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(Reuters) - Environmental groups filed suit on Thursday seeking federal regulation of lead in ammunition, claiming exposure to the toxic metal from spent bullets fired into the environment by hunters kills millions of birds and poses a risk to human health.
The Center for Biological Diversity was among 100 organizations that this year unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the use of lead-based ammunition, which accounts for most bullets and shot used by hunters and other shooting sportsmen in the nation.
The EPA said it did not have the authority to regulate lead ammunition, a claim disputed by environmental groups. That issue is now at the center of the federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and six other conservation groups in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
In the lawsuit, environmentalists contend the EPA can make rules to limit lead exposure under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a law designed to limit exposure to harmful chemicals.
The lawsuit comes the same day U.S. Senators Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, filed an amendment to the federal Farm Bill that would ban the EPA from regulating lead ammunition. The U.S. House has already passed legislation exempting the EPA from regulating lead-based bullets.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, lead is a "potent, potentially deadly toxin that damages many organs in the body," affecting animals as well as humans. By the mid-1990s, lead had been removed from many products, including paint and fuel.
Lead bullets and shot account for 95 percent of ammunition made in the United States, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the firearms industry.
Environmentalists say millions of birds, including bald eagles and endangered California condors, and other wildlife are poisoned each year by scavenging lead-contaminated carcasses or from ingesting spent lead-shot pellets.
Groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a hunter-based conservation group, say such ammunition has been on the landscape for centuries without denting populations of raptors like eagles.
Decisions about hunting should remain under the control of state wildlife agencies and be "based on the sound science of population impacts, not management to prevent harm to individual animals," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Keane said the actual aim of the Center for Biological Diversity and others was to end hunting, a claim that environmentalists denied.
"We have no anti-hunting agenda. In fact, we think a lot of hunters don't want their bullets to continue killing long after an animal is shot," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
While Miller contends alternatives to lead ammunition exist for hunters, sportsmen say metal-based bullets are costly and constitute just 1 percent of the ammunition market.
As for health risks to humans, the National Shooting Sports Foundation cited a 2008 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study that showed no toxic lead levels in North Dakota hunters who used lead-based ammunition to harvest the game they ate.
The U.S. government in 1991 banned the use nationwide of lead shot to hunt waterfowl and California in 2007 outlawed lead bullets in key areas inhabited by protected condors.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Edited by Mary Slosson and Lisa Shumaker