Some environmental groups are vowing to defeat a package of hunting, angling and conservation bills by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) over a provision that would prohibit U.S. EPA from regulating lead in ammunition or fishing tackle.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which spearheads a coalition of roughly 100 environmental groups, scientists and hunters who support EPA regulation of lead ammo, said it plans to pressure vulnerable Democrats to oppose the provision -- though it is backed strongly by the National Rifle Association.
"Our coalition will kill the Sportsman's Bill if those NRA provisions are not dropped," said Bill Snape, a senior attorney for CBD.
"We believe if we take this to the airwaves of North Carolina -- and we will -- we're going to win that debate," Snape added. "It's unfortunate we may need to politically harm her in the process."
Hagan faces a tough re-election bid in 2014, as do two of her co-sponsors on the bill, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
Introduction of Hagan's "SPORT Act" this week reignited a debate over EPA's role in the regulation of bullets and fishing tackle.
The NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and other pro-gun hunting groups have long-backed the language, arguing that, with few exceptions, lead ammunition has not caused population declines in wildlife species and that non-lead alternatives would raise the cost of hunting.
CBD and other environmental groups claim lead ammunition poisons endangered California condors and other birds that eat the carcasses of animals killed with it. One federal study showed elevated lead levels in humans who consume meat killed with lead bullets -- though such levels did not threaten human health.
The fight over Hagan's bill will be a familiar one.
CBD last December bought a full-page ad in The New York Times urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to kill an identical lead provision in a sportsmen's package by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). The group also bought radio and print ads in Las Vegas opposing the lead provision.
Tester's package, which enjoyed strong support from sportsmen, conservation groups and a majority of the Senate, died as a result of a budget violation, partisanship and the opposition of leading Democrats including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who objected to the lead provision.
Snape said CBD is ready to take off the gloves again.
"It would be horrible to have it come to this, but we have funding to run ads like that New York Times ad in North Carolina, in New Mexico, in Minnesota ... key states where Democrats are getting squeamish on us," Snape said. "We're going to be relentless on this issue because we believe getting lead out of bullets is pro-hunter."
Hannah Smith, a Hagan spokeswoman, said the senator's bill is a balanced package that "addresses the broad priorities shared by sportsmen and conservationists across the country."
"She wants hunting to remain an affordable family activity, and she is working to move a sportsmen's bill across the finish line that secures the nation's outdoor heritage, protects wildlife habitats, and strengthens the economy," Smith said.
It's unclear how the politics of the lead issue will play out this time around.
In May, a federal district judge dismissed an effort by CBD and others to force EPA to regulate lead bullets as an environmental toxin (Greenwire, May 24).
And last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill outlawing lead ammunition, making the Golden State the first to enact a statewide ban (Greenwire, Oct. 14).
Though federal courts have settled, for now, the issue of EPA regulation -- and the Obama administration has agreed that it lacks the regulatory authority -- the issue is still a leading concern among gun groups.
There are also divisions among wildlife groups about the impacts of lead.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has not taken a position on the lead language, though it yesterday signaled support for the overall Hagan package, as well as a similar proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
"There isn't unanimity among our partners on the issue," said Tom Franklin, TRCP's senior director for science and policy.
While some environmentalists spoke out against Tester's lead provision last year, most groups either supported the package or remained silent in light of the mostly positive environmental provisions in the bill. The same could be true this Congress, particularly as vulnerable Democrats enter the thick of re-election races.
Hagan's bill also contains measures to preserve wetlands, reauthorize a popular land acquisition program and ensure that a portion of conservation funding is dedicated to improving recreational access to public lands, among other provisions.
"The 16-day government shutdown in October highlighted how important the nation's public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities are to all of us," said Alan Rowsome, senior director of government relations for lands at the Wilderness Society. "The SPORT Act released this week includes several meaningful provisions that will help support this critical sector of the economy."