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Lead Hunting Ammunition

FairChase_Spring2020_lead

Factors to consider when deciding if you will make the switch

By Justin spring, B&C Professional member, Director of Big Game Records
Excerpt from the Spring 2020 issue of Fair Chase

The topic of non-lead hunting ammunition has become one of the most polarizing topics discussed in today’s hunting community—and beyond for that matter. The “beyond” might be even more of a concern, but let’s focus first on our own ranks. Much of this debate is rooted in concerns about the ramifications of a misguided and unnecessary ban on lead ammunition for hunting, though an equal portion is driven by a concern for individual birds that die from lead poisoning. This seems to be fueled by misinformation; perhaps more accurately described as misrepresentation of the best available research.

There are certain aspects surrounding the question of lead and its effect on some species, humans included, that either haven’t been fully researched or there is still a lot of uncertainty in the literature. While acknowledging that research is ongoing, there are certain things that hunters should consider as factual when selecting bullet composition for hunting ammunition.

Raptor mortality is a fact of human presence on the landscape, and even if lead was removed completely from hunting, exposure would most likely continue. Wounded deer being dispatched after a vehicle collision, or predator management activities using lead bullets would most likely continue purely from a cost standpoint. I want to focus on what hunters should consider and can control when selecting what type of projectile we choose to shoot while hunting.

Lead becomes an issue when it fragments and is ingested by birds. Bullet fragmentation is caused by kinetic energy from a high-velocity impact, so we are mainly talking about centerfire rifle bullets. Secondly, the issue is not from target shooting. Folks are rightfully concerned that the banning of all lead ammunition would create a cost barrier to recruitment for target shooting and ultimately hunting. This is a very important part of this discussion in that plinking with a .22 or even going to the local shooting range to shoot some .223 rounds is not the source of lead that is causing these poisonings, and therefore, banning is not the answer.  

It is important to clarify we are not concerned with a whole bullet somewhere on the landscape. A bullet on the landscape, barring highly acidic soil, is very stable. I reached out to Mike McTee of MPG Ranch who did his chemistry Master’s Degree research on their shooting range. Mike recently told me: “At first, I figured lead would be the primary contaminant, but it wasn’t. The lead shot was so dispersed, I had trouble finding areas that were highly contaminated. In my opinion, the trap and skeet targets caused a bigger problem. At rifle ranges, bullets get shot into berms where the lead is localized. If the soil pH is near neutral, the lead should be fairly immobile. Although, leaching is always an issue that should be considered. The good news is that the lead can be harvested, and remediation techniques exist to mitigate the problem.”

HUMAN EXPOSURE

There are certain aspects surrounding the question of lead and its effect on some species, humans included, that either haven’t been fully researched or there is still a lot of uncertainty in the literature. While acknowledging that research is ongoing, there are certain things that hunters should consider as factual when selecting bullet composition for hunting ammunition.

The first discussion many hunters can recall regarding lead came when lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991. Bullets weren’t included in the ban because bullets and bullet fragments were not recognized as a widespread concern at the time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimated the number of ducks consuming the lead shot and dying, along with the number of bald and golden eagles consuming ducks containing lead shot, made a strong-enough case to trigger regulatory action.

It was the direct effect on the birds and their scavengers and not consumption of lead by hunters that resulted in the ban.

With improved techniques and continued research on lead exposure, we are finding more lead present in the meat of harvested animals than we previously thought, though not all of it is radiographically detectable. Much of the debate over lead bullets seems to center around its effects on humans, but there is still a lot of research to be done and a lot of uncertainty even among “experts.” Regarding the human health hazard of consuming lead pellets and bullets, research confirms hunters and shooters have a slightly elevated level of lead in their bodies, though these elevated levels rarely cause major concerns. We know lead is toxic to humans and other animals at certain levels, but we have research that supports a threshold that is considered safe for adults. Research on elevated lead levels in the blood of hunters consuming wild game does not exceed this threshold, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that pregnant women and children avoid all lead exposure, including the consumption of meat harvested with lead-based ammunition.  Research thus far indicates that lead from harvested meat is not going to be a health hazard for adults consuming carefully processed deer meat occasionally. 

From a human health standpoint there is little support for a ban on lead ammunition, however, there is a robust debate about how hunters are seen by the 95 percent of the U.S. population that are not hunters.

WILDLIFE EXPOSURE

We know that fragments of lead bullets are left in gut piles and scraps and are then inadvertently eaten by scavenging wildlife. This is not a concern for mammals because it passes through them rapidly, but because birds have a different type of digestive tract, they absorb much more of the lead they consume. Work on grizzly bears has shown elevated lead blood levels, but no adverse effects have been detected. Research leaves no doubt, however, that lead fragments consumed by raptors can be lethal.

The California condor has been front and center in this conversation because of the condor’s endangered status and the fact they exist in relatively low numbers. Every death is a significant drain on the population. In the California Condor Recovery Program, each bird is numbered and monitored extensively. They are trapped, and their blood levels are monitored throughout the year. Besides blood level monitoring, they also undergo isotope analysis to try to identify the source of the lead. Lead that is found in their blood is analyzed and the signature it returns is recycled lead. This means they are not picking it up from natural sources. Indeed, there are other forms of recycled lead that have been identified as a potential source (in one case a lead paint source was identified).

Although some are still skeptical that bullets are the source of lead in condors, it is compelling that condor blood lead levels spike during and following big-game hunting seasons in their range. Also, ammunition residues (intact bullets, fragments or lead shot) were found in 27 of 40 cases of lead-caused condor deaths in Arizona and Utah. Similar elevated blood levels have been documented in golden eagles, ravens and crows around hunting seasons, though crows don’t seem to be affected by elevated lead levels like other species. The smoking gun for me was the golden eagle that was reported by Yellowstone officials in April of 2019 that died of acute lead poisoning which through analysis they found most likely consumed lead fragments in gut piles and carcasses left afield.

Boone and Crockett Club's position on lead ammunition.

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