Lead Core Bullets Poisoned Wildlife

Bald Eagle: "Fearsome Flight"
Bullets containing lead poison people and wildlife, and there's such an easy fix!

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Subsistence hunting has a long and rich tradition, and a successful hunt often determined whether many a family would make it through the Winter. One of the stranger stories to come out of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, concerned how the expedition members,
so accustomed to eating buffalo meat on the plains along the Missouri River, and nearly starving for lack of same while crossing the Rockies, upon finally reaching the Yakima's confluence with the Columbia River in Oregon, rejected Yakima offers of free salmon, and instead bought dogs from the Native Americans, which they roasted and ate, before finally relenting and gorging on the salmon.

Today's urban and suburban dwellers often fail to appreciate how deeply ingrained the hunting tradition is, and how important a bonding ritual it remains for many Americans. Hunting is also an important check on burgeoning populations of white tail deer and wild boar, who have adopted to suburban living in an environment nearly devoid of their natural predators. In addition, generous hunter donations to food programs for the needy, brought in over 2.7 million pounds of
low cost, highly nutritious wild game meat, over the 2007-2008 hunting season.

But hunting is also big business, as Americans spend over a billion dollars a year on ammunition alone. The most widely used bullets have lead cores, and lead bullets expand, fracture and send tissue-damaging shards through the target animal's body upon impact. No one disputes the danger of ingesting lead, which is why when cleaning and butchering deer, the hunter avoids using meat immediately surrounding the bullet's path through the game.

However, new studies indicate that the impact dispersion of lead through the deer's body is more expansive from the bullet's passage channel than previously thought, and basically undetectable without special testing. In other words, when you consume game killed by lead-core bullets, it is very likely you are ingesting lead. See
Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources tests at Bullet Fragmentation.

More importantly, keeping in mind that the Center for Disease Controls indicates there are no "naturally occuring levels of lead in people", studies indicate elevated levels of lead in subsistence hunting families, at a time when physicians and scientists are rejecting the notion that there is any such thing as an acceptable level of lead in the body, particularly where it concerns pregnant women and children. Higher elevated levels of lead directly affect the nervous, hematopoietic and renal systems, while less elevated levels are associated with adverse cognitive and neurobiological impacts.
See Lead Bullet Fragments in Venison from Rifle-Killed Deer.

Lead oxidizes, dissolves, breaks down, and leaches into the soil, allowing it to reach aquifers. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began replacing lead bullets for its Conservation Officers and Forest Rangers in February of 2008. The DEC also banned lead shot for hunting water fowl, and lead fishing sinkers of less than an ounce, to protect wildlife, notably the Adirondack Loon, as well as other predators who may consume lead-contaminated fish. The US Army banned the use of lead bullets on firing ranges ten years ago, after being forced to close hundreds of ranges, citing the danger of working around such high concentrations of lead. The Army's version of the "green bullet", which mixes tungsten and nylon, has raised health issues of its own, with tungsten being cited as a possible source of childhood leukemia. See Families Against Cancer .

Norway, Sweden and Denmark, all countries with strong hunting cultures, and democracies where opposing viewpoints are actually listened to, have banned the use of all lead based ammunition in the past couple of years, just as 28 states in the U.S. have veered between outright bans in certain areas (where the California Condor struggles to survive, for example), to counseling hunters to use common sense, and make informed decisions, about ammunition used in hunting.

At the same time, wildlife rehabbers have noted an upswing in the percentage of poisoned raptors, particularly bald eagles, who ingest lead from gut piles left behind by hunters. While we revere the bald eagle as our national symbol, Ben Franklin, who championed the wild turkey for this role, had it right: bald eagles are more scavengers than predators, and are thus more susceptible to lead poisoned carcasses. Levels of lead ingestion which cause concern in humans are usually lethal in smaller creatures like raptors. The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota had 45 bald eagles admitted with lead poisoning this year, and lost them all. See Univ of Minnesota Raptor Center - Lead Poisoning.

Where much progress has been made in educating fisherman about the hazards to wildlife in using lead sinkers and fishing tackle, for example, see Nina Schoch and the ADK Loon Program, or Lead Poisoning in Raptors and Other Wildlife,  when it comes to ammunition, the same old interest groups stand up and holler the same old complaints.

