How a Gun Club Pollutes Lake Michigan

The Cudahy Gun Club’s shooters add one ton of lead to the lake per year. So why does the county board allow this?

By - Dec 18th, 2014 10:11 am
Divers from the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences photographed the lake bottom by the Cudahy Sportsman Club doing unrelated research in 2011. The divers found lead shot widely distributed on the lakebed. Photo from UWM.

Divers from the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences photographed the lake bottom near the area where the Cudahy Sportsman Club operates while doing unrelated research in 2011. The divers found lead shot widely distributed on the lakebed. Photo from UWM.

On the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan in Warnimont Park sits the last remaining trap shooting operation on the lake, the Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club. Established there in 1967, the club pays the Milwaukee County Parks System $3,000 a year to lease the property, amounting to approximately $10 a member. Unlike other trap shooting groups today, which operate under a strict regimen of collecting their shooting debris in order to protect the surrounding environment from contamination, the Sportsmen’s Club operates much as it has from its inception. And therein lies the problem.

For years the Friends of Grant Park and other volunteers participating in beach cleanups complained about the thousands of plastic shotgun wads littering the beaches which originate from the Sportsmen’s Club, located a full two miles north of Grant Park. For years we simply picked them up. In November 2013 we decided to see whether there was something that could be done to prevent the debris from getting into the lake in the first place. Our investigation revealed a much larger problem.

The Club operates from February through November. Its members fire their shotguns towards the lake at clay targets hurled over the bluff from eight trap boxes. By its own numbers 99.9 percent of all the lead shot discharged at the site lands directly in Lake Michigan; 25,000 rounds containing 1,734 pounds of lead shot are deposited into the lake each year. A portion of the shattered clay targets, which contain toxic substances, land directly in the lake. The rest lands on the hillside below the bluff, along with all the plastic wads. Ultimately, rain washes all the debris into Lake Michigan.

Concerns over lead in the environment has been with us for decades, leading to its ban in gasoline and paints. Starting in 1991 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead ammunition for duck hunting over wetlands. Yet, the Sportsmen’s Club continues to deposit close to a ton of lead shot in the lake each year.

This brings the club into direct violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which requires a permit prior to discharging debris into the lake. No permit has ever been sought by the club. Environmental concerns over this type of activity led to the closure of similar clubs beginning in the late 1980’s. At the same time the Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club received a letter from the state Department of Natural Resources ordering it to cease shooting until it modified its operation to ensure that no debris entered the lake. The club initiated a search for a new site but in the meantime chose to ignore the DNR’s order. For reasons that no one at the DNR can explain, no enforcement actions were taken thereafter.

Another concern is the erosion of the park bluff at the site. The club itself has kept records over the years which demonstrate that 2-3 feet of bluff is lost every year. The site is slowly disappearing into the lake. This is a direct result of the Parks Department’s inability to plant trees, shrubs, and other vegetation at the site area to stabilize the bluff.

In November 2013 our group brought these concerns to John Dargle, the Director of the County Parks Department. He spent a year soliciting input from Parks personnel, the county’s legal staff, the DNR, our group, and most importantly from the Sportsmen’s Club itself. The club met with the Parks Director and submitted its own summary of intended action. This primarily consisted of conducting four cleanups per year of the beach area below the site.

In November 2014 the Parks Department notified the club its lease would not be renewed, citing “the environmental impacts of lead shot, shotgun wads, and clay targets; and the erosion of the face of the bluff.” In addition the Parks Director relied on a memo from the County’s legal staff recommending lease termination. The memo correctly pointed out that as lessor of the site, Milwaukee County taxpayers could be held responsible for environmental cleanup costs.

The Sportsmen’s Club immediately launched a publicity campaign seeking to salvage its lease. Ill informed vitriol was spewed via talk radio and social media. It was said that the environmental concerns we raised were fabricated, and that we secretly harbored an anti-gun agenda. This ignored the fact that our members include both gun owners and hunters.

