A Hunter Asks, “Why Are Lead Bullets Still a Thing?”

Lead is poison. Why would we want it on our public lands and in our food?

March 30, 2017

m01229/Flickr

Hi. My name is Jason. I’m a hunter, and I have a problem . . .

Right now, three ring-necked pheasants lie at the bottom of my freezer. I shot them about a month ago on a sunny winter’s day, but now, instead of making stew for my family, I’m considering throwing the birds out. I hate wasting food, but I just fully realized that their meat is laced with lead.

As you likely know, lead is a potent neurotoxin that disrupts brain development in babies and children, damages kidneys in adults, and can cause pregnant women to miscarry. In fact, a recent study found that exposure to lead in childhood can lower IQ for decades and can correlate with lower socioeconomic status as an adult. According to the World Health Organization, there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe. Fittingly, over the past few decades, the United States has removed this toxic heavy metal from gasoline, paint, toys, and pencils. But there is one industry that continues to embrace lead: hunting and fishing.

I’ve been using lead bullets for most of my life. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, where hunting and fishing were as normal as playing soccer or going to the movies. These pastimes were more recreational than acts of survival for my father and me, but I do think that if you’re going to eat meat, you should at least know where it comes from.

That said, I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never once thought about looking for an alternative to lead ammunition. Lead ammunition is deeply ingrained within the hunting community, and even people who are well educated on the negative effects of this toxic metal think eating game killed with it is somehow safe. (It’s not.)

The issue was brought to my attention a few weeks ago when, on his first day in office, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinded an order that prohibited the use of lead on most federal lands. (Dan Ashe, outgoing director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had given the order on his last day in office.) Like a lot of Americans, I went from not even knowing lead ammo and tackle had been banned to wondering who, in the year 2017, would be championing the proliferation of a known neurotoxin. 

The answer came before the day was out, via an e-mail with this subject: “Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies Supporting Applauding Secretary Zinke in Issuing Secretarial Orders on Day One.” (The AFWA was apparently so excited, it couldn’t decide between the words supporting and applauding.)

Wisconsin DNR/Flickr

The e-mail contained a long list of organizations praising Zinke’s decision. The National Rifle Association was there, along with a few other usual suspects, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club. But many wildlife organizations were also cosigners—the Wild Sheep Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wild Turkey Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW), to name a few.

Unbeknownst to casual hunters like myself, the battle between pro- and anti-lead factions has been going on since at least the 1970s, when lead sinkers and shotgun pellets were implicated in the accidental deaths of swans. As a science writer, I’m aware of the many ways some of the orgs on the e-mail contribute to conservation, so I reached out to all of them to see how they reconcile the two opposing stances. Just two replied, SFW and AFWA.  

Troy Justensen, president of SFW, felt that Zinke’s order to allow lead bullets on public lands was “appropriate and the best way to check the federal government’s overreach.”

Ahhh, OK. So this isn’t really about lead but about big government, right? But wait―can there be government overreach on the government’s own land? The SFW did not reply when I asked for clarification on that, but another point Justensen made hit a little closer to home with me. He wrote in an e-mail, “Sportsmen feel this reversal is a win and that it sends a much-needed message that traditional rights of Americans must be protected.”

While some Americans today may view hunting as barbaric or unnecessary, I can attest that my early interest in animals and the environment was born out of all those days spent following my dad through frozen woods and wind-whipped fields. And I’d really hate for the next generation to miss out on that opportunity. But how does banning lead bullets infringe on the rights of Americans? After all, restricting the types of ammunition or tackle used on federal lands is not the same thing as restricting hunting and fishing altogether.

In fact, former president George H. W. Bush banned the use of lead shot for use on waterfowl in 1991 after it was proved that lead was sickening migratory wetland bird populations. A quarter of a century later, more than a million hunters don waders and deploy decoys to lure in ducks, geese, and other waterfowl each year. The only difference is that they now load their shotguns with steel.

For Gregory Sheehan, who chairs the AFWA’s Lead and Fish and Wildlife Health Work Group, the waterfowl lead ban is an example of how this sort of decision should be made. The ban, he says, “was done because there was unequivocal research that showed that waterfowl populations were suffering at the time from that lead.” (The birds can ingest sinkers and ammunition or encounter the toxic metal as it leaches into soil or water and gets sucked up into plant roots.)

Phasing out lead ammunition helped reduce lead poisoning in endangered California condors

Kim Valverde/USFWS

And then there’s the California condor. After accumulating reams of science showing that lead shrapnel left in hunting carcasses was poisoning the endangered birds, several states with condor habitat implemented strategies that would remove the metal from the birds’ diet. In California, that meant a total, statewide phaseout of lead ammunition. To the east, where Sheehan works as a director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah has incentivized hunters to go unleaded by giving away nontoxic ammo and holding raffles for guns and all-terrain vehicles. According to Sheehan, these methods have been successful in reducing the number of big-game hunters using lead by around 80 percent. In turn, he says the state is seeing a lot fewer condors with lead poisoning.

