The roast goose was excellent at a wild game dinner last weekend, except for one thing.
I was chewing on a leftover slice when I hit something hard. I extricated it from a molar and looked it over.
It was a lead pellet.
No big deal, except that I knew the goose had been shot over water in Maryland with a 12-gauge shotgun, and I knew that federal law says Maryland waterfowl hunters using 12-gauge guns are required to hunt with steel shot when they shoot over water.
An isolated case of a hunter disregarding federal law? Maybe so.
Then again, maybe not.
Steel shot regulations are in trouble. The program, designed to cut down on lethal lead poisoning among the estimated 100 million ducks that winter in the United States, was dealt a legislative blow this year by Congress.
Steel shot regulations have been in effect and growing in scope since 1976. But this fall the Senate Appropriations Committee attached a rider to the Interior Department's appropriations bill that left the program in a state of confusion and disarray.
The rider, offered by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), banned Interior from using any of its funds to enforce steel shot rules.
Since there was no such rider attached by the House, the bill went to House-Senate conference. It was decided there that Interior would be allowed to enforce steel shot laws only if individual states issued approval.
That decision became law on Oct. 1, just a few weeks before waterfowl season began in many states. Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service was faced with the giant task of getting instant approval from the 38 states affected by steel shot rules.
Robert I. Smith program director, said urgent telegrams went out to the states and so far all but two have responded. Twenty-four okayed enforcement, including Maryland Maryland and Virginia. Seven said no, including North Carolina. Five states gave partial approval, permitting Interior to enforce the rules on some federal wildlife refuges, but not statewide.
The resulting patchwork of laws, partial laws and nonlaws has waterfowl hunters, many of whom were unfavorably disposed to steel shot regulations anyway disoriented.
Many Eastern Shore goose hunters have expressed to me the view that the congressional action was a worthy excuse to disregard the steel shot mandate altogether.
Hunters feel steel shot lacks the killing power of lead, which is denser. There are arguments that steel can damage gun barrels and steel loads are often three times as expensive as lead.
There is some thinking among Eastern Shore hunters that the Capitol Hill developments will lead state and federal enforcement men to oversee steel shot rules with decreased zeal. Smith says that's not so.
The worst blow, according to Smith, is the one delivered to ammunition suppliers, particularly small store owners. Many of them in states that denied enforcement are now stuck with high-priced ammunition no one will buy.
There also was a blwo to the credibility of the program. Store owners aren't likely to make major orders of steel short for next year when they have seen, as Smith said, "that the program can change at a moment's notice."
All this comes at a time when Interior was working on expansion of the steel shot program in 1980.
As of now, steel shot is required only for hunters using 12-gauge guns because ammunition isn't availbale in other ganges.
But Interior intended to expand the coverage to all gauges next year. Now, Smith said, that plan is in doubt "It's something we've got to decide right away," he said, "because store owners are already making up supply lists for next season."
On the bright side, Smith said he and others in the government were pleasantly surprised that 24 states gave the program a vote of confidence. "You can take a positive approach when you say that two-thirds of the states are supporting us. Not many of us expected that."
What happens to the steel shot program in 1980 will depand on two things Smith expects. First, he anticipate congressional oversight hearings this year under which the rules on enforcement could change.
Also, he said, there is a likelihood that the law as written could be tested in court, with the idea that some states are overstepping their rights when they ban the federal government from enforcing federal laws on federal wildlife refuges.
Interior contends than 2 to 3 million ducks die every year from lead poisoning. The birds pick up spent pellets in marshes when they "grave up" - ingest pebbles as grit for grinding grain. The pellets lodge in the gizzards. There is evidence that one lead peppet can kill a bird and a dose of eight lead pellets is almost always fatal, Smith said.