The NRA, ever eager to maintain and expand the status quo,  dismisses the lead testing reports, ignoring data concerning other sources of lead which regionally skew lead levels, and sees the non-lead campaign as a prelude to taking hunter's weapons away, which seems to be their non-seguitur  response to any type of arms control at all. The NRA and many hunters' groups contend that banning lead-based bullets will force subsistence hunters to spend more than they can afford on ammunition, and may drive many hunters out of their chosen sport. They don't seem to have any regard for the fate of wildlife killed by ingesting lead bullets or their fragments, nor do they seem to address the issue of lead leaching into soil and aquifers. I suppose it would be too much to ask for any of the manufacturers to give a non-political answer, and crassly admit that the issue is retooling factories, and using non-lethal components more expensive than lead.

As the Minnesota tests showed, there are alternative sources of ammunition which do not send lead shards and fragments far from the wound entry channel, mainly copper bullets (see examples at Barnes Bullets).
Because the NRA always delivers such doctrinaire rejections of any restrictions on any weapons or ammunition, states are forced to appeal to the common sense of hunters directly. In a state sponsored test, Arizona hunters tested non-lead bullets, and 60% of the respondents rated the bullets favorably. See Arizona hunters survey.

As copper bullets tend to be more expensive than lead-core bullets, I propose a kind of bailout of ammunition manufacturers and indigent hunters, which will cost "just pennies a day". Consider the high price of copper in today's market, and  the fact that there are continual movements afoot to eliminate the penny. Think about it:
we all receive pennies in change, but never think to put them in our pockets in the morning, or make any other plans for using them. As a result, many of us have unplanned penny collections in huge, heavy jars, threatening to crash through the straining floorboards beneath them. We should start a national penny drive.  Most pennies dating back to before 1982 are 95% copper, so instead of beating our swords into plowshares, maybe we should  pound our pennies into copper bullets to enable considerate and educated hunting, which will minimize the lead exposure to wild game eaters. Since a true copper penny is probably worth more than one cent, purchasers of ammunition should be able to receive two cents credit for every copper penny turned in, and non-hunting penny donators would be able to receive tax deductions for turning pennies in.

Steve Hall

Lead shot ingested by Bald Eagle

Radiograph of Lead Shot in immature bald eagle's digestive track, from USGS

On a more serious and urgent note, with a January-February 2010 deadline for action looming, Dr. Mark Pokras of the
Wildlife Clinic & Center for Conservation Medicine,Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine atTufts University, wrote

"We have a wonderful opportunity to change the face of US policy on Lead for fishing and hunting gear...but a very short window for action.

The Dept of Interior and USEPA are considering rules that would require the replacement of lead fishing and hunting gear with non-toxic alternatives. Discussions are going on NOW and decisions may well be made  in late Jan or early Feb. As you would expect, the fishing and hunting lobbies are aligning against this in a big way and have started a letter writing campaign. They have scheduled a meeting with the head of Dept of Interior (Ken Salazar) for Jan 26th to lobby their side. It is VERY important that our information is heard in this debate. I am going to try to go to DC in the next week or so to meet with officials in various offices and if anyone from your organizations could join me, that would be terrific (of course I have no funds for this...).So the time is NOW to try and generate a letter writing campaign to show that there IS widespread support for such a ban. Letter or emails should be in your original words...not just form letters and should stress several elements (add your own, too!!). Letters should be from the heart and could certainly contain scientific citations, websites, or your experiences with lead poisoned people and animals. Note that Pres. Obama strongly supported legislation to protect children from lead poisoning when he was a senator.Here are a few points to consider including:

  1. that there is LOTS of GOOD scientific evidence to show that lead has significant health effects on people, domestic animals and wildlife -- both acute and chronic.
  2.  that alternatives DO exist for lead hunting and fishing gear and that they are not prohibitively expensive.
  3.  that hunters and anglers have always been thought of as active conservationists and that there is an important role for them in making this change -- to protect health, to protect the environment and to protect the resources that we all cherish."

PLEASE write to:

Barack Obama, President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Ken Salazar, Secretary
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240

Excellent article on lead toxicity in raptors
Lead Toxicity in Raptors - excellent article

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