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New Interior secretary overturns lead ammo and tackle ban on his first day

WASHINGTON — New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a shot at unraveling Obama-era regulations during his first day in office last week, reversing a last-minute ban on lead bullets and tackle on federal lands.

Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, signed Order No. 219, "Use of Nontoxic Ammunition and Fishing Tackle," on Jan. 19, his final day in office before President Donald Trump's inauguration.

New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (second from right) rides on horseback with a U.S. Park Police horse mounted unit while reporting for his first day of work at the Interior Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017. (Tami Heilemann/Department of Interior)

With a flourish of his secretarial pen, Zinke reversed the order, effective immediately, on Thursday — the same day he started work by riding through the streets of Washington, D.C., on a horse.

The regulation in question never actually had any impact: Trump put a hold on the Obama administration's last-minute regulatory measures.

Zinke's order said the ban on lead ammunition and tackle was "not mandated by an existing statutory or regulatory requirement and was issued without significant communication, consultation, or coordination with affected stakeholders."

The original order cites several statutes as providing the basis for the decision — laws designed to protect migratory birds, bald and golden eagles, wildlife refuges, endangered species and wetlands.

The requirements weren't intended to be immediate, but implemented after years of education efforts. The order would have required use of "nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to the fullest extent practicable" on FWS lands by January 2022.

The FWS order noted the harmful impacts of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on fish and wildlife species. "Ingested lead pellets from shotgun shells have been a common source of lead poisoning in birds," the order said.

In 1991, the FWS banned lead bullets for waterfowl like ducks and geese in federally controlled wetlands. The new ban extended that to all hunting on all federal lands like national parks and wildlife refuges, including the 222 million acres of federal lands in Alaska.

The order was a surprise to some given prior reticence by the Obama administration to get involved in environmentalists' fight to ban lead bullets. Dozens of groups signed on to a lawsuit to try and force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate spent lead bullets under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency argued that it didn't have the authority, and a federal appeals court backed the agency up.

Nevertheless, Ashe signed Order 219, with its brief reasoning noting that many hunters still use lead ammunition for other forms of hunting. There are some restrictions on lead ammunition and tackle on a state-by-state basis, the order said.

Lead is a commonly recognized neurotoxin that is harmful not just for animals, but people as well. It can hinder mental and physical development, particularly for pregnant women and small childrenStudies have found that lead from bullets used to hunt deer can end up in venison.

And the lead in animals that aren't completely salvaged can be harmful to scavenging animals, like bald eagles, or, famously, the California condor, which has suffered from lead in its diet.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, called Zinke's order to revoke the ban "unfortunate," and questioned his commitment to conservation.

"While the issuance of the Director's order triggered complaints from sportsmen's groups regarding lack of consultation, the fact is that the use of lead ammunition is simply unacceptable in this day and age, when there are readily available alternatives on the market and we know the incredible harm that lead poses to people and to wildlife," Clark said.

Zinke, however, said that the order made by the previous administration was part of an overall trend of closing off available hunting and recreation on public lands.

"It worries me to think about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite," he said.

A statement released by the Interior Department said that Zinke's order "highlights the need for additional review and consultation with local stakeholders."

The three members of Alaska's Republican congressional delegation all cheered the decision.

"I want to thank Secretary Zinke for listening to Alaskans and others across the country who were outraged by this ban, and look forward to working with him to manage our lands based on sound science and meaningful consultation," said Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Rep. Don Young called Ashe's order a "final hour assault on our nation's sportsmen and gun owners" and a "politically charged decision."

"By reinstating the use of commonly used ammo and tackle across federal lands, and working to increase public access and recreation opportunities nationwide, Secretary Zinke sends a clear message that the Department of Interior is serious about serving the American people," Young said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski argued that the ban could have negatively affected Alaska's traditional subsistence hunters who rely on lead bullets and tackle, and applauded Zinke's decision to overturn it.