The population of bighorn sheep in the San Gabriel Mountains is growing, according to results from a comprehensive field survey completed two weeks ago by the Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, and more than 100 volunteers who took part in the counting effort. The ratio of lambs to ewes was the highest ever recorded since surveys began in 1976, an indicator of a healthy and growing herd. “The biggest factor in the current growth, I think, is the fires in 2003,” said Villepique. “There were two good fires that got a lot of that front country where the sheep live. I think that’s the big factor – a lot of that habitat was overgrown.” The lamb-to-ewe ratio was 62 young per 100 ewes, and the highest ratio recorded before this was just more than 50 lambs in 2004. Most years the ratio is between 25 and 35 lambs for each 100 ewes. Villepique called the number of young “really encouraging,” especially considering that just five years ago, biologists were concerned the wild sheep population could completely disappear from the San Gabriels. These surveys have been done almost continuously since 1976. GOING UNLEADED A prediction: Lead ammunition will be banned for hunting within the next decade. Not just in condor range, not just in California, but nationwide. The bighorns were counted from the air, by DFG and USFS staff in a helicopter, and from the ground by volunteers in all of the major sheep habitat in the mountain range. A total of 142 sheep were counted from the air and another 55 from the ground, said DFG biologist Jeff Villepique. Since the ground and air surveys were conducted simultaneously, Villepique said they were able to estimate the total population with a high degree of accuracy at 308 animals. This is up slightly from last year’s 292 estimate. Once the largest herd of bighorn in the state, numbering more than 700 animals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the population crashed to around 100 animals or less from 1995 through 2002. It has been growing steadily since. It won’t be banned for plinking or target shooting, but it won’t be allowed in our hunting fields. It will be banned on solid scientific evidence that birds and animals pick up the spent lead in a variety of ways, and when it enters their diet, they can become sick and die. I’m growing a little weary of the so-called leaders in the hunting community – especially those in the industry – whining about how the move to ban lead ammunition is somehow anti-hunting or anti-gun and that it’s not based on good science. It’s time to wake up and smell the gunpowder. This is a conservation issue plain and simple, and lead ammunition has broad-based negative impacts on the environment when used for hunting. I’m not going to tell you the issue is settled, but if this were a murder trial and you could see all the evidence coming into this courtroom, even the most devout skeptic would convict lead. South Dakota banned lead shotgun ammunition for upland game hunting on state game production areas in 1998. Canada has had a nationwide ban on lead shot since 1999. Last week, Missouri banned lead ammunition on 21 of its conservation areas after a study by the University of Missouri’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department and Veterinary School showed that lead shot was so prevalent that birds picked it up when feeding. The study found that shorebirds, turkeys, mourning doves, quail, and several species of raptors, including bald eagles, were affected. “It’s a widely recognized toxic substance, and it’s something that can be harmful biologically if it’s ingested. Even one (pellet) would probably result in incapacitation and death,” said John Smith, assistant director for the state Conservation Department (the equivalent of our DFG), referring to game birds. The conservation department said it now estimates that as many mourning doves are killed from eating spent lead shot as hunters shoot each year. Since dove numbers seem to be stable or increasing, if we banned lead shot nationwide, could we double the bag limit? Probably. But most of the people I speak with about the lead issue here in California still get worked up, somehow believing the whole thing is a bogus, anti-hunting effort, and would somehow price lower-income hunters out of the game. Not buying in on that argument, I did some price comparisons this week on non-lead ammunition costs versus lead, and what costs would be for all classes of hunting: For shotgun ammunition, lead turkey ammunitions ranges from $7 to $10 for a box of 10 rounds. Heavy-Shot and other tungsten-based loads or those made with Bismuth cost from $25 to $35 for a box of 10 – three times as much. Steel upland loads are now $7 to $9 for a box of 25, the same price as equivalent lead ammunition. Steel waterfowl loads cost the same as equivalent lead loads today. Sure, you can shoot more expensive Bismuth or tungsten ammo for upland and waterfowl – but it’s not required. For big game hunting, Barnes Triple Shock X-Bullets, a lead-free, solid copper alternative to lead, are now available in factory loads for most standard calibers from Federal and Weatherby. Norma also now makes an all-copper bullet, Naturalis, although I can’t find anyone carrying it right now. Cost for these lead-free big game loads are equivalent to premium loads featuring lead-based Nosler Partitions or other quality lead hunting bullets. It’s a price wash – and most veteran hunters will tell you the copper bullets perform better in the field. Appropriate non-lead bullets for varmint shooting is where I’ve heard a lot of whining lately (especially since the Tejon Ranch announced its complete ban on lead ammunition for 2008 last week). But fret no more, Barnes has introduced a new frangible bullet featuring a copper-tin composite this year. It’s called the Varmint Grenade. Because it’s lighter than lead, varmint shooters will see significant velocity increases with this new slug and explosive results. Its cost is almost identical to premium varmint bullets like Nosler Ballistic Tips or the Hornady V-Max. And Black Hills is already loading the bullet in ammo for varmint hunters. You don’t even have to handload, and costs are the same. Lastly, the lament you hear the most is about how the cost of .22 rimfire shooting will skyrocket, completely ending the American tradition of plinking and rimfire hunting for squirrels and rabbits. But will it? Using the cost of the new Varmint Grenades as a guide, I compared what rimfire ammunition would cost using a version of this new bullet. Currently, .22 Long Rifle rimfire ammunition costs about six cents a shot or $6 for a box of 100. Ammo for .22 magnum rimfires is $10 for a box of 50 or about 20 cents a crack. The new bullets are about 71/2 cents each, so adding them into regular rimfires would more than double the price of a box of ammo to around $13.50 per 100. The .22 mag stuff would cost about $13.75 per 50, a one-third increase. I can tell you that we need to take the high road, but my thinking is simple and self-serving: If by shooting non-lead shot, I can save one dove or quail a year from lead poisoning, that’s one more bird and its offspring I can pursue the following season. If by shooting Barnes non-lead bullets, I can help the recovery of condors, see more golden eagles, or bag a big coyote – all animals that could die when eating lead from my gut piles – then I’ll take the precautions. That’s practical conservation. Jim Matthews’ outdoors column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!