“Which one?” retorted Tom Roster as he gently set down the 12-gauge over/under shotgun, recovered two spent plastic shotshell hulls, and then proceeded to retrieve three dead birds.

Of the 16 who observed the shooting, only a couple were in position to see the third bird fall and many never saw the second dove, spurring a barrage of questions for Roster on how to record a complex series of events that lasted mere seconds.

About the only things missing were a grassy knoll and grainy black-and-white video.

For four long, grueling days in the heat, the group of observers — trained wildlife biologists and seasoned dove hunters — practiced the science of observation, data collection and reporting.

“You cannot report what you did not see!” reiterated Roster, a leading authority on shotgun ammunition efficiency and wounding loss in game bird hunting. He has been researching shotshell efficiency since the early ‘70s, when lead pellets for hunting waterfowl first came under scrutiny. Now, Roster is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on a study investigating the comparable effectiveness of lead and non-lead shot for doves.

Roster knows from experience that the science will be challenged, either by peers or in court, so the study protocols must be ironclad and the procedures consistent and accurate.

Passing Roster’s training means you are proficient at following multiple targets no bigger than your hand flying erratically at speeds up to 40 mph. You can calculate within a matter of feet the distance from a shooter to these targets, determine based on the bird’s reaction to the shot whether or not it had been struck, and then track its flight path to conclude with certainty if it was wounded and flew off or died.

The data collection and reporting components would frustrate a court stenographer: recording the shooter’s recollection of the event, tagging and storing each recovered bird for necropsy, and entering all these pieces of information on a form before the shooter can take aim again.

Before the study is finished, these processes will have been repeated thousands of times; all over something the size of a pin head, and so common that its use has been ongoing for thousands of years.

The use of lead and its impacts on the environment have been a fulcrum for debate since dangerous emissions from lead smelting by Romans were documented in 300 BC. Lead’s impact on human health is undeniable, and its use is banned for hunting waterfowl to protect ducks that mistake spent lead shot pellets deposited in marshland as food. Concern over the use of lead shot for upland game bird hunting is growing, and it is conceivable that non-lead shot requirements could be placed on dove hunters in the future.

This would have a huge impact on Texas, which owns the nation’s largest mourning dove population (at an estimated 20 million birds) as well as a rich hunting tradition that sees about 300,000 hunters take to the field each fall. Texas hunters harvest about 6.4 million doves annually, roughly 30 percent of all doves taken nationally. With such an enormous stake in doves, it makes sense that Texas would take the lead in dove conservation.

“We already know lead is an environmental contaminant and has been shown to cause poisoning in more than 50 bird species other than waterfowl, including dove, but we do not know the extent of its impact,” said Vernon Bevill, TPWD small game and habitat assessment program director.

To address this concern, TPWD is conducting a study to determine the killing ability and wounding rates of lead versus non-lead shot on dove under real Texas hunting conditions. The research is the first of its kind ever for doves, and the results are anticipated for use in decision-making on an international level. The study has support from many organizations, including the Central Flyway Council, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Wildlife ­Management Institute.

“Wildlife agencies worldwide are awaiting the results of the Texas dove lethality study,” Roster said. “[Other] states, which permit dove hunting, are direct stakeholders in the results. Other nations that hunt small birds, such as the United Kingdom, cannot afford to nor would they ever be permitted because of anti-hunter resistance, related politics and relatively small hunter numbers to conduct such extensive research on their own. Thus, the results found in the Texas dove lethality study will help those agencies and those organizations worldwide wishing to perpetuate certain forms of bird hunting to continue to run and defend legal hunts for such bird species.”

Since non-lead shot has proven effective for killing ducks and geese, common sense says it should be just as good or better on a much smaller quarry. According to Roster, in the case of shotgun loads, one size does not fit all.

“One thing I have clearly learned in my shotshell efficiency research is that performance parameters learned for one body size do not necessarily apply to other body sizes,” he explained. “Worldwide there are no available data or information on shotshell efficiency performance for taking doves. The world has nothing other than theories, opinions and unsubstantiated assumptions about what shotshell loads would be most efficient. By conducting this research, Texas will be the world leader in answers to shotshell efficiency and lethality questions concerning doves.

“Neither I nor Texas Parks and Wildlife, I presume, have any vested interest in whether hunters use lead or nontoxic shotshell loads for hunting doves,” said Roster. “If, however, the forces that be wish to prevent the hunting of doves in Texas in the future if lead shot loads continue to be allowed, the results of the Texas dove lethality study will allow Texas to know — scientifically and with a high degree of statistical confidence — whether there is any other affordable nontoxic shot type for which there is any proven lethality for taking doves.”

Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, believes this study is imperative. “My contention is there are groups pushing the lead issue with very little science to rely upon, and not just with doves, but also raptors and in fishing tackle. The study Texas is putting together is the most comprehensive effort to date and will provide science that decision makers can use to determine the impact lead has on dove populations.”

Understanding the human dimension in the equation is significant as the debate over lead usage for hunting plays out. That is why the department is assessing hunter attitudes and knowledge about lead poisoning and non-lead shot. TPWD contracted with D.J. Case and Associates to survey randomly selected dove hunters. The findings of the survey will help the department identify issues and address concerns among the dove hunting community and the general public in the debate over lead.

Some of the initial findings from the survey aren’t surprising, but do indicate a need for education and communication with this important constituency during any decision-making process regarding use of lead and non-lead shot for doves.

Dove hunters surveyed expressed initial opposition to any change away from lead shot, but by the same percentages indicated a lack of knowledge about health concerns about lead shot and doves.

Historically, hunters have championed wildlife conservation even if it meant greater restriction on their ability to hunt. According to survey findings, by nearly a four-to-one ratio, hunters believe that if a scientific argument can be made identifying wildlife health risks from lead on doves, then TPWD has a responsibility to take action to conserve the resource. Furthermore, nearly three-fourths of the hunters surveyed said that they would learn how to better shoot non-lead if that argument was made.

If debates over restrictions on lead for dove hunting are on the horizon, Texas will have the ammunition it needs.

With more than a quarter of a million dove hunters taking to the field each fall, the results of the TPWD study on whether to discontinue use of lead shot will have a huge impact. The effects may reach beyond doves to upland game birds.

It’s all about the science for TPWD. Lead shot is already banned for use in waterfowl hunting to protect ducks from mistaking shot pellets deposited in marshland as food.

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