We Texans love our scatterguns. But we may love our dove hunting even more.
Dove hunting is a long-lived tradition in Texas. Not just because it is the first domino to fall in a long line of hallowed hunting seasons that pretty much define autumn and winter for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children around this sprawling state.
Even in bad years, Texas dove hunting can be outstanding. One of the main reasons is the numbers—staggering numbers.
In 2015, wildlife experts estimated Texas had a resident mourning dove breeding population of about 33.06 million birds. That is significantly more than any other state and about 12 percent of the nation’s estimated total mourning dove population of 266 million. The numbers mount even higher when figuring in the millions of migrant mourning doves from northern states that pass through Texas each fall, and a rapidly expanding white-winged dove population that has exploded to well over 10 million over the last 10-15 years.
Not surprisingly, Texas dove hunters shoot a lot of birds, too. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures show Texas’ 220,700 dove hunters shot 4.89 million mourning doves in 2015. That’s way more than any other state and more than 37 percent of the national figure of 13.16 million for that same year.
What might come as a shock is the number of shot shells that may have been spent to kill those birds. No offense intended, but as a rule most dove hunters are pretty crappy shots. And it shows.
Past surveys have shown dove hunters will shoot five to seven times for every bird they kill. If that’s the case, Texas dove hunters alone fired at least 25 million shot shells playing their game in 2015. National estimates quadruple to 100 million.
That’s a lot of shot shells any way you slice it. But it equates to an even more mind-boggling number of lead pellets that are falling to the ground in heavily hunted dove fields under the laws of gravity every year.
To get a feel for the possibilities, consider that a single shot shell containing 1 1/8 ounces of No. 8 pellets—a common load for dove hunting—will hold somewhere around 460 lead pellets.
While it may not mean much to some hunters, the mounting number of lead pellets littering heavily hunted dove fields is a concern among many wildlife experts and conservationists all across dove country, has been for quite a while.
That’s because many believe large numbers of doves—possibly millions—may be dying every year as the result of acute lead toxicosis(lead poisoning).
The condition can be caused when foraging doves and other birds mistake one or more lead shot shell pellets for small seeds intended for nourishment or small stones to be used as a digestive aid.
Like seeds, the lead pellet is processed by the digestive system and eventually makes it into bird’s bloodstream, which can lead to potentially fatal effects.
Several research studies have documented this, including a 2003 Missouri study (Acute Lead Toxicosis in Mourning Doves) that showed the chances of death go up 18 percent with every pellet ingested. Ingesting only two pellets can kill a dove within a few weeks, and those that don’t die from the toxin can develop other problems making them vulnerable to predation, starvation and disease, research studies have shown.
Scientists know wild doves ingest lead pellets, and there is plenty of research to prove it. Lead ingestion studies performed on doves as far back as the late 1960s have shown varying rates of ingestion ranging from less than one percent to about 6.4 percent.
Perhaps the largest of those research projects took place in 1998-2000, when researchers collected and examined nearly 5,000 hunter-shot doves from seven states including Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee. “Overall, the frequency of ingested lead pellets in gizzards of doves on hunting areas where the use of lead shot was permitted was 2.5 percent, although we found a high degree of variability among locations,” the study said.
Concerns over lead poisoning in doves and the potential harm it could be doing to the population has caused some researchers to suggest that a nontoxic shot only regulation be implemented for dove hunting.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the top dog when it comes to managing migratory birds—decades ago implemented a nontoxic shot only regulation for hunting ducks and geese. The ruling came on the heels of multiple studies that indicated North America’s waterfowl population was taking a significant hit each year as the result of lead poisoning from ingesting spent lead shot. The phase-in began in 1987-88 and became nationwide in 1991.
The feds haven’t moved on such a decision for doves yet, but it seems likely that it is only a matter of time until they do. Several states have already banned lead shot on their wildlife management areas, and similar rules are in place on National Wildlife Refuge and waterfowl production areas all across the country.
In Canada, it is illegal to use any type of shot for hunting migratory birds other than steel, bismuth-tin, iron-tungsten, tungsten-bronze and a host of other nontoxic alternatives now available. In 2013, California began phasing in nontoxic shot for hunting any type of wildlife with a firearm.
Things are different in Texas. The only places around here where lead shot is currently prohibited for any type of hunting is on wildlife management areas along the coast and national wildlife refuges. This includes lead shot used to dispatch alligators.
Lead shot remains legal on leased properties included in Texas Parks and Wildlife’s public dove hunting program, national forests and privately-owned property across the state, and no plans are in the works for the reg to be amended at the state level, according to Shaun Oldenburger, TPWD migratory shore and upland game bird program manager.
There was plenty of resistance when water fowlers were forced to make the switch from lead to nontoxic shot decades ago. That’s largely because early steel shot ammo didn’t perform very well and was significantly more expensive than lead.
Ammunition makers have since made some serious performance tweaks to nontoxic loads and expanded the list of alternative shot types to more than a dozen, some selling at per box prices comparable to lead. Even so, the perception still exists among many hunters that nontoxic shot doesn’t perform as well as lead.
TPWD researchers say that gathering data to help put those ideas to rest was a primary focus of a two-year study conducted in 2008-09 comparing the lethality of lead shot and nontoxic shot for hunting doves.
TPWD reports say the study—conducted in Brown, Coleman and McCulloch counties—resulted in more than 5,000 shots fired by 53 hunters to take 1,100 mourning dove using three different loads at varied distances. Officials say the results showed no significant difference in killing efficiencies between the loads tested. You can read the study in full at http://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/game_management/dove_summary/.
The study wasn’t cheap to carry out. It cost $500,000, paid for by revenue from sales of Migratory Game Bird and Texas White-winged Dove stamps.
TPWD took some heat over that. Some in opposition contend the money would have been better spent conducting a large scale lead ingestion study on doves and other birds trapped on Texas dove fields that have been heavily hunted for years as opposed to research to determine what everybody already knew—that you can readily kill doves with nontoxic loads.
TPWD insists the results of the study answered some questions that needed answering.
“Our findings address the efficiency of lead and non-toxic shot on mourning doves,” said Corey Mason, a TPWD wildlife biologist and one of the authors of the report. “There continues to be a spirited national discussion on the use of lead and other types of shot, and these results help inform one aspect of the conversation.”
According to TPWD reports, officials believe the research findings may be useful to Texas hunters as they make decisions on the type of loads they choose for dove hunting.
“We absolutely believe in hunter choice, and we also want hunters to be as informed as possible on matters affecting their outdoor pursuits,” said Carter Smith, TPWD Executive Director. “Doves are a shared international resource, and the question about whether or not lead shot should be banned for dove hunting is not something Texas is prepared to make independent of other jurisdictions and based solely on the findings of this study. This research offers an important data point in the larger discussion, but there are many other factors to consider.”
It’ll be interesting to see what changes time will bring. If there is iron-clad research to indicate lead shot exposure is negatively impacting dove populations, a move to mandate a switch to an alternative shot certainly wouldn’t get any opposition from this corner.
—story by Matt Williams