The fence no longer exists, having been buried in erosion and sand. Photo courtesy of Friends of Grant Park.

The fence no longer exists, having been buried in erosion and sand. Photo courtesy of Friends of Grant Park.

The club pointed to its four beach cleanups a year during the summer months (instituted three years ago) as a solution to the problem. Such cleanups do nothing to prevent the debris from entering the lake the other 361 days a year. Club members also falsely claimed that a fence they placed at the foot of the hillside catches all the debris being washed down by rains. Pictures we provided to the Parks Department in February 2014 show gullies running beneath the fence with large gaps throughout. Pictures from November 2014 reveal that the fence no longer exists, having been buried in erosion and sand. You can view pictures at www.fogp.org.

Unfortunately, the fuss raised by the club worked. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, in the midst of their budget process, responded by tacking a one-year lease renewal provision to the budget without conducting any discussion of the issue or reviewing any information about the extent of the problem. A more recent resolution drafted by County Supervisor John Weishan at the club’s request would grant them three additional 3-year options to extend the lease, thus insuring their presence in Warnimont Park for another ten years.

We do not dispute the club’s right to exist, we object to its location. Manuals for trap shooting organizations put out by the EPA, the Wisconsin DNR, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation unanimously state that shooting into water bodies or wetlands is not an option. These manuals also describe practices to be utilized by shooting ranges to prevent contamination of surrounding areas. Given the club’s location on the bluffs of Lake Michigan, none of these practices can be utilized.

For the Sportsmen’s Club, the lease extension was not just good news but an economic windfall. In no other location could they hope to operate so cheaply. Presently all their debris is conveniently deposited into Lake Michigan. Moving to another location would require them to pay for the collection and proper disposal of tons of lead shot, toxic clay targets and plastic wads, as other trap shooting organizations are required to do. On the other hand, it’s also the responsible thing to do. While these issues may appear complicated, in the end it really boils down to a simple lesson most of us learned in kindergarten: be responsible, clean up your own mess, don’t expect others to do it for you. This is a lesson that the Sportsmen’s Club has not learned.

Please contact your County Supervisor and the County Executive and let them know it’s time for the Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club to find a new home.

Rick Kaiser is an attorney and a member of the Friends of Grant Park.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

20 thoughts on “Op-Ed: How a Gun Club Pollutes Lake Michigan”

  1. alba says:

    This is a no brainier. Stop shooting things into our drinking water.

  2. Ben says:

    I don’t live in Milwaukee County, but I wish you luck in fixing this problem. The gun nuts are impermeable to reason. They wouldn’t change even after Sandy Hook, so I don’t know what it’ll take for them to change in this case.

  3. Jan Pierce says:

    This is why they created steel shot – so that if the shot gets into the water, it doesn’t cause lead poisoning. I wonder why that isn’t an option. Or if it was part of the solution, why it wasn’t covered in this article.

  4. Frank Galvan says:

    “Ill informed vitriol was spewed via talk radio?” Well, I guess that there is a first time for everything!

  5. casey says:

    @Jan that does seem to be a part of a reasonable solution. The problem with that us most people shooting are using 12 ga which is most available in lead and hard to find in steel. 16 ga is all steel but not too many people have one any more. Perhaps the club could stock steel shot only and require all shells shot there have to be purchased there. Still doesnt address the plastic wad issue though

  6. John Stegmeier says:

    12 gauge steel shot is very common as non-toxic shot is required nationally for waterfowl hunting. 16 gauge is relatively rare in any type of shot these days. Non-toxic loads in 20, 28 gauge and 410 bore are fairly uncommon. All are much more expensive than lead shot, typically wear out the guns more quickly, and don’t tend to pattern as well when shot. That does not mean that a club which shoots over water should not be required to use non-toxic shot. The law is in place for waterfowl hunting because it places large concentrations of shot in locations where waterfowl feed. Ducks and geese feeding in those areas ingest lead pellets. Speaking as a hunter, I feel that all shooting ranges operating as clubs or commercial enterprises should be required to recover most of the spent lead shot from their activities. If this is too expensive because the club is shooting over water, then they should change their layout so that they shoot away from the water, relocate, or find another activity. As for the plastic wadding, perhaps that could be controlled, or biodegradable wading could be required at this if not all shooting ranges.

