FAS Top Menu

Lead Bullets and Wildlife

by Lewis Young and Kate Stone

Found near Hamilton MT, 2014, this Bald Eagle died from lead poisoning. It exhibited clinical signs of lead poisoning such as head and wing droop, muscle tremors, and anorexia. Photo courtesy Brooke Tanner, Wild Skies Raptor Center.

Found near Hamilton MT, 2014, this Bald Eagle died from lead poisoning. It exhibited clinical signs of lead poisoning such as head and wing droop, muscle tremors, and anorexia. Photo courtesy Brooke Tanner, Wild Skies Raptor Center.

Are you a big game hunter? Do you use lead bullets? Lead bullets, even copper jacketed lead bullets, fired from high velocity guns fragment on impact losing 20-40% of their mass when they hit an object. As many as 200 fragments disperse throughout the carcass and are often too small to see. The fragments may permeate the meat you bring home and often riddle the gut piles and carcasses left in the field.

Why are lead fragments a problem? Avian and mammalian scavengers feed on the gut piles and carcasses and ingest the lead fragments. Overwintering eagles in many parts of Montana test positive for elevated lead levels and several die each year from acute lead poisoning. Raptor View Research Institute tested 32 Golden Eagles and 11 Bald Eagles from the Bitterroot Valley from 2011-2014 and found that 86% had elevated blood lead concentrations. Evidence from multiple studies points to lead fragments as the culprit behind elevated lead levels in eagles and other scavengers.

What can be done? It’s fairly simple. Switch to a non-lead bullet. Over the last few years they have become available in factory loaded ammunition and multiple choices are available to those who handled their own ammunition. Non-lead bullets are normally all copper or copper alloys and retain virtually 100% of their weight upon impact. It’s true that the non-lead ammunition costs more than traditional jacketed-lead bullets but the cost of ammunition is typically a very small portion of the total spent on the entire hunting experience. I personally switched to non-lead bullets several years ago and have been entirely happy with their performance in every way.

Left, deer neck shot with lead bullet. Right, MRI of random packaged venison with lead fragments. Photos courtesy of Craighead Beringia South.

Left, deer neck shot with lead bullet. Right, MRI of random packaged venison with lead fragments. Photos courtesy of Craighead Beringia South.

Does switching to non-lead bullets make a difference? A voluntary program in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming in 2009-2010 to get hunters to switch to non-lead bullets resulted in a corresponding decrease in the blood-lead levels of eagles in the area.

Give our eagles and other wildlife a break and consider switching to non-lead bullets.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2016 Flathead Audubon Society

%d bloggers like this: