California is one step away from a backdoor big game hunting ban


Starting July 1, the 260,000-plus hunters in California will be required to use non-lead ammunition for all hunting in the Golden State -- from big game to upland birds to varmints. Under legislation passed in 2013 by the California legislature (AB 711), lead ammunition for all hunting was banned and the Department of Fish and Wildlife was given five years starting in 2014 to phase in the complete ban.

While the phase-in has been gradual, the 2019 season marks the last big step in banning lead ammunition for hunting: This will be the first year all big game, doves, and quail hunters must comply with the ban, and these are the species most pursued by California hunters. The sporting press seems consumed with the lack of ammunition availability and concerns about non-lead performance on game, but these are minor issues in the scheme of things.

What most hunters don’t realize is that California is now just one step away from a complete ban on all non-lead big game hunting ammunition, and – therefore – a complete ban on big game hunting.

One of the main reasons the National Shooting Sports Foundation (and all other pro-gun, pro-hunting groups) battled so diligently against this legislation in 2013 was this little-discussed banner news headline. In fact, most hunters and shooters here and across the country still don’t understand the implications of the California lead hunting ammunition ban.

The NSSF pointed out the problem plainly and clearly during the debate on the bill in 2013. A de facto ban on big game hunting in California could happen overnight after July 1. It would happen on a federal level under a simple change in the enforcement of federal laws. How? The federal law clearly says that all alternative metals used to make non-lead big game hunting slugs are all classified as “armor piercing” and require a special permission to make, sell, or possess. The feds have not enforced a ban on solid copper bullets (the most common non-lead big game hunting alternative to lead), but as the NSSF said in 2013, “this is just another Obama executive order away from happening.”

How We Got Here: The Condor Guise

Back in 2013, the legislators pushing AB 711 said the bill was necessary to protect all the state’s wildlife from exposure to lead, but especially condors. However, there was already a lead ammunition ban in place throughout the range of condors in California, so they had to come up with rationale for a statewide ban. And it took suppression of scientific facts to do that. What was not reported during the debate on the statewide lead ban was simple: The condor zone lead ammunition ban had done absolutely nothing to improve the plight of the California condor. There continued to be deaths of the big birds due to lead toxicity, even after lead was banned there. So, the proponents of the bill continued to blame hunters. We needed a statewide ban to protect condors because hunters are not complying with the local ban, they said. Everyone was still using lead, they said, because it was in use everywhere else in the state.

Well, no. All the accusations were blatant lies. There was research showing that background lead levels in resident golden eagles and vultures inside the non-lead condor zone dropped to zero. While there is no science to suggest hunter’s lead left in gut piles and carcasses was impacting either eagle or vulture populations, or even causing significant bird deaths, the testing of these birds proved hunting compliance had been exceptional. The DFW also said, using data collected through warden contacts and surveys, that compliance had been nearly 100 percent in the condor zone. The ban had been great for eagles, which also had elevated lead levels before the ban. Yet, it was doing nothing for condors, which continued to have high background levels of lead.

Do you know there has never been a condor food study done? Never. After millions of dollars spent on research and field studies, we have no scientific papers on what condors eat or where they feed. Nearly all of the endangered birds have radio transmitters, but there has never been a food study done. So where are they getting the lead? What are they getting it from? The scientists mostly still blame hunter lead for all the lead problems, even though the evidence for that contention is not borne out by data.

The statewide lead ban is not about condors.

The Lead Ban Is NOT Still a Good Idea

After AB 711 was passed and signed, the studies that showed the existing ban wasn’t helping condors and that hunting compliance was nearly perfect were finally released. The proponents of the ban (and sadly a lot of apologists in the hunting community) began to argue that maybe the statewide lead ammunition ban was a good thing to protect those eagles and vultures and probably other scavenging animals.

But the science simply doesn’t support that.

Here’s the scientific premise for banning hunter’s lead across the board: Many wild animals pick up hunter’s lead when feeding (either on spent shotgun pellets birds might think are seeds, or when scavengers/predators feed on gutpiles that may have lead bullet residue or mushroomed slugs left behind by hunters after killing game). Yes, it can be deadly. A single No. 7 ½ lead shotgun pellet can kill a dove. A full, mushroomed lead slug eaten from a deer’s gut pile can kill a condor.

Condors were the poster child for the argument. Their population numbers are so low that the loss of one of these birds is a blow to survival of the species. In spite of what some science deniers say, it is certain in at least two instances whole hunter’s slugs, likely picked from a gutpile or wounded and lost game animal, have killed condors in the past. However, there is still no scientific proof that hunter’s lead is sole culprit in condors’ chronically elevated lead levels, and recent scientific work shows it may never have been a very significant one.

