Shrugging off promises made before lawmakers last year, the federal government published a final rule this week that could ultimately lead to a ban on the use of traditional ammo on as much as a fifth of all land in the country.

On Friday, a final rule to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for game species at 18 national wildlife refuges on approximately 38,000 acres nationwide was published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Federal Register, the government's equivalent to the courthouse bulletin board. The 28-page rule on its face seems innocuous until one begins reading it and notices that "lead ammunition" is mentioned 215 times. Going past waterfowl hunting, which has required non-lead ammo since 1992, the bans listed in this week's rule change extend to all game.

"The Service remains concerned that lead ammunition and fishing tackle have negative impacts on both human health and wildlife and will continue to evaluate their future use on Service lands and waters through a transparent public process," noted the USFWS in a statement on the rule. The agency also disclosed that other units of the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System "have begun to analyze phasing out lead ammunition and tackle and plan to propose the regulatory requirement for using non-lead ammunition by fall 2026 in the 2023-2024 annual rule."

The USFWS falls under the Department of Interior, which is headed up by Debra Haaland, who was backed for her current position by well-known anti-hunting groups such as WildEarth Guardians and the HSUS. Currently, the federal government, through Haaland's department, controls 500 million acres of surface land, or about one-fifth of the United States.

A progressive supporter of the Green New Deal and a staunch advocate of gun control, including a proposed federal ban on "assault weapons," Haaland was infamously ranked as among the top 10 most liberal members of the 238-seat House of Representatives when she moved from chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico to a seat in Congress in 2019. During two days of Senate confirmation hearings last year for her job as Interior boss, she was non-committal on if she backed a ban on lead ammo. 

"I look forward to looking into that issue, consulting with the experts, I know that there are a number of scientists at the Department of Interior if I am confirmed," she said. "That will absolutely be a conversation that we have." 

Haaland's nomination was opposed by both the NSSF and the NRA, and she was ultimately confirmed by a razor-thin 51-40 vote by the Senate last March. 

The NSSF pointed out on Thursday that the Centers for Disease Control studied the issue of consumption of wild game harvested with traditional ammunition in 2008 and found no detrimental effects. More recently, Jim Heffelfinger, a regional game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, published a column in MeatEater just two weeks ago warning that alarms over traditional ammunition are “often oversimplified or exaggerated."

In short, the trade group for the firearms industry stressed that, despite promises from President Biden that his administration would “follow the science,” the USFWS offered no scientific evidence confirming traditional lead-core ammunition poses a risk to human health or wildlife populations to support its decision to phase in a ban. 

Firing range with do not enter sign
Besides impacting sportsmen who hunt on federal lands, a ban on traditional ammo on the same public lands would also affect many shooting ranges. As few non-lead options exist for popular cartridges such as 5.56, 9mm, and .22 LR, that could leave many recreational shooters who depend on public ranges without a viable option. (Photo: Chris Eger/

Coincidentally, the rule that was made final this week was proposed in June within hours of a 63-page petition from the Center for Biological Diversity – an activist organization that pro-gun groups have characterized as one that "fights against regulated sport hunting at nearly every opportunity" – to ban lead ammo on the more than 500 million acres of federal lands by 2024. 

"The Biden administration is capitulating to pressure from radical environmentalists and anti-hunting groups. This ban will price out hunters from accessing public lands since the cost of alternative ammunition is significantly greater than that of traditional ammunition," said Larry Keane, NSSF's senior vice president and general counsel in an email to "The USFWS didn’t consider scientific data because none exists to justify this ban. This is a Faustian deal that attempts to placate outdoorsmen and women by offering more opportunities but limiting it to only those who will pay additional costs to participate in their recreational pastimes."

During the Trump administration, millions of acres of public land were successfully opened to new hunting and fishing without such a restriction on lead ammo and tackle. At the same time, a proposed ban on traditional ammo by the outgoing Obama administration was scrapped and the Interior Department stressed instead a policy of expanding access to support recreational shooting.