Think twice when using lead shot as ammunition
This year marks my 30th firearms deer season. Granted, for the last 14 years, deer season has been modified by my work as a wildlife biologist. I have had to work opening weekend, or the entire season, to collect data or monitor harvested deer for disease. I always manage to get out and do at least a little hunting during the season, though.
Deer hunting has changed a lot since I started in 1983. Season structure, tag design, antlerless tags, T-zone and more have evolved over time. Even weapon choice, after a friend introduced me to muzzleloader hunting more than a decade ago, I was hooked. I shot my first deer with a borrowed flintlock Kentuckian, with a Tennessee trigger, using a handmade ball and patch.
A percussion cap .50 caliber Hawken is my favorite deer rifle. My Savage 30-30, though, continues to be my primary firearm for the regular firearms deer season. But this year I am making a change. For the first time, I have switched from using jacketed lead bullets to non-toxic copper.
As a biologist, I was well aware of the negative health impacts from exposure to lead. One of my first tasks as a newly hired temporary DNR employee in Portage was to help haul a dying swan to a wildlife rehabilitator. This is why lead shot was made illegal for waterfowl hunting decades ago. Lead is poisonous for the birds that ingest it, and it does not go away, so any scavenger or predator that eats a poisoned bird is poisoned as well. This was well documented in bald eagles.
In recent years, there has been an effort to get the word out about the negative impacts of lead bullets in deer hunting as well. 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. 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.
Last month, California passed a law requiring all hunters to use non-lead ammunition. The California Condor 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 last fall that showed that copper bullets were superior to lead. This demonstration aired on North Land Adventures with Dave Carlson; you can watch it online (Hot Line on Copper, 10/12/12).
If this topic interests you, there is plenty of information available on the DNR website under the heading “Precautions for using lead ammunition.” You can get tips on reducing risk of lead exposure, learn about the health effects on wildlife, see a video about a lead fragmentation study, and more. Non-toxic alternative bullets are available for most rifles and shotguns, and they give you a way to reduce health risks to people and wildlife without giving up bullet speed and accuracy.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.