Tanner and I descended into an alpine bowl after a group of white-tailed deer hidden just below treeline. He skirted around the bottom of the timber, hoping to get a shot. Instead, he bumped a whitetail buck upslope toward me. It stopped and turned, and I sent a 160 grain Barnes TSX copper bullet downrange from my 7mm Remington Magnum. The buck jerked at the impact and then ran downslope and out of sight.
Hunters have shot non-lead ammunition, particularly copper, for years. These loads can give better accuracy and penetration than lead, but now many hunters are motivated to use non-lead for a much different reason: they are concerned about the health and environmental risks of lead.
With enough slicing and smashing, a chef’s knife molds a round
steak and a hunk of deer tallow into hamburger patties. But is the
meat healthy if it’s tainted with bullet fragments?
Modern humans have an average of 100 times more lead in their bones than most pre-industrial humans. Per the Center for Disease Control there is no safe lead level for children, and even small doses of lead can pose risks to adults. Bans on leaded paint and leaded gas have helped, but other sources of lead exposure continue to pose risks. The presence of tiny particles of lead in the meat of animals killed with lead ammunition may also be a threat to those who eat wild game. This risk, as well as that posed to scavengers that consume gut piles and unrecovered animals, has resulted in bans on lead bullets for hunting in certain areas of California and petitions for similar bans elsewhere. If enacted, these bans would, for many, mean doing so at the cost of losing a piece of a hunting tradition.
“We’ve moved to a place where lead is a four-letter word,” says Keith Balfourd, the marketing director of Boone & Crockett Club, a conservation organization founded in 1887. Balfourd points out that many of the petitioners are animal rights activists. “This might very well be a soft spot they see to drive a wedge between public support for hunting, shooting, and second amendment rights or not. In issues like this, people dig their heels in, whether you’re on one side or the other, and nobody wants to budge. That’s not healthy. That doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Balfourd says that, from a scientific standpoint, action should be warranted if lead causes an issue at a species, landscape, or population level, but banning all lead ammunition doesn’t seem to be supported by sound argument.
Research about the risks posed by lead in game meat can be used to support either side of the ammunition issue. In a 2009 study, researchers from the Peregrine Fund and their collaborators found that 80% of deer shot with 150 grain lead bullets from a 7mm Remington Magnum had bullet particles in packaged meat. After processing, 32% of burger packages had at least one bullet fragment and 93% of the samples had lead, rather than solely material from the bullet jacket. This study confirmed that hunters likely consume small amounts of lead from game meat.
To figure out the potential consequences of consuming bullet fragments in game meat, researchers from the CDC tested the blood lead levels in residents from North Dakota. Those who ate game meat had higher levels of lead in their blood than those who did not. This finding might concern hunters, but here is the flip side: The average blood lead level of those who ate game meat was still lower than the national average and equaled only 25 percent of what the CDC deems elevated (5 mg/dl blood). Only 1% of the study’s participants had elevated lead levels.
These results may put hunters at ease, but consuming any lead is still risky. Removing the wound tract while field dressing may help, but some lead can still be in the meat well beyond the visibly bloodshot tissue. In fact, particles can spread up to 18 inches across an animal. But there is another issue to consider. The meat and organs contaminated with lead are often scavenged by wildlife.
Hunters and non-hunters alike share a concern for wild animals and birds that consume carcasses and offal contaminated with lead. Bears, eagles, and other scavengers often target gut piles in the fall and winter when other food sources become scarce. Grizzly bears and other mammalian scavengers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been shown to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, although the sources of lead are unknown. Additionally, lead concentrations in the blood of these mammals did not spike during the hunting season. Spikes have, however, been observed for raptors.
Much of the early research on lead in raptors was collected during the initial recovery of the California condor from the brink of extinction. In 1982, only 22 California condors existed in the world. All of them were captured for captive breeding, and as the program became a success and the population grew to 400 individuals, many scientists declared lead poisoning to be the single greatest obstacle towards condors reaching a self-sustaining population. When a condor ingests too much lead, its nervous system becomes impaired, or in some cases, it dies.
Scientists had suspected that California condors were ingesting lead from bullet fragments in gut piles left by hunters. They proved their suspicions when they found that the lead levels in condor blood increased during the hunting season and matched the isotopic ratio of lead in the condors’ blood to the isotopic ratio of lead in ammunition, except in the case of several birds that had eaten lead-based paint from an old fire lookout. These findings resulted in a ban on lead hunting ammunition in the Condor Recovery Zones. The ban will cover the entire state of California by 2019.
Despite the ban, blood lead levels in condors have not decreased, possibly due in part to the birds becoming more independent to free forage and not rely on food supplements. While this finding draws into question the effectiveness of a ban, the ban has decreased the levels of lead in the blood of turkey vultures and golden eagles in the study area.
