As a young fisheries and wildlife student at Michigan State University, I quickly learned the world wasnít always as it seemed. The vast wildernesses throughout our country were rapidly shrinking, requiring fish and game to be more closely managed than ever to prevent overharvest and exploitation. I found that sound science was required to do so.
Fish and wildlife managers throughout our country often need to equate animals with dollars, as itís dollars that provide funding for the programs they use to help sustain populations. Such dollars are generated directly through things like license and permit fees, or indirectly through excise tax collected on guns and ammunition, fishing tackle, even boat fuel.
But itís the direction of this funding thatís often an eye-opener for the public, as it was for me back in my 20s. Fish and wildlife management is often an intricate process, requiring consideration and action for more than just the animals. Itís the users, or stakeholders in the equation (people), who often dictate the final outcome. Because, like it or not, as human beings, weíre all about ourselves.
A case in point: At the time, local fisheries managers received requests on ways to better manage a neighborhood pond for fishing. Over time, the 50-acre lake had developed some decent milfoil beds, increasing the number of bass in the lake and allowing them to grow larger. Managers held a town hall-style meeting about the lake, but quickly found the areaís bass fishermen poorly represented, and overwhelmed by the water skiing community. The end result of that and other meetings turned out to be a total eradication of vegetation in the lake; bass be damned.
Other places, we see just the opposite, where user-groups align to help increase access and success within the outdoors. While still driven by human benefit (more bass to catch or deer to kill), the thought is that sustaining high numbers of fish and wildlife canít be anything but beneficial.
The key factor is that, in each case, itís science thatís used to drive us to the goal. For instance, when fisheries managers consider the impact of more bass in a lake, they consider how such will affect the populations of other fish, like those likely to be preyed on. How will it affect the water quality of the lake itself? How must we consider spawning, nursery areas for young fish and abundant cover? The list goes on and on.
These exact considerations have made headlines recently, as managers have been forced to make some tough decisions at fisheries outside of the bass belt. Up North, walleye are taking precedence over smallmouth; out West, itís salmon. In each case, bass are losing the battle and are being targeted for the decimation of other fisheries that have more public leverage.
And while we bass-heads donít like it much, we may have to suck it up and take it. You see, right now thereís a guy writing for SalmonFan.com, or some other source who hates bass and wants them all dead. In any case, area managers will have to consider all the user groups and the ecology behind the arguments before making any decisions.
Or at least, theyíre supposed to.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when I read a recent headline: Sportfishing Industry Angered by Last-Minute U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorís Order.
It seems that, with the former administration leaving office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the initiative through a Directorís Order to push toward a ban on lead tackle.
Directorís Order No. 219 will ďrequire the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to the fullest extent practicable for all activities on Service lands, waters and facilities by January 2022, except as needed for law enforcement or health and safety uses, as provided for in policy.Ē
Now, before you think youíre about to read propaganda from another lead-ban hater, consider the alternative. Truthfully, Iím fairly neutral on the issue. Being an avid waterfowl hunter, Iíve seen whatís capable through the evolution of non-toxic shot. Once used as a reason for many duck hunters to quit the game, steel shot now works great and is within the comfortable price range of hunters. Iíd be willing to bet that such could be accomplished by the tackle industry as well. Will steel sinkers immediately be as available and cheap as lead? No. But steel shotgun shells werenít either.
Anyway, the argument goes far beyond what I view as a consumer. The catastrophic jumping-off point is that of the costs incurred by manufacturers. A ban on lead fishing tackle on public lands would immediately force many out of business; the trickle-down effect felt for years.
But my argument isnít one based in economics, itís one of science.
Itís become commonly accepted that lead is bad. Lead paint, lead in the water, lead bullets and sinkers. True, weíve found enough data to equate lead with major health complications in animals, including humans. However, itís what we havenít found that should be of major concern: significant data of lead in birds due to the loss of fishing tackle. In fact, the vast majority of lead in the U.S. environment has been scientifically attributed to the production of batteries, pigments, dyes, alloys and aviation fuel.
Manufacturing, folks. Thatís the source of lead.
This comes from data collected from several studies conducted and reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ė the same agency that has an order in the works to ban lead tackle on public lands.
As usual, major industry keeps plugging along with a wink and a handshake to regulators, while easier targets are selected. Perhaps science is beginning to take a back seat to popularity and public outcry. Other examples abound; Floridaís controversial ban on bear hunting hitting close to home.
In any case, environmental issues and science are in for a bumpy ride, as weíre already seeing with the incoming administration. Letís hope politics and public sentiment donít overrule the truth.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)