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Lead bullets should be banned to protect animals and humans

By Paget Pengelly, St. Peter, MN

I was recently in Alexandria working with Habitat for Humanity, when I came across a group of avid hunters. We got to chatting about using lead bullets vs. non-lead types. It is a topic that any hunter should know about, and I’d like this commentary to be seen by men and women who want to know more about the dangers of lead bullets used in deer hunting.

Firearms deer season ended a couple months ago, and your average hunter has cozied up in his or her home, watching the land freeze over while enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal of venison stew. Amidst the frozen land some fondly (or not-so-fondly) call ‘Minnesnowta,’ the remnants of lead shot litter the hunting grounds of our state. When the ground melts again, we’ll see a spike in large raptor deaths due to lead poisoning. The correlation is between lead rifle bullets, deer gut piles, and large scavengers including the American bald eagle.

There is a system of checks and balances in our ecosystem. Every year, hunters in Minnesota gather to carry on the proud tradition of hunting and consuming what nature put forth. In return, hunters help scavengers like eagles benefit from this tradition by leaving scraps from their hunt. However, many rifle bullets used to hunt deer are composed of lead. When a deer is shot and the hunter leaves the innards to be eaten by scavengers, the lead fragments that exploded into a million shards on impact are mixed within, leaving the fresh remains to be consumed by large raptors.

The Minnesota Raptor Center did a study that analyzed 1,277 bald eagles from 1996 to 2009 that were admitted to the Raptor Center. Out of those 1,277 bald eagles, 334 had increased levels of lead toxicity in their blood. Once lead hits the bloodstream, there is no cure; lead poisoning in bald eagles is often fatal.

According to the Minnesota Raptor Center’s data, “Elevated lead levels are seen at a significantly higher rate in eagles admitted during winter and early spring months (November to April).” In the new year, there is no doubt bald eagles will be carried into the raptor center and other animal shelters with signs of lead poisoning; a tragedy we can all help prevent with a few changes in hunting.

The effects of using lead bullets not only harm eagles and other large raptors, but humans as well. It is common knowledge that lead in paint, toys, jewelry and more is dangerous in any quantity. Today, the United States has banned companies from manufacturing these products, so it is a wonder why lead bullets are still allowed to be used in deer hunting in Minnesota.

Repeated exposure to the toxic metal can cause a plethora of health problems including high blood pressure, anemia and brain damage. The National Park Service states that “lead fragments can also be found in wild game meat processed for human consumption.” A sampling of packaged venison in North Dakota was found to have fragments of lead 54 percent of the time, increasing a human’s risk for lead poisoning by 50 percent. These risks can be eliminated with a ban on lead bullets.

On October 11, California became the first state to completely ban lead ammunition for hunting purposes. Although the law will not be fully implemented until July 1, 2019, California is heading in the right direction for the conservation of their beloved birds. In the 1980s, the California condor nearly went extinct, and though the threat of the bald eagle becoming extinct has lessened in the past decade, the looming fact that our national bird is at risk each year by lead bullets is something that can be avoided. The small price difference between non-lead and lead bullets is minimal, especially if it means animals and humans will be protected from the harms of lead shot.

The most important part of hunting for sport is to shoot the deer as humanely as possible. The non-lead ammunition alternatives are usually copper or copper alloy, and expand similarly to lead-core bullets, but without all the fragmentation of a lead bullet. In fact, according to a local hunter’s website, composed of avid hunters who conducted a college research project in David, CA, “Premium non-lead bullets will cost from the same to 30 percent more than a similar caliber and weight premium lead bullet option.”

Furthermore, the website gives many images and names of non-lead options for hunters including the Barnes Triple-Shock and Nosler e-Tip, which show similar expansion of nearly twice the bullet diameter. If an animal can be hunted with an environmentally safer bullet in the same, humane way a lead bullet can, there should be no further question. Lead bullets should be banned for deer hunting.

To reiterate my points, lead is toxic, and is banned from manufactured products and in waterfowl hunting. To eliminate the use of lead ammunition is the logical next step. In a state that proudly hunts the whitetail deer annually, the environment and bald eagles are of equal importance in our ecosystem. Minnesota hunters should use non-lead ammunition, and continue to participate in the proud tradition of wildlife conservation by preventing bald eagles, humans and other animals from being exposed to a toxic metal like lead.