Assessment of a voluntary nonlead ammunition outreach program on midwestern national wildlife refuges
Lead exposure from spent hunting ammunition affects wildlife populations, human health, and poses challenges to natural resource management. In addition to existing data on this topic spanning [greater than] 100-years, data from the Upper Midwestern, United States (U.S.) demonstrated bald eagles have greater risk of lead poisoning by ingesting lead bullet fragments in gut piles and unretrieved carcasses related to deer hunting. In response, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Region 3 established an outreach program during 2016–2018 encouraging deer hunters to use nonlead ammunition while deer hunting on 54 National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs). This project used a mixed methods approach incorporating 12 structured observations of presentations given at four managed hunts, 29 semi-structured interviews of program staff, and an online survey of 325 NWR staff. Objectives were to (1) examine lead exposure risks and suggest communication strategies, (2) explore attitudes and experiences of NWR staff implementing the program, (3) examine staff attitudes about threats to bald eagles, lead poisoning in bald eagles, human health risks, use of nonlead hunting ammunition, and socio-economic ammunition factors, (4) examine factors influencing program support by staff, and (5) assess structured observations of nonlead presentations. Correspondingly, this research resulted in four manuscripts and an additional research note aligned with the objectives above. Five key findings were demonstrated by this research. First, the risk of lead exposure from spent hunting ammunition is a multi-dimensional complex issue affecting wildlife and human health with voluntary programs primarily addressing the issue. Although little used in the past, social science theory has the potential to provide a useful framework for evaluating voluntary nonlead ammunition programs. Second, semi-structured interviews of USFWS staff resulted in 12 broad themes organized around three categories: (1) challenges within the agency, (2) effects of contextual factors on program implementation, and (3) the effect of different elements observed to be present/absent in successful voluntary conservation programs. Third, an online survey showed differences in attitudes among staff who hunters and nonhunters, lead or nonlead ammunition use by hunters, and likely or unlikely future nonlead use by hunters. Fourth, the survey also demonstrated program support was greatest among refuge staff who strongly agreed with problems related to bald eagles and lead exposure, individuals who strongly agreed with the importance of informational program materials, and individuals with higher levels of innovation characteristics. Fifth, a descriptive assessment of presentations at managed deer hunts showed less than four minutes on average were spent discussing the issue with minimal hunter interest observed. Findings from this study provide suggestions for improving future nonlead outreach with additional staff training, audience segmentation with targeted messaging for different audiences, broadening the scope of outreach to include human health lead risks, and relevance of nonhunters as stakeholders. Methodologically, this study was the first application mixed methods to explore attitudes and behaviors of natural resource professionals implementing a nonlead outreach program using structured observations, semi-structured interviews, and an online survey. Bridging across multiple disciplines, this study developed a broader theoretical perspective for dealing with a complex socio-political landscape with a mixture of competing values, ethics, and worldviews among stakeholders. This study also showed the value of recognizing nonhunters as an important target audience, especially human health lead risks.
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