Lawsuit Targets Harmful Lead Ammunition in National Wildlife Refuge System

Research shows lead ammunition harmful to both wildlife and human health


Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, (202) 792-6211,

Ian Brickey, Sierra Club,

Three groups filed suit today in United States District Court for the District of Columbia challenging a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to cancel its plans to phase out lead ammunition at one of the nation’s national wildlife refuges. In September 2022, FWS withdrew its plans to phase out lead ammunition at the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia, caving to groundless objections from the state of West Virginia despite well-known risks to both human health and wildlife from lead ammunition.

“As a lifelong hunter and conservationist, I know the severe impact that use of lead ammunition is having on non-targeted wildlife, as well as how easy and effective it is to switch to non-toxic alternatives. Our national wildlife refuges should set the example and lead the way,” said Dan Ashe, board member of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011-2017. “The use of non-lead ammunition helps to protect vulnerable wildlife from lead poisoning and enables hunters and their families to safely eat the game they’ve killed. The service knows that the science unequivocally supports ending use of lead ammunition in hunting — now it is time to follow through.”

Waterfowl and other birds accidentally ingest lead ammunition alongside the pebbles they swallow to aid digestion, and suffer harmful — often fatal — lead poisoning, as do eagles, vultures, and other wildlife that scavenge on animals shot with lead ammunition. Lead ammunition shatters inside game animals, potentially harming not only scavenging wildlife but also hunters and their families who eat the meat. Studies have shown that lead fragments can be found in wild game meat despite best attempts to remove sections surrounding a bullet wound. In 2013, scientists with expertise in lead and environmental health published a consensus statement on the toxic effects of lead ammunition on human health and the environment, and the need to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of lead ammunition.

“Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge contains a unique high mountain wetland habitat supporting a diverse array of birds and many game species,” said Judy Rodd, director of Friends of Blackwater. “Hunting on the refuge whether for ducks or deer attracts many hunters. The downside of this sport for our famous raptors is that lead shot used by some of these hunters is poisoning hawks and eagles. We are asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop this dangerous practice so these wild animals can survive and thrive.”

“Hunting and fishing are allowed in many national wildlife refuges across the country, but they must be done responsibly and maintain the core mission of the refuge,” said Jim Kotcon, chair of the West Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club. “The decision to remove the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge from the lead phaseout plan sets a disturbing precedent of elevating politics over sound science, and if allowed to proceed, it will result in further harm to wildlife and human health.”

In 2022, FWS surveyed the evidence and concluded that “the best available science … demonstrates that lead ammunition and tackle have negative impacts on both human health and wildlife,” citing, among other things, a 2022 study published in the journal Science demonstrating population-level impacts on bald and golden eagles from lead ammunition.

Nevertheless, FWS has pursued an uneven path in addressing lead ammunition use in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The agency established a policy to phase out lead ammunition throughout the system in early 2017 that was reversed by the Trump administration. The Biden administration proposed a plan to phase out lead ammunition at ten specific refuges in June 2022, but then abandoned that plan for Canaan Valley when West Virginia officials objected — even though the state officials’ objections were based on concerns that the agency otherwise rejected. That decision essentially gave state officials a veto over any phase out of lead ammunition on federal refuge lands and set a troubling precedent for future FWS action on refuge-specific lead phase outs.

“Our National Wildlife Refuge System should be the pinnacle of wildlife protection and conservation on public lands, and a haven for wildlife and the over 67 million people who visit refuges annually,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Yet the continued use of lead ammunition and tackle poses a significant threat to their health. Withdrawing the plan to phase out lead ammunition at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a step backward in creating critical pathways to less-toxic environments and fewer wildlife poisonings on national wildlife refuges across the country.”

“A wealth of research makes clear that hunting with lead ammunition harms both people and wildlife,” said Aaron Bloom, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program. “The U.S. government phased out lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting more than 30 years ago — it is time that the Fish and Wildlife Service now takes a firm stance to do the same for other forms of hunting on wildlife refuges. The withdrawal of a science-based plan to phase out lead at Canaan Valley is contrary to the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.”

The cost of non-lead ammunition has come down in recent years and availability continues to improve. A 2013 study found “no major difference” in the price of lead-free and lead-core ammunition for most popular calibers. Some hunters have also saved money by practicing with lead ammunition and utilizing non-lead for hunting.

Earthjustice is representing the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Friends of Blackwater, and Sierra Club in the lawsuit.

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