Deaths of condors by hunter’s lead were anomalies, but lead poisoning was and is still a chronic problem. Unfortunately, the scientific community has refused to look elsewhere for the source of the bulk of the lead. These so-called scientists said there was fire when they saw smoke. There was even a published “study” that “proved” all the lead in condors came from ammunition by isotope analysis. The NRA asked the nation’s top scientists in this type of work to analyze the so-called study, and they all said it was pure fiction. Their testimony fell on deaf ears and was not reported outside of a few sporting publications. The general media labeled the real expert’s testimony as “paid lobbying” by the NRA.

Today the legislators and their supporters are arguing that if the ban helped eagles, it would by extension help all other wildlife that might pick up an occasional piece of lead fired from a hunter’s gun. They made this claim knowing there is no scientific evidence that hunter’s lead is impacting the health or population levels of any other species. There is evidence that hunter’s lead may impact individual birds or mammals, even causing their death in some instances, but it is not driving population levels downward and certainly not a reason for a lead ammunition ban.

The apologist hunters use the same insane argument anti-gun advocates use for firearm bans: If it saves just one life…. If the statewide lead hunting ammunition ban saves just one dove or eagle or gray fox, it is worth the effort and expense to shoot non-lead, they say. Using that rationale, we need to shut down all wind generating facilities (we have them in valleys and hillsides all over California today because of push for “green” energy). Those facilities have killed more golden eagles in recent years than all other man-made mortality combined. Thousands of coyotes and countless gamebirds are killed on the state’s roadways each year. Are we going to ban cars or roadways where we drive them to save “just one” scrub jay? Hunters who make this argument are useful idiots for the people who would end hunting entirely.

Regardless of the man-caused mortality, populations of eagles and all other species of wildlife that have been known to die from lead poisoning are not declining in numbers, and where there are declines they are simply not attributable to hunter’s lead. That is the science.

The statewide ban was passed under a false premise and bad science, and it continues to be championed under even more lies.

Imagine if the California legislature banned all human exposure to radiation because we know it is bad in excessive amounts. No more annual dental x-rays or x-rays of broken legs. A dumb legislative move like that would cripple medical treatments and screenings. People would die. Yet, that is what the legislature did to hunters, but they want hunters to figuratively die.

How We Really Got Here

When you understand that all of this was well-known to the legislature, it is easier to understand the real reason for the bill’s passage. AB 711 was introduced and passed to placate the anti-hunting, animal rights community, which is supported by most liberal California politicians. They are moving forward in their desire to ban hunting by playing the long game through incremental hunting bans.

In California, there is currently a bill in the legislature that would ban bobcat hunting. A couple of years ago, use of hounds when hunting bears was banned. The goal is to ban all hunting or to make jumping through all the requirements and hoops so difficult that hunters will simply give up hunting. We have to register to buy ammunition starting July 1. All the bloodletting is working. In California, there were once 850,000 annual hunting licenses sold. This past year, the number is down to just over 260,000.

The new California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game) has been a willing facilitator in the process of destroying hunting in the state, especially under the current politically-appointed director, Chuck Bonham

Historically, the DFW has refused or been directed not to comment on legislation, unless requested by the legislature (and sometimes not even then). This long-standing rule was broken in 2013 when the Bonham supported the lead hunting ammunition ban. He was effectively saying the agency supported the unproven idea that lead ammunition was a danger to the state’s wildlife. Many of the state’s wildlife scientists within in the DFW were livid over the move.

Bonham tried to say he was a good guy in this battle. He said it was the fear the Feds would at some point enforce the ban on copper and other non-lead ammunition. He told the legislature he would support AB711, if…. Bonham said that he pushed the legislators to give him the power – and a legislative mandate in AB 711 – to continue to allow lead-based ammunition if federal rulemaking banned lead alternatives.

That part must have been mumbled when he was talking to legislators because the only thing the legislature heard was “we support the science.” Using the last-minute argument, “even the DFW supports this ban,” the legislation passed easily. The legislators also didn’t change the bill to give the director the authority to allow lead ammunition if all other ammunition was deemed “armor piercing” by the feds. Should it be mentioned that Bonham doesn’t eat meat?

Now, as a presidential election looms and the Democratic slate is filled with anti-gun candidates who also have friends in the animal rights community, the question will be simply this: If the Democrats win the Presidency, how long will it be before big game hunting ends in California with a simple change in the enforcement of existing laws?

If you don’t believe this all wasn’t an anticipated move in the slow-played, anti-hunters political chess game, you are naïve.


Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

This story was first published in, an on-line round-up on news and commentary on firearms, guns, and hunting.

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