  7. Nate Tratnik says:

    Lots of great political one-sided propaganda in this news letter written by a biased source. You ask continually why the county allows the club to operate for another year? It’s surely not out of their own generosity and pity. Time to share both sides of the facts…

  8. althewheel says:

    I remember the gun club just south of the water treatment plant off of lake drive. It was closed down I think in the late 80s. Same reasons of pollution and lead . Drive past that location and its now nothing but an empty field.
    The deep tunnel spews mixed sewage into our drinking supply and noone says anything. Pathetic.

  9. Bob says:

    I’m a gun owner and a hunter. I’ve shot at the gun club a few times. The very first time I was ever there, I couldn’t quite understand how shooting out into the lake was allowed.

    There are plenty of non-toxic ammunition options available on the market (steel shot and biodegradable wadding). They reason they haven’t been adopted by the club is that they are considerably more expensive than standard lead shells.

    My opinion is that the club should be given an option: require the use of non-toxic shot and biodegradable wads, or move elsewhere. It’s a bummer, since the range is without a doubt the prettiest trap range I have ever seen, but not doing so is simply wrong. Aesthetics and tradition are not valid reasons to keep acting irresponsibly; we have a duty to do what we can to keep the lake clean.

    Nate Tratnick, care to share the “other side of the facts”?

  10. Jan Pierce says:

    As John says, steel shot is very common. Require people to use it. Problem solved.

  11. Frank says:

    Steel shot may not solve the problem. According to a fact sheet published by the group that filed the complaint, the club is in gross violation of the EPA’s Clean Water Act, as well as the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s own rules. The NRA and DNR are on the committee that established the rules.
    See for yourself, go to: http://fogp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/CSC-index.pdf

  12. Violette Wood says:

    What is the difference between what the gun club is doing and a new club that I want to start?

    We will be the Bottle Tossers. We will gather on weekends and Tuesday afternoons and stand on the bluffs of Lake Michigan and hurl bottles into the lake. It will be a sport open to all ages and will build arm strength and camaraderie. The goal of each Bottle Tosser is to throw as many bottles as possible into the lake in 20 seconds. For the bottles that don’t make it into the lake, we’ll hold occasional beach cleanups, although access to bottles that fall along the bluffs is limited due to steep terrain and erosion.

    If we do our Bottle Tossing long enough, it too will become a tradition.

  13. Justin says:

    This article is NOTHING but a manufactured controversy repeated over and over by a dozen bunny-hugging enviro NAZIS that call themselves the Friends of Grant Park. The smug, self-righteous author of this piece, attorney Rick Kaiser is not telling even one-tenth of the truth in this hit piece on the Cudahy Gun Club.

    Just a few of the facts that Attorney Kaiser conveniently has omitted from this hit piece is that for the past three years, members of the Cudahy Gun Club have regularly cleaned trash off the beaches and bluffs from the Cudahy Gun Club to south of Grant Park. Cudahy Gun Club members have collected and removed over 10,000 pounds of trash off the beaches of Warnimont and Grant Parks, of which only 10 pounds were directly related to the activities of the Cudahy Gun Club.

    How many beach clean-ups did the Friends of Grant Park do in this time period? ZERO. Wouldn’t want the prissy little bunny huggers to get their hands dirty, now would we?

    The Cudahy Gun club has been in existence since 1932 and is a community asset of Cudahy. The Friends of Grant Park could care less about the 10,000 pounds of garbage that washes up on the beaches each year. All these kooks from South Milwaukee want is to take away the rights and recreation of gun owners who use the Cudahy Gun range. Attorney Rick Kaiser and his goofy friends of Grant Park had better understand that by messing with the good men and women members of the Cudahy Gun Club, they have poked a hornets nest that has resulted in an outpouring of support from all Cudahy residents to keep the Cudahy Gun Club operating at its present site.

