Still Dead with Less Lead


I was going through some journals and magazines the other day when I came across an article on the benefits California condors have reaped from a lead-reduction program. It confirmed a vague recollection of mine about a widespread ban on lead ammunition. It was California that passed a statewide ban on lead ammunition in October of 2013. Some in the gun rights lobby weren’t pleased, which given American politics around guns, isn’t surprising.

There’s a large body of science on lead, a natural compound made up of four stable isotopes, and its harmful effects on both humans and wildlife. Notably, lead poisoning in ancient Roman, Greek and Chinese dynasties has been well documented. First in the United States (1991) and later in Canada (1999), the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl was banned specifically because it was believed there were just too many ducks and geese dying of lead poisoning each year, and the culprit was hunters spewing lead shot. Most waterfowl research types, managers and many hunters continue to be supportive of the ban and it’s believed far fewer ducks and geese are dying today because of it (annually, the estimate is 1 million plus). But like any number, there are critics, and disputes about the nature, implementation and effectiveness of the ban are likely to continue for some time.

Although the shift to non-toxic result had a rocky start, I think the end result is much better shot shell ammunition than existed in the era of lead. Better shells for the hunter and better for the environment. I like it.

In the article I was reading, one of the main points trying to be made was that it was possible to get favourable end results (in this case, less use of lead ammo) by use of voluntary instead of legislated measures, if certain protocols were followed. Namely, if the agencies responsible for wildlife management were trustworthy and provided correct information, were respectful and provided their clients with the ‘tools’ they needed, great strides in conservation could be made. They detailed how well a voluntary ban on the use of lead bullets for big game hunts in Arizona’s core California condor range was working. Between 70-75% of big game hunters had switched to non-lead ammo, and over 20% of the hunters who still used lead were packing out their gut piles. Condors were still dying of lead poisoning in both California (legislated ban) and Arizona (voluntary ban), but deaths rates were similar. Obviously the lead problem wasn’t ‘solved’, but at least one potential impact was being mitigated, and the general consensus was things were moving in the right direction.

I’ve observed that when I’m hunting on my favourite stomping grounds within a couple of hours driving distance of my home, the crows, ravens and eagles keep a close watch on me. Other hunters I’ve spoken to have made similar observations.  These smart birds recognize hunters, and know hunters often (hopefully!) take them to gut piles. Invariable, some of these birds ingest lead fragments and get sick. Some die. I know this, as my spouse Lil is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and some of her wards are lead poisoned bald eagles.

I think the less lead we put into the environment the better. However, I’m not supportive of banning use of lead everywhere – it’s partly that ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ thing.  Do we really have to worry about gut piles at the gun range?

I don’t know of any other alarming widespread die-offs of birds or animals occurring from ingestion of lead ammunition used by big game, small game and varmint hunters (waterfowl and possibly California condors exempted). But lead is toxic, and by all accounts, less is best. Some studies even suggest there is a danger to pregnant women and young children from eating wild game harvested with conventional lead bullets, but then again, people have been eating wild game taken with lead ammo for centuries with no obvious, discernible, negative effects.  There’s a lot of important information on lead that all hunters need to know.

I’m slowly switching to non-lead ammo for use in all my rifles and shotguns as I try to reduce my personal use of lead. Someday, there may be, and will likely be, more bans on things made with lead. In the interim, I think we should all be trying to at least reduce our use of lead. I think it’s the right thing to do.

  1. Sam Menard said:

    I’ve had excellent success using a partition bullet for hunting moose and deer. In most situations, the bullet expended it’s energy within the animal and I’ve found them lodged just under the skin on the far side of the animal. The design of the partition results in good weight retention. I’ve also tried Winchester’s Failsafe bullet but didn’t like the fact that the bullets drove straight through the animals. On the moose and deer that I shot, both animals didn’t didn’t drop right away which didn’t leave me feeling very confident about the bullet.

    I am cognizant of the lead issue and would be willing to try another solid copper bullet, if I could find one that performed to my satisfaction.


  2. I think caliber, distance, game species and other factors all come into play, which is why I don’t want to see an outright ban on lead. I have a .250-3000, and with 90 grain (lead) bullets on adult deer, tend to disintegrate.100 grain bullets, depending on construction, are better, but choice can be hard to find. With respect to my .300 WSM, Barnes copper bullets do a good job on big animals like adult moose and elk, but whistle through smaller animals like deer, which isn’t good, as they run off, sometimes a long way, before they expire. No one knows all the particulars, and I sure don’t.

    I also wonder about varmint hunters, who may slay dozens of individuals (e.g., gophers) using inexpensive lead bullets. Who is eating those carcasses? Again, I think the best thing is to recognize lead is an issue, and let’s try, as hunters, to do what’s right and reduce our use of lead. I don’t think we have to eliminate it, and I don’t think we are in a crisis, but I do think we need to do more on the lead reduction front.

    In part, it’s an ethical issue, which we hunters ignore at our peril.

  3. Sam Menard said:

    I think as hunters, we always have to pause and do a self-examination of how we hunt; including the techniques and the gear we use. Although I usually don’t agree with the messages that the anti-hunting groups tout, think that they do force us to reflect on our ethics and behaviour which may lead to positive change.


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