From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 9, Number 10 - May 26, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Lead shot on the outs

by Derek Farr

In Sublette County it is an indelible part of fall.

Golden grass strands highlighted with the crisp morning sun conceal an anxious hunter as he squeezes the trigger of his Winchester .243-caliber rifle.

Moments later, a shot is fired and a large buck pronghorn lies dead. With the hunt over, the hunter field dresses the animal and departs to process the carcass. The remaining gut pile is left behind for a lucky scavenger.

But more and more data is showing lead fragments from the bullet contained in the gut pile are poisoning those scavengers.

What’s more, some research is suggesting the residue and remnants of the 5-gram .243-bullet can taint the processed venison.

Those allegations are leading a push to phase out lead ammunition across the state, nation and world.

In Wyoming, concerns about lead poisoning of bears, eagles and wolves has prompted the National Park Service to discuss a ban all lead ammunition in Grand Teton National Park where hundreds of elk hunters harvest the animals every year.

Nationally, lead has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1991 while Arizona, California and Washington are enacting compulsory/voluntary bans on big game and upland bird ammunition.

And the concern isn’t isolated to this country.

Japan has banned lead bullets for hunting Sitka deer in the northern island of Hokkaido after lead poisoning killed 129 Stellar’s and white-tailed sea eagles.

But the possibility of people being affected has created the most recent stir over the issue.

Human harm?

In a study funded by The Peregrine Fund – a nonprofit group that works to “conserve birds of prey in nature,” according to its Web site – researchers studied packaged venison from 30 deer carcasses, each from different meat processors. The packages were x-rayed and those with bullet fragments, 32 percent, were fed to an experimental group of pigs, while those without fragments were fed to a control group – pigs were used due to similarities between human and swine digestive tracts, according to the study.

Two days later, the pigs that ate the lead-containing venison had lead levels in their blood four times higher than the control group.

Based on standards set by the Centers for Disease Control, which does not acknowledge a safe lower threshold for lead levels in children, the study concluded: “Exposure to lead from spent bullets is easily preventable if health-minded hunters use lead-free copper bullets now widely available and generally regarded as fully comparable to lead-based bullets for use in hunting.”

And that research is propped up by other studies that show elevated lead levels in subsistence hunters and their families where game meat is a regular part of their diet.

But the research is in its infancy and none of the studies have produced concrete scientific conclusions.

Compelling evidence

As projectiles go, lead has several advantages over other materials. Lead is heavy, which slows the loss of a bullet/pellet’s inertia. It’s soft, allowing it to mushroom after striking an animal.

It’s also cheap.

A box of non-toxic steel, copper or tungsten shells can cost up to six times more than lead shells.

While the inflated cost of non-toxic alternatives is one sticking point, it’s not the only reason sportsmen are skeptical.

Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said his objection isn’t the price change as much as it is the evidence.

Even though he believes lead shot will eventually be more limited, he doesn’t believe there is enough data to trigger a large-scale change.

“The body of evidence is far from compelling,” he said. “Until that point is reached, I wouldn’t recommend that they do anything different.”

But he said if the information were there, sportsman would embrace the change.

“Almost without exception, Wyoming sportsmen have a track record of stepping up and doing the right thing when we have well documented problem,” he said. “I just don’t think we have a well-documented problem.”

But others disagree.

Condor intervention

Rick Watson of the Peregrine Fund said his organization has a tremendous amount of data that shows lead is poisoning scavenger birds; one of those birds is among the rarest on earth.

As of April 2009, there are 172 California condors in the wild.

According to Watson, three years ago more than 70 percent of the birds received emergency chelation therapy – a rigorous process to strip lead from the body – in order to survive.

But in 2008, 90 percent of hunters in the condors’ range either used non-toxic shot or removed the entire animal from the field and that change has produced some definitive results.

“We’ve done some modeling that says if we can duplicate the hunter response in southern Utah, then condors can survive in the wild without the intense management that they do now,” he explained.

In fact, the plight of the California condor in the 20th century first tipped off scientists to the potential hazards of lead bullets.

But the effects of lead have been shown since the Roman Empire.

Lead poisoning causes a temporary and permanent reduction in cognitive abilities, abdominal pain, seizures, comas and even death. New research has shown that even small doses of lead in children affect brain functions.

Nevertheless, evidence linking lead bullets and their effect on humans is incomplete.

Watson said it may take a decade before researchers can build an undeniable case, but he said the toll lead takes on scavenging birds is undeniable.

“It takes a tiny piece of lead to have a significant effect on any animal,” he explained, adding that research on bald eagles and golden eagles have shown heightened lead levels in those birds as well.

Wyoming response

“Our commission has been looking into that,” said Eric Keszler of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Currently we are looking for some more information and more research before taking any action.”

But Keszler said his agency would defer to the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) if there were a potential impact to human health.

In 2008, the issue was brought squarely in front of the WDH after North Dakota health officials recommended that pregnant women and small children avoid eating meat from wild game that was shot with lead ammunition.

But the North Dakota recommendation did not sway Wyoming health officials. The WDH said its state epidemiologist believed the effects were “very unlikely to be clinically significant.” But that didn’t stop the WDH from making recommendations on how to limit lead exposure.

• Consider alternative expanding non-lead ammunition such as copper or other high weight-retention bullets, such as bonded bullets.

• Practice marksmanship and hunting skills to get closer to game and to make cleaner, lethal shots away from major muscle areas. Aim for the neck, head or the vitals behind the shoulder. Don’t shoot at running game.

• Take care in reloading shells and wash hands after handling ammunition.

• Avoid consuming internal organs, as they can contain extra lead from heart-lung shots.

• If you process your own game, always trim a generous distance away from the wound channel and discard any meat that is bruised, discolored or contains hair, dirt, bone fragments or grass.

• Remind your meat processor not to use game with excessive shot damage.

Hunters aren’t the only ones that may be modifying their equipment. Yellowstone National Park has banned lead fishing sinkers after loons were found to have swallowed the toxic gear.

Whatever the regulations, sportsmen may soon look back and wonder why they ever harvested game with lead shot because from all appearances, the push to ban lead in sporting good products is well under way.

It might be just a matter of time

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