The recent federal ban, according to Sheehan, is not backed by the same kind of science. To be clear, Sheehan isn’t arguing that lead is safe. He’s saying lead bullets and lures have not been proven to be dangerous at the population level to all the other species on public lands.

“There may be some other, localized areas where we need to look at [banning lead], but to just sort of throw this blanket approach across the United States and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to go do now,’ that was really viewed as an insult to state management authority,” says Sheehan. 

The truth is, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been working on this since 2014, when the Humane Society of the United States, the NRDC, and many other groups petitioned the agency to take action, citing more than 500 scientific papers noting the detrimental effects lead has on wildlife. The lead ban on public lands “was not an out-of-the-blue, surprise move,” says Andrew Wetzler, NRDC’s deputy chief program officer. “There’s been an incredible amount of dialogue about the effect of lead ammunition on wildlife in the United States for well over the last decade.”

Eating hunting carcasses can expose bald eagles and other wildlife to lead

David Lewis/Flickr

For instance, just a fingernail’s length of lead can poison a bald eagle. A single lead sinker can cause catastrophic cell death in a loon’s liver, kidneys, eyes, and brain. And according to the U.S. Geological Survey, heavily hunted areas can contain upwards of 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre.

As someone who has admittedly shot more than my fair share of lead into the woods, I find it unfathomable that the hunting community would continue to fight this order. Honestly, I don’t find many of the arguments made by my fellow hunters in favor of lead convincing.

Cost?

Price point is one of the largest concerns cited by those who lobby for lead. And it’s true that nontoxic ammunition does generally cost more, but the difference is relative. For instance, one study published in 2013 found that when you compare non-lead to higher-quality cartridges, the price is actually about the same, according to an assessment of 35 calibers of bullet and 51 cartridge sizes. That means you may be out of luck if you shoot only bargain-barrel bullets. Even still, the price is coming down every year as ammunition companies adapt and work to provide consumers with affordable, effective alternatives. The type of hunting matters, too. With small game and wild turkey, the number of shells spent goes up, as does the cost. But a single season of buck hunting generally requires less than one box of shells, which means hunters should be able to shoulder a little extra cost without too much trouble.

Performance?

I’m not an expert in ballistics, but I do know that the U.S. military has decided it can still do its job without lead ammunition and plans to phase out lead-based bullets by 2018. Furthermore, a 2014 study found that lead-free bullets “closely resembled” lead ammo “in terms of energy conversion, deflection angle, cavity shape, and reproducibility, showing that similar terminal ballistic behavior can be achieved.” Pheasants Forever, one of the organizations that cosigned the Zinke-supporting e-mail, even has a blog post on its website detailing the “evolution of steel,” noting how far ammunition manufacturers have come. Finally, remember that waterfowl hunters have been bringing down birds without lead since 1991, and over that time, the rate at which hunters maim birds without killing them has actually decreased.

Freedom?

Show me the spot in the Constitution where it grants us the right to fire an unlimited amount of neurotoxins into federal land. Even if you had that right, why would you want to exercise it?

Nontoxic steel ammunition

Judd McCullum/Flickr

Ammunition and tackle remain the two largest sources of unregulated lead in the environment, says Garrison Frost, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, a conservation group that was instrumental in the fight to protect California condors. “You do not have to be a bird geek to care about this.”

Frost points to a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health that shows people who regularly consume wild game tend to have higher levels of lead in their blood.

How do you read something like that and then continue to shoot lead into your dinner? I’m not asking hypothetically—I’m asking as a guy with a freezer full of leaded pheasant meat.

“What happens when a rifle bullet hits a deer?” Frost asks. “That bullet shatters into a bajillion pieces, some of which are microscopic, and it doesn’t just go right where the bullet hole is. It goes all kinds of places.”

That lead then gets absorbed by whatever eats the carcass, be it an eagle or a fox or a hunter. “That’s the exact same way that lead gets into people’s bloodstreams,” says Frost. “It’s not just condors; it’s your kids.”

Well, it won’t be my kids. I know I won’t be hunting with lead anymore, and I’m not the only one.

“Thousands of hunters are already using non-lead because they care about what their families are eating and they care about the environment,” says Frost. “Don’t let anyone tell you the entire hunting community is lining up to protect lead.” Even Sheehan, who was in the room when Zinke signed the order reestablishing the right to shoot lead on federal lands, says he hunts lead-free.

Personally, the decision to give up lead couldn’t be easier. I would never knowingly choose meat in the grocery store that contained lead particles, so why would I do so with wild-caught game?

But it’s about more than that. Before he died, my father showed me that hunting was an excuse to turn away from deadlines, bills, and other stresses of modern life and spend a few quiet hours among the beasts and the trees. Love them or hate them, hunters and other sportsmen spend more time outdoors than most people. And now we have the opportunity as a group to protect the ecosystems we so often inhabit. Why wouldn’t we take it?


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