Under mounting legal pressure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to phase out the use of lead hunting ammunition at several national wildlife refuges, including the 5,690-acre Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.

The decision was the result of legal pressure from environmental groups to protect wildlife from lead contamination after hunting and fishing were expanded in the national wildlife refuge system under former President Donald Trump.

The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells. Dan King photo, file

“This win protects endangered wildlife on refuges that were specifically created to protect them,” said attorney Camila Cossío of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental group that reached a legal settlement with USFWS on Wednesday.

“Phasing out the use of lead ammunition and tackle on refuges is a commonsense way to help wildlife that already face so many threats to their survival,” said Cossío.

On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court judge in Montana approved a settlement between Cossio’s group and USFWS that will require non-lead ammunition at Patoka National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana, where endangered whooping cranes live, court records show.

“We’re going to keep doing everything we can to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a nationwide phaseout of toxic lead,” Cossio said in a statement about the settlement. “Only then can refuges truly be safe havens for wildlife.”


The transition to lead-free ammo for big game hunting will minimize accidental but lethal exposure to refuge wildlife such as bald and golden eagles. Eagles can be susceptible to lead poisoning because they swallow lead fragments or pellets in animals that hunters may hit but cannot retrieve.

USFWS has also committed to phasing out lead use at the Blackwater, Eastern Neck and Patuxent refuges in Maryland, the Chincoteague and Wallops Island refuges in Virginia, the Erie refuge in Pennsylvania, and the Great Thicket, a new kind of refuge spread out across New England.

The Rachel Carson transition does not affect Maine’s 10 other national wildlife refuges, from Aroostook in the north to Lake Umbagog in the west to Moosehorn in the Downeast region. According to the settlement, USFWS has until June to respond to the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to make all refuges lead-free.

The 13,750 hunters that visit Rachel Carson each year must now use lead-free ammunition when hunting ducks, woodcock, geese or grouse, according to the refuge’s latest hunting plan. Those that hunt for turkeys and deer there will have to switch to lead-free ammunition by 2026.

Rachel Carson consists of several parcels of land along the state’s southern coast, stretching 50 miles from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth. It attracts about 275,000 visitors a year, although many of those never venture beyond the popular coastal walking trail in Wells.

Hunting has been allowed there for the last 40 years. The plan to transition to lead-free ammunition was included in the 2022 update to the refuge plan. Although it limits ammunition choices, the latest plan actually expands hunting at the preserve.

USFWS manages 567 national wildlife refuges across millions of acres that are home to 8,000 animal and marine species, including a third of all endangered species in the U.S. Eight endangered and threatened species are listed at Rachel Carson, including roseate terns and northern long-eared bats.

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