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Outdoors bill lifts lead restrictions

Also, polar bear trophies are okayed

Making life better for fish and wildlife and the people who hunt them lies at the heart of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, the bill that covers everything from habitat conservation to transporting bows through national parks, which is likely to be approved by the Senate today.

But though the bill enjoys broad, bipartisan support, some environmentalists are not happy with it. The bill ensures that lead can continue to be used in ammunition, which they say poisons some wildlife, and it specifically says the Environmental Protection Agency cannot regulate components “used in shot, bullets and other projectiles,” such as bullets and fishing tackle.

The wording aimed at the EPA is so broad that opponents of the bill say it could block the agency from regulating, for example, perchlorate, a component of explosives and rocket fuel that has been linked to thyroid problems in children and pregnant women and has been found in drinking water in 35 states.

And, in this grab bag of a bill, there’s the issue of polar bear trophies. The federal government banned the importation of polar bear pelts four years ago, when it listed the species under the Endangered Species Act. The Sportsmen’s Act, however, allows a one-time importation of 41 polar bear trophies killed in Canada by U.S. hunters before 2008.

Those trophies – tanned skin and claws, skull and the traditionally prized penis bone – have been in cold storage in Canada.

The Sportsman’s Act, authored by Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, is a collection of 17 provisions that would seem to have something for everyone.

The bill would boost the amount of available funds for conserving fish and wildlife along with their habitat and expand opportunities for hunters and anglers to target wild species. It would make it easier for the federal government to buy land to improve access to public lands for hunters and anglers.

The bill also would raise the price of duck stamps – proceeds of which help fund wetlands protection – for the first time in two decades and allow the interior secretary to reevaluate their price every three years. Maryland, Louisiana and other coastal states would be eligible for funding to eradicate nutria, or swamp rats.

The measure also would reauthorize several federal programs and institutions that work to protect wildlife, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a program issuing stamps to raise money for elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, marine turtles and great apes.

But a dispute has emerged over the provision on lead. The Center for Biological Diversity and other advocacy groups have pushed unsuccessfully for the EPA to ban lead in hunting and fishing equipment.

Lead is a significant component of ammunition, as well as some fishing gear: At least 14,000 tons of lead is introduced into the environment every year by U.S. hunters and anglers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lead shot and tackle left on the ground or in waterways are consumed by birds and other wildlife, often with deadly results.

The EPA has rejected the center’s petition twice on the grounds that the Toxic Substances Control Act includes a provision excluding some gun-related items from agency controls. The agency is fighting a lawsuit filed by the group in federal court.

Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the senator crafted the bill’s language to ensure that the agency would not bow to outside pressure. In 2010, Murphy said, “acting on behalf of many concerned Montanans, (Tester) asked the EPA not to pursue consideration of banning lead ammunition – an overreaching restriction that would affect the rights and freedoms of law-abiding Americans.”

Senate Democrats, including Barbara Boxer of California, said in a statement that while the bill “has many good provisions,” it also “includes two provisions that threaten public health and could set back wildlife conservation efforts.”

Boxer and Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and John Kerry of Massachusetts had authored amendments aimed at tweaking the bill, but no amendments will be considered when the bill comes up for a vote.

Backers of the legislation say it would boost the economy as well as foster conservation by promoting outdoor recreation.

Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said critics were misinterpreting the bill’s environmental impact. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead ammunition in waterfowl hunting in 1991, he noted, and could take further action if needed.

“It shouldn’t be controversial for anybody,” Fosburgh said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service, not EPA, is the proper place to regulate lead. . . . There’s a genuine fear of an EPA overreach on this.”

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