    I also take issue with the picture that Attorney Kaiser included in this article to provide justification for his contention that there is widespread lead shot contamination in the waters off the Cudahy Gun Club. I am a scuba diver myself and an underwater photographer. I have personally dove the waters directly in front of the Cudahy Gun club and have NEVER observed any lead shot littering the bottom such as what is shown in the picture purportedly supplied by some “researcher” from UWM. As someone who has dove that area several times in the last few years, I think that photo is a FAKE designed to justify the actions of a group whose ONLY goal is to put the Cudahy Gun Club out of business.

    As a Cudahy resident who is 100% supportive of keeping the Cudahy Gun Club right where it is, I will be out scuba diving and filming the bottom to provide indisputable evidence that the underwater photo accompanying this article is a FAKE, either taken somewhere else or staged to provide “evidence” for the anti-gun crusaders aka Friends of Grant Park to close down the Cudahy Gun Club.

  14. Violette Wood says:

    Let’s not call people Nazis. I wouldn’t call you a Nazi despite disagreeing vehemently disagreeing with your stances, unless I had evidence you truly admired Hitler. Which I do not. I don’t think we have any Nazis here, and I am certainly not one, so let’s chill on that vile insult. “Prissy bunny hugger” is more acceptable though. While not prissy, I used to hug my miniature, domestic rabbit that I found in Warnimont Park. Someone dumped the little guy. Can we both agree dumping pets in the park is bad? That would offer some common ground.

    “How many beach clean-ups did the Friends of Grant Park do in this time period? ZERO. Wouldn’t want the prissy little bunny huggers to get their hands dirty, now would we?”

    Our group has also sponsored cleanups several times year. I clean up the beach and the park every time I take a walk, which is almost daily in nice weather and less often in bad weather It is my hobby, and a nice inexpensive one at that.
    I know other members of FoGP also take walks with a garbage bag too.

    But whether I clean up the beach or you clean up the beach, or we decide to do a joint cleanup together, it is still illegal to discharge debris into the lake without a permit.

    What is all this anti gun stuff? I am not anti gun. I own a gun. I don’t take it on my beach cleanups, but once in a while it gets a little practice at the Racine Rifle Club where none of the bullets go into the lake. I have hunters in my family, even though I hunt with just a camera.

    Justin, I’m betting you’ll beat me to start that that Bottle Tosser club. Seems like you’re hoppin’ mad and ready to start throwin’ stuff. If you have time between rounds of scuba diving.

    Peace out bro.

  15. bluetoday says:

    Hey Justin, before you go accusing others of lying, you better get your own facts straight.

    First of all, newspaper articles have quoted Tom Ahmad, president of the Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club, as saying they collected 200 pounds of wads alone in the past 3 years, which amount to about 14,400 in number. So in plastic wads alone, your claim is off by a factor of twenty. This does not help your credibility.

    The Club’s clean-up efforts apparently recover only a fraction of the debris they’re spewing. Last summer, a single clean-up volunteer is reported to have collected nearly a thousand plastic wads in an hour and a half’s time on Grant Park beach, which is 2 miles south of the club.

    You say you “have NEVER observed lead littering the bottom” of Lake Michigan. Perhaps the water was a little murky the times you were searching because it is the Club officials themselves that contend that “99.9% of the lead shot lands in the lake.”

    Are they lying as well?

    Club officials estimate about 25,000 rounds/targets are fired at the lake every year. Where does all that lead go? If it is not in the lake as Club officials contend, then it must be on the beach or covering the bluff, ready to wash/erode into the lake with every rain. It surely hasn’t disappeared. And in all their boasting about collecting trash on the beach, Club officials never once mentioned picking up one ounce of the TONS OF LEAD they have spewed onto the Warnimont Park environment over the past many decades.

    So Justin, I ask point blank, where is all that lead?