Chris Parish, the director of The Peregrine Fund’s Condor Project, is also a lifelong hunter, and understands how off-putting a ban can be. “Look, I’m kind of a redneck biologist,” he says. “Hunters have a long history and rich tradition of conservation. When you make an appeal to them and say, ‘Here are the data, and here is what we’re asking your help with,’ hunters have always said, ‘You bet, we can help.’”
Leland Brown (left) from the Non-Lead Hunting Education Program
watches a ballistic gel as Chris Parish (right) takes aim during
a bullet demonstration in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Photo credit: Kate Davis
Over the last decade, Parish has invited hunters to seminars and shooting demonstrations that compare the fragmentation of lead and non-lead ammunition. Through his efforts, he has seen an average of 87% of deer hunters participating in a voluntary lead reduction program on the Kaibab Plateau each year where condors have been reintroduced, yet a lead ban has not been legislated. As part of the program, hunters either use non-lead ammunition or remove gut piles from the field.
The risk of lead poisoning extends well beyond the range of California condors. Rob Domenech, a raptor biologist in western Montana, studies bald and golden eagles to learn about their movements and the dangers they face. By trapping and examining eagles as they migrated to their winter ranges from Canada and Alaska, he’s found that 58% of them had elevated levels of lead. He repeated the study for eagles that spent the winter in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and found that 89% of them had elevated levels of lead. Domenech suspects that these overwintering eagles target gut piles tainted with bullet particles.
It is unclear how many eagles die from lead poisoning, but those with sub-lethal exposure can experience impaired flight performance and altered behavior. Despite that threat, lead poisoning has not been attributed to population-level declines. In fact, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the population of bald eagles has increased in the lower 48 states from about 500 breeding pairs in 1963 to about 10,000 breeding pairs in 2006, largely due to the ban on DDT and other protections implemented for the species.
Chris Parish thinks a population-level decline is not needed before hunters should act. “Can we as hunters move into the future of hunting and defend our rights to do so if we are knowingly putting animals in harm’s way because of our tradition of using lead-based ammunition?”
Dr. Clinton Epps, a biologist at Oregon State University, published an article in a 2014 issue of the scientific journal The Condor that highlighted the practicalities of switching to non-lead ammunition, and the potential challenges of a ban.
“I was initially sort of reluctant to get involved with this topic, sort of a ‘don’t stick your head above the parapet’ feeling. But because I consider myself a conservation biologist and a wildlife biologist, as well as a hunter and a shooter, I felt that I had perspectives on both sides of the issue and that I might have a bit of a role to play.”
Although Dr. Epps encourages hunters to embrace alternatives to lead
ammunition, he recognizes the obstacles in doing so in his article published
in the scientific journal The Condor.
He urges hunters to not pay too much attention to press coverage of the issue, and instead, just buy a box of non-lead ammo and try it out. “If you’re worried about it not performing, maybe don’t use it on your big high stakes elk hunt this year; go try it on a deer hunt or something like that.”
“People have been building good non-lead bullets for decades,” Dr. Epps says. “In some cases, they were interested in better performance, and in certain situations those bullets really do give better performance. I have found that your standard deer and elk rifle is pretty easy to switch over. Non-lead loads cost more than the cheap lead loads, but they cost about the same as the good stuff,” he says. “I encourage people to buy the cheap lead ammo, shoot it up at the range, practice with it, understand the difference in point of impact between that and a non-lead load. Sight in with your non-lead ammo right before hunting season, and off you go. That’s what I do.”
In the event of a ban, Dr. Epps suggests in his article that the logistics of enforcement may be difficult. Compared to waterfowl hunters that often concentrate on or near public waterways, big game hunters often hunt a wide variety of public and private lands, frequently in lower densities, thus creating a challenge to wardens checking for compliance. Moreover, many lead bullets have a copper jacket and a non-metallic ballistic tip, making them indistinguishable from non-lead in a visual inspection.
“My feeling is we would do a lot better to try to engage people with this on a voluntary basis,” says Dr. Epps. “I’m afraid that if it’s done with a legislative ban there will be a pretty high number of people that don’t comply, and then the net impact on the landscape may not change that much. I don’t have evidence of that. That’s my opinion, basically.”
Bob Schroeder (left) and Paul Moore (right) inspect a ballistic gel just hit
with a copper bullet. Photo credit: Kate Davis
Despite knowing the risks of shooting lead ammunition, I continued to use it for years until I found non-lead ammunition that fit my rifle.
After I shot the deer with Tanner, we located the trail of blood coating the grass and shrubs. We followed it forty yards to the buck whose wounds told the story. The copper bullet had passed clear through the deer’s body while shattering bones in its path.
We cut away the hide and then the meat, packing our game bags. We worked fast because grizzlies lived in the area and the smell of meat filled the air. A long-tailed weasel had caught the scent and approached us from behind. Its white coat glowed against the fall colors. I threw it a piece of sinew but it paid no attention. It just stared at the carcass, waiting to feast on the gift we were about to leave.
It was nice to know we weren’t leaving behind anything else that might have been harmful.