The Dangers of Using Lead Ammunition While Hunting

Nov 26, 2018

Sometimes being responsible means changing how you do things, even if it means paying more for it.

In today’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about the dangers of using lead ammunition while hunting.

I am an advocate for responsible stewardship. It is important that we as humans acknowledge the choices we make in our everyday lives impact wildlife, often in negative ways. When I have the opportunity, I will bring to your attention opportunities to make small changes in your lifestyle that will benefit wildlife. Today, that means hunting with nontoxic ammunition. The toxic heavy metal lead is a major component in most bullets, shotgun slugs and shells. Once in the environment lead is ingested by birds; bald eagles may feed on a deer carcass with bullet fragments, or a loon might ingest a fish with a lead jig hook in it, or an upland bird might pick up a lead BB off the ground thinking it will serve well as a piece of gizzard grit. Even a small amount of lead, once it gets into the bloodstream of birds, has toxic effects on the nervous system and ultimately results in death. Once I realized the impacts of lead on Wisconsin birds, I made the conscious decision to move away from lead to nontoxic ammunition.

In recent years, there has been an effort to get the word out about the negative impacts of lead bullets in deer hunting. Lead, because of its weight and metallic properties, really makes a great bullet. Unfortunately, when the bullet strikes the deer, small fragments of it soften to a liquid state and scatter in the meat and guts before re-solidifying. Hunters may clean the wound channel and remove the remainder of the bullet, but without an X-ray machine they can’t get every last bit of lead out. This means anyone that eats meat from that part of the deer could be ingesting lead.

The impacts of using lead bullets extend beyond human health and safety. These lead fragments that scatter through the deer can be found in almost any soft tissue. Studies on bullet fragmentation have found lead in gut piles, for example. A 2006 study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin examined 15 gut piles, and found lead fragments in 13 of them. Fragment counts ranged from two to 350. These gut piles are left in the woods and fields of Wisconsin, and are eventually consumed by birds and animals who will eventually suffer from the build-up of the toxic metal. That is part of why, every winter, wildlife rehabilitators like Wild Instincts take in so many eagles with lead poisoning.

Five years ago, California passed a law requiring all hunters to use non-lead ammunition; this law will officially be fully implemented on July 1, 2019. The California Condor, Golden and Bald Eagles, among other meat-eating birds, were suffering from lead poisoning after feeding on animal parts containing bullet fragments. Who knows if other states will eventually follow suit? My decision to change from lead to copper was personal and voluntary, and followed a very convincing demonstration I participated in that showed that copper bullets were superior to lead. I did a lot of research, and found not only did copper have better ballistics, but the fragments would not lace the meat with toxic heavy metals. The first black bear I ever harvested was shot with a 100% copper bullet. Today, my boys and I all use solid copper bullets for big game hunting. In fact, my boys have learned so much about the dangers of ingesting lead and the hazards to wildlife, they think it is strange that anyone would purposely put lead into the environment, much less their own food.

Lead poisoning in water birds, predatory birds and scavengers is still common in Wisconsin even though lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned in 1991. Fifteen species of Wisconsin birds have been documented as dying from lead poisoning, including trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and loons. This time of year, when upland game hunting, it is routine to find dying or dead ruffed grouse and woodcock that have either ingested a lead BB or have a pellet in their body that is poisoning them. Lead poisoning is 100% human induced and 100% preventable. But because lead is readily available and cheap, it will take a major change in the law and the hunting culture for these unnecessary bird deaths to end.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.