    To hear the opinions of more sensible sportsmen and women, visit the Milwaukee Reddit thread on this issue:

  16. Rick Kaiser says:

    Justin’s statement that only 10 pounds of their recent beach cleanups were related to activities of the gun club would come as a major surprise to the Gun Club itself. If one accesses their website, you can click on a petition the Club drafted seeking support for their continued use of the site that describes the 200 pounds of shotgun wads alone picked up along the beach by their members.This is the same figure they have used throughout this debate. At 172 wads per pound, if the club’s information is accurate, they picked up a whopping 34,000 wads over the last three years. By the way, signers of this petition have been woefully deceived by the Club. The petition’s premise is that there are no environmental concerns here and that Friends of Grant Park are simply anti-gun. That argument was most recently disputed by a letter sent by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to both County Executive Chris Abele and the Gun Club on December 11, 2014. It confirmed that “a hazardous substance discharge, including lead contamination in the soil” has been documented, as well as other “environmental pollution” constituting broken clay pigeons and shot shell wads.

    While Justin points out that the Club has been in existence since 1932, and their beach cleanups started only three years ago, still their efforts in this regard are to be commended. I point out, though, that their cleanups did not extend to Grant Park until this year, as the Gun Club’s Board claimed in a meeting with us in April of 2014 that they did not even realize their debris was flowing south and ending up on Grant Park beaches until we brought it to their attention. In any event, anyone who would suggest that four cleanups a year conducted during the summer months is a solution to this problem, simply does not understand it’s nature and breadth. The debris that cakes the steep hillside below the site, described by one DNR warden recently as a “garbage dump,” does not magically remain there from September until June of the following year waiting for the Gun Club’s next beach cleanup. The rains we receive in September, October, November, December, March, April and May continue to wash the toxic targets, the wads, and the lead contaminated hillside into Lake Michigan. Each beach cleanup I did personally in mid-September, early November, and early December along roughly the same 150-yard stretch of beach in Grant Park recovered more than 1,000, 850, and 500 wads respectively in the course of about an hour and a half. If I had had the entire day to spend, there is no doubt in my mind I could have picked up four to five times more than this. The fact remains that this garbage is washed up onto the beaches on a daily basis.

    The Friends of Grant Park cannot take credit for the photos showing the accumulated lead shot in Lake Michigan that Justin claims are fake. These come directly from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Fresh Water Sciences. Nor were their divers actually looking for lead shot, but were researching another issue at the time the lead shot was captured on film. Still, I am confused about the point Justin is making. The Board of Directors from the Gun Club itself, in our meeting last April ,told us that 99.9% of the almost one ton of lead shot fired every year winds up in the lake. Pictures aside, exactly where does Justin think the lead shot would end up if not on the lake bottom? By the way, an email from the Freshwater Science people today (12/22/14) yielded an interesting proposal. They suggested the Gun Club and the Friends of Grant Park hire an independent diver to scope out the scene. If lead is found the Gun Club picks up the tab. If not, the Friends of Grant Park pays. Any takers?

    Finally, the Friends of Grant Park are more than aware of the “hornet’s nest” that was stirred up as a result of us raising this issue with the Director of County Parks, given the number of vile, threatening Facebook posts that we received thereafter. One, deleted because of it’s racial epithets, was so threatening that, when presented to law enforcement, two different police agencies sent a total of four police officers to attend our monthly meeting in November to guarantee our safety. By the way, as to the name calling you engaged in, Justin, I’m afraid it won’t have the impact that you desired. In the recent past we have been subjected to far worse messaging from other Gun Club supporters, most of which were infinitely more creative in that regard than yours.

    Rick Kaiser

  17. Justin says:

    As a resident of Cudahy, I am a strong supporter of the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club and do not to see it destroyed by the current campaign orchestrated by the Friends of Grant Park. I don’t shoot trap and have never actually used the facilities of the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club. That said, I sincerely apologize for the very poor choice of words that I used in my first post to describe the members of the Friends of Grant Park.

