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BY PAUL HANSEN
It is time for those of us who hunt to move away from using outdated lead bullets to using high-tech copper ammunition. Research from state fish and game agencies show that most lead bullets are pulverized on contact with big game. This can contaminate the meat we bring home, as well as the offal piles we leave behind and the scavengers who consume the offal piles.
In a North Dakota study of 738 blood tests, people who ate a lot of wild game had higher lead levels than those who ate little or none. The more recent the consumption of wild game harvested with lead bullets, the higher the level of lead in the blood.
Action levels are the levels of concentration at which a contaminant is considered dangerous. For adults, the amount of lead was below action levels. However, the amount of lead was too high for children. The Minnesota and North Dakota Departments of Health now urge no consumption of any game shot with a lead bullet for pregnant women and children under the age of 6. They advised food pantries across the states to not distribute or use donated ground venison because of the contamination with lead fragments. According to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, if these lead fragments had been found in beef, the meat would have been recalled.
A Minnesota Game and Fish study used 72 previously-euthanized sheep as surrogates for deer. The sheep were shot, skinned, cleaned and analyzed by radiograph. Researchers found, per carcass, an average of 141 fragments that dispersed far from the wound channel – an average maximum distance of 11 inches. Fragments were found so far from the exit wound that routine trimming likely will not remove all of the lead. Most lead particles in venison are too small to see, feel or sense when chewing.
The research showed that using bullets with no exposed lead (a heavy copper case surrounds the lead core) or solid copper fragmented very little and left no lead.
Lead has been known for centuries to be a broad-spectrum toxin for humans and wildlife. In general, children are at higher risk because they absorb more lead than adults do and their developing brains are more easily damaged by the lead. Most of the effects are subtle and cannot be easily recognized. The Environmental Protection Agency calls lead “one of the most dangerous neurotoxins in the environment.”
Lead has been banned in paint and gasoline. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a ban on the use of lead shot for hunting migratory waterfowl. About 1 million ducks, geese and ￼swans were dying each year from eating spent lead shot pellets. The Wildlife Society, the professional association of the nation’s wildlife biologists, now advocates for the replacement of lead-based bullets used in the field.
In Jackson Hole, leading research at Beringia South has found that 50 percent of ravens had elevated blood levels during the hunt- ing season, but only 2 percent did during the non-hunting season. Females had significantly higher levels than males. In the pristine Greater Yellowstone, 85 percent of the bald eagles tested have elevated lead – more than half of these at levels that cause impairment. An average of 160 fragments of lead is found in an elk gut piles left by hunters, which these scavengers then consume.
Hunters contribute a great deal to wildlife conservation. Given this great record, none of us should want to contaminate our hunt by bringing home tainted meat or leaving toxic lead in the field. We now have good alternatives that allow us to prevent both. In Arizona, 90 percent of hunters in regions critical to the endangered California Condor have voluntarily switched to copper. While only 5 percent of Americans hunt, 80 percent support legal hunting. By being responsible in the field, we can keep it that way.
Unfortunately, this issue has become unnecessarily polarized. Three environmental groups have petitioned EPA to ban the manufacture of all lead bullets. This will be a setback for reducing the use of lead in the field. The use of lead for target shooting presents little exposure to humans or wildlife and it can be managed to eliminate what little risk there is.
This fall, I made a killing shot on an elk on using the lead core copper case bullet. I found the bullet, with the lead core intact within the copper case. Advanced ballistics makes these bullets very accurate. They are more expensive.
It was nice to come home and process the elk with no second thoughts about the lead I brought home or left behind.
A list of links to scientific information can be found at http:// www.beringiasouth.org/left-page.php. ♦
—Paul Hansen is a lifelong conservationist and former executive director of the Izaak Walton League. He has been an OWAA member since 1983. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.