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Lead Bullets and Wildlife

by Lewis Young, Conservation Chair

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.

If you are a big game hunter you can contribute to the conservation of birds by switching to non-lead bullets. Why switch? 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.

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 sample area.

Over the last few years non-lead bullets have become available in factory loaded ammunition and multiple choices are available to those who handload 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. Give our eagles and other wildlife a break and consider switching to non-lead bullets.

X-ray images of lead (top) and non-lead (bottom) bullets shot into a ballistics gel - Photo Credit: Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media.

X-ray images of lead (top) and non-lead (bottom) bullets shot into a ballistics gel – Photo Credit: Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media.

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