    In fact, until earlier this year, I was “kind” of one of you guys. Months before the Friends of Grant Park chose to escalate this dispute to the level of kicking the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club off the site where they have been located since 1932, I attended several of your meetings, off and on, always as “just a guy” sitting in the back of the clubhouse, just taking in all the discussions you were having, listening in on conversations, etc…

    As someone who lives within a few miles of Grant Park, I attended meetings when the main discussion at the Friends of Grant Park was to encourage all park users to be good stewards of park resources and to advocate that Milwaukee County would remember to spend Park dollars to maintain and upgrade the facilities. I wholeheartedly agreed with that purpose and even considered going from “just a guy” sitting in the back, to an active, participating member of your organization. (because I like using the great facilities and just enjoying the beauty of Grant Park)

    As time progressed, however, I felt that the tone of your meetings was changing to a much more activist, attacking posture focused on driving the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club out of it’s home on Lake Michigan. That’s when I stopped coming to your meetings. As “just a guy” in the back of the room, I really felt that one of the underlying sentiments driving this whole campaign against the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club was a prejudice against gun owners.

    I have dove the area out in front of the Cudahy Sportsman’s club several times in the past couple of years and never seen the high density of lead shot just laying exposed on the bottom like the picture from the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences. I would love to know the water depth and lat/lon coordinates where that picture was taken. In front of the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club, I have swam the bottom from shore out to 10′ of water,a long ways out as the lake bed slope is very gradual in that area, and never seen the tight density distribution of lead as shown in that picture.

    Over the next several months, I think that the true depth of support for the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club will become much more pronounced as residents across Cudahy will be speaking out and visually showing their support for a community institution that has been there since 1932.

    It would be a shame if the efforts of the Friends of Grant Park to force the closing of the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club would degenerate into a barrier separating our neighboring communities and the common interests that we should be working on together. Towards that end, my post was neither helpful nor appropriate, and frankly was unacceptable to the constructive discourse that should be taking place.

    So while I will continue to support keeping the Cudahy Sportsman’s Club in it’s current location, I apologize for the choice of words that I used to describe the members and actions of the Friends of Grant Park. My choice of language in that post was clearly inappropriate and not deserved by the majority of the members of the Friends of Grant Park.


  18. Joel Zielinski says:

    The environmental impact of this club’s activities are dwarfed by the negative effects of the Milwaukee sewage district several miles to the north dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the lake every time it rains much more that an inch at a time. A few miles south you have the environmental disaster of the continuously operating coal-powered Oak Creek Power plant. Ignoring these offenders while focusing on this little club makes me suspicious of the “Friends” motives.

  19. michael schneck says:

    I would rather bump into the plastic wads that float in the water instead of the condoms, used tampons, tampon tubes hypodermic syringe or the floating shit balls .the millions of gallons raw sewerage City of Milwaukee dump how many times a year. the goose and seagull shit that also can cause the beaches to close (no e-coli on or in those nasty shot wads)! the lead shot can be recovered from the bottom. lead is worth money other clubs have people reclaim it. you know what the problem is and it’s not the club or shooters. I believe it’s the county supervisor and her stiff neck nose in the air friends.why don’t they work on getting the ponds in grant and will o way cleaned up.so do most of the other ponds in the parks.that might take work on their part……hate to see what this will look like in 20 years. I know what they were like when I was growing up 60 plus years ago and yes the club was there.

  20. John Meyer says:

    I’m a gun owner, I don’t hug bunnies and I’m not a Nazi or a Fascist.
    This argument that we don’t pollute nearly as much as other sources is ridiculous. Pollution is Pollution, and nobody has even mentioned the noise. Just because something has existed for a long time doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. They had to get rid of DDT, Asbestos, and a myriad of other things that turned out to be bad ideas or out dated concepts. What the heck is a gun club doing in a tightly knit urban area, and weren’t you invited to the Racine gun club among others? I believe the Milwaukee Police use that facility after they closed the Lake Park gun club.
    Oh, I almost forgot I’m a patriot too. Two tours in Vietnam in case someone is wondering how much of one I am. Enough with the insults.

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