USDA Forest Service officials recently announced that they are offering a $15 rebate to big-game hunters who use lead-free rifle ammunition.

The “Help Get the Lead Out Rebate Program” is meant to encourage hunters to switch from traditional lead ammunition to newer lead-free bullets made from copper and other metals.

The Forest Service is pushing for the switch because lead, a highly toxic substance, has been shown to have a severe impact on the welfare of non-game wildlife. The rebate offer applies to hunters in State Hunting Zone D-13, located in the Los Padres National Forest, which is home to protected species like the golden eagle and the endangered California condor.

The Sespe Condor Sanctuary, also located in the Los Padres National Forest, is directly adjacent to zone D-13. The sanctuary does not actively restrict the movement of the condors, so they are free to roam the surrounding area. The condors are frequently found inside the hunting zone, putting them at risk of coming into contact with lead contaminants.

When a hunter using lead ammunition shoots a game animal, fragments of the bullet remain in the animal even after the hunter has cleaned it and taken the meat. If not buried properly, the carcass may eventually serve as a meal for condors or other scavengers. Any animal that feeds on such a carcass may ingest lead from the bullet fragments, eventually leading to extreme sickness or death.

Lee Moldaver, vice president of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Audubon Society, said the animals are not the only ones threatened by the use of lead ammunition. Hunters who use lead ammunition risk exposure through handling bullets and eating meat from game contaminated with lead particles.

“If we can encourage the use of a healthier ammunition, then this is a win-win situation,” Moldaver said.

At Dodge City Gun Shop, owner Rick Dodge said hunters aren’t buying it – literally.

“I haven’t sold one box of [lead-free] shells,” he said.

Dodge said the rebate program has several shortcomings, one of them being that it was announced on Sept. 24, just two weeks before the start of the hunting season in the zone for which it applies. Dodge said many hunters buy their ammo as early as April, which is when hunting licenses go on sale, to allow plenty of time to adjust their rifle sights to the type of ammunition they will be using.

Also, the only lead-free bullets Dodge carries are not intended for hunting deer, the primary game animal of zone D-13. Standard deer-specific bullets have a hollow tip and are designed to stop in the animal and kill instantly and as humanely as possible. The lead-free bullets carried by Dodge City Gun Shop are large, solid acopper slugs that have a tendency to penetrate through all but the largest animals, like elk or bears.

So far, the Forest Service has not received any rebate applications.

Rich Tobin, director of Conservation Partnerships for Los Padres National Forest, said the program is a big step in the right direction. He said the program was announced with so little time left before the start of the hunting season because of the difficulty of getting the legal side of such a program finalized, especially considering all the organizations involved in providing funding.

“We were able to pull together the financial partners involved just as late as a few days prior to the announcement,” Tobin said.

Those financial partners include the Los Padres Forest Association, the Ventana Wilderness Society and Audubon California.

Tobin said he expects a larger response next year, especially now that more hunters are aware of the rebate program. He said the Forest Service is also considering extending the rebate offer to any hunters who use the non-lead ammunition, not just those in D-13.

Dodge said he is not optimistic that lead-free ammo sales will increase any time soon. He said the rebate might have an effect if it discounted the entire price of the ammunition, but currently hunters are faced with deciding between a traditional favorite and a new, unfamiliar type of bullet for which they will have to mail away to get the same price.

“For now, the only way you’re going to get people to buy [non-lead ammunition],” Dodge said, “is to have the government make it mandatory to use it.”