Last Friday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service finalized its plan to expand hunting and fishing opportunities at 18 different National Wildlife Refuges across the country. This expansion of public access will include nearly 40,000 additional acres of huntable and fishable land within the federally administered conservation system. However, there is a catch: starting in 2026, lead ammunition and fishing gear will be phased out in some or all of these refuges.
While outdoor men and women are happy to have more places to hunt and fish, many sports groups have spoken out against the federal government’s final rule, originally proposed in June. These groups say the phasing out of traditional ammunition is an attempt by the federal government to placate the anti-hunting community, which has for years sought to ban lead ammunition and fishing tackle in all countries within the National Wildlife Refuge System and beyond.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation has called the USFWS Final Rule a “bait-and-switch” tactic and claimed that the agency’s decision to phase out lead ammunition was not based on the best available science.
“Despite President Joe Biden’s promises that his administration would ‘follow the science,’ the USFWS has not presented objective scientific evidence demonstrating that the use of traditional lead-cored ammunition poses a risk to human health or wildlife populations to support its decision to.” phased introduction of a ban,” says a recent press release from the NSSF.
Several other groups, including the Sportsmen’s Alliance and the American Sportfishing Association, have joined the NSSF in denouncing the USFWS’ latest move.
“It is deeply concerning that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored the science and concerns of the sport fishing industry,” said Mike Leonard, ASA’s vice president of government affairs. “We hope that the USFWS will recognize the mistake they made in this rule and reconsider its implementation. Anglers should be able to use traditional fishing tackle as they have for generations.”
What this means for hunters and anglers today
First the good news. The latest USFWS rule, which went into effect over the weekend, will allow hunting and fishing at two National Wildlife Refuges that have never allowed these activities in the past. The rule will also expand hunting and fishing opportunities in 16 other protected areas. Collectively, these openings and expansions add up to 38,000 huntable and fishable acres across 18 NWRs spread across the country from Washington State to Maine. The Final Rule brings the number of NWR units allowing hunting to 436 and increases the number of units allowing fishing to 378.
The Federal Agency has listed all of these new options by broadcaster. Some examples include the first opening of turkey hunting at Washington’s Turnbull Wildlife Refuge and the opening of migratory, upland and big game hunting at the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.
“We are committed to ensuring Americans of all ethnicities have access to hunting, fishing and other recreational activities on the land and waters of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” USFWS Director Martha Williams said last week. “These regulations will increase public access, better align the service with state regulations and help promote healthy wildlife habitats while boosting the local leisure economy.”
But despite the additional access, several large groups of athletes are defying the Final Rule.
“While the Sportsmen’s Alliance welcomed the expansion of hunting and fishing to a handful of sanctuaries,” the alliance wrote in a press release, “serious concerns remain that FWS will proceed with a lead ban without fully considering the implications for the hunting and fishing community.” “
As for those consequences, the alliance pointed to the higher cost of lead-free ammunition compared to traditional lead-core ammunition — a cost differential that could keep some hunters and anglers off the field or off the water. These groups donate huge amounts of money annually to federally-led conservation efforts, and together they provided a record $1.5 billion in funding for the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Program last year. If hunters and anglers are sidelined from their respective sports because of onerous government regulations, Allianz and others argue, this source of funding could decline significantly.
These groups have also argued that there is insufficient scientific evidence to justify a lead ban on NWR countries. They say this Final Rule is part of a broader agenda supported by the anti-hunting community – with the ultimate goal of being a total ban on lead ammunition and devices in all states in the US
This is a realistic concern given that the USFWS enacted a blanket ban on lead ammunition and devices in refuges and national parks back in 2017. The ban, issued by then-USFWS Director Dan Ashe during the end of the Obama administration, was reversed just weeks later by the Trump administration.
The lawsuit filed against the USFWS last year by the Center for Biological Diversity only adds to these concerns. Many have viewed this lawsuit as an attempt by CBD to further its anti-hunting agenda and continue hunting and fishing from America’s safe havens.
Continue reading: Environmental group sues to block new hunting and fishing opportunities in public wildlife sanctuaries
Then there is the LEAD Act, which is currently in Congress. The legislation, introduced in May by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), would ban all lead-containing ammunition and devices on all USFWS-administered lands and waters.
what’s in a name
Vanessa Kaufmann, public affairs specialist at the USFWS, explained that the new rule is not a “lead ban” per se – and technically should be called a “lead exit.”
Until September 2026, lead ammunition and equipment are permitted in all 18 of the refuges named in the Agency’s Final Rule. At this point, Patoka River NWR will require lead-free ammunition and equipment, while nine other refuges — Blackwater, Canaan Valley, Chincoteague, Eastern Neck, Erie, Great Thicket, Patuxent Research Refuge, Rachel Carson and Wallops Island NWRS — plan to propose a lead-free requirement and to begin analyzing the impact of lead ammunition as part of the 2023–2024 Rule – Manufacturing Process. This requirement would also come into effect on September 1, 2026.
As for the eight other refugia that will see expanded hunting and fishing opportunities this fall, reading between the lines of the USFWS’ most recent press release shows that these refugia are likely to follow suit by phasing out lead ammunition and lead tools in the years to come.
“The service remains concerned about the negative impact of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on human health and wildlife and will continue to evaluate their future use on service lands and waters through a transparent public process,” the press release said. “Today’s final rule contains no options that would increase lead use on sanctuary sites and waters beyond the fall of 2026.”
But this distinction by USFWS did little to allay critics’ concerns.
“We are deeply concerned that the FWS continues to belittle athletes’ concerns about the potential impact of this ban, while refusing to consider alternatives. They look to past experience as a guide, but none of us know what a widespread lead ban will mean for ammunition and fishing tackle in the long term,” said Todd Adkins, vice president of government affairs for the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “We will continue to fight to ensure that the rulemaking process – by FWS or any other agency – does not become corrupted and become just another tool for animal extremists to use in their quest to destroy America’s hunters, trappers and anglers.”