Local view: Lead ammo a risk to hunters, wildlife
Unbeknownst to many hunters this deer season, a dangerous element is taking down big bucks. Lead bullets are the ammunition of choice for many hunters. But not only is lead harmful to humans (and deer); it also is killing one of the great symbols...
Unbeknownst to many hunters this deer season, a dangerous element is taking down big bucks. Lead bullets are the ammunition of choice for many hunters. But not only is lead harmful to humans (and deer); it also is killing one of the great symbols of our nation, the bald eagle.
The dangers of lead in our daily lives have been scientifically proven, leading to its ban in many products, such as paint. Lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978 after much evidence was discovered concerning its toxic nature, in particular its effect on children. In addition to paint, lead-based gasoline, once widely used, was outlawed for automobiles.
The handling of lead bullets is not dangerous; the danger is in the possibility of accidentally ingesting lead. When a lead bullet hits a deer it fragments into extremely small pieces. While cutting around the area of impact when field-dressing a deer can help eliminate much of the lead fragments, it is hard to be certain all of the lead has been removed.
The lead left behind in deer may be in a miniscule amount, but even small amounts can be dangerous when consumed. Studies show that when ingested lead can stay in the body for months and sometimes years. A study by Dr. William Cornatzer in North Dakota found that almost 60 percent of one-pound packages of venison had lead levels high enough to be detected using a CT scan. In response to this, as well as to other evidence, the North Dakota Department of Health issued a warning in 2008, urging pregnant women and children younger than 6 not to eat any venison harvested with lead bullets.
In addition to the danger of lead to humans it also can be harmful to wildlife (beyond deer). After a deer has been field-dressed the gut pile left behind often carries a significant amount of lead. It is common for bald eagles to feast on these gut piles during winter months. A study by the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota looked at a 13-year period from 1996-2009 and determined that a high percentage of eagles suffered from lead poisoning during late fall and early winter, directly correlating with deer-hunting season. Also, concentrations of copper in the kidneys of eagles suffering from lead poisoning indicated exposure to and ingestion of fragments of copper-jacketed lead bullets. This evidence demonstrates that lead poisoning in eagles is a result of ingesting lead bullets and not from lead naturally occurring in the wild.
Looking at the dangers to bald eagles, as well as the harmful effects to humans, it makes sense for hunters to search for a viable alternative. Copper bullets are an alternative already being used by some hunters. These bullets are nontoxic and do not fragment the way lead does, leading some experts to claim they are more efficient for killing deer. The current price difference between lead and copper is about 50 cents per bullet. That is a small price to pay to ensure the meat you bring home is safe for you and your family.
Obviously, a change in ammo choice will not occur overnight, but a gradual switch from lead to copper would benefit eagles and keep hazardous elements out of our venison.
Brad Entwistle is a junior majoring in political science at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. He's also a hunter, mostly in South Dakota and northern Minnesota. He researched the problem of lead poisoning in bald eagles as part of his coursework.