Print Edition - 2018-11-04  |  Free the Words

Get the lead out of bullets

  • The toxic ammunition is a threat to wildlife
- Jim Minick

Nov 4, 2018-

Minick is a longtime hunter. We focus so much on guns—their control, our rights, the Second Amendment, on and on—that we seldom think about bullets. We should. Of the nine billion bullets manufactured every year, roughly 90 percent are made at least partly of lead. In hunting season, that lead can end up in the bodies of animals that aren’t hunters’ targets—especially birds—which then die slow, painful deaths from lead poisoning.

In many ways, hunters are the staunchest conservationists. We understand deer populations and forest dynamics. We spend time outside observing. We support wildlife conservation through hundreds of millions of dollars in license fees. So why do we poison the very places and animals we love? The doubters argue that there’s only a little bit of lead in a bullet. Veterinarians know, though, that it takes only a little bit of lead to poison an eagle, vulture or raven. As Ms. Fallon writes, “A lead fragment as small as a grain of rice can be fatal to a bald eagle.” These birds clean up the carcasses or the remains of the animals we kill. And so, we often condemn them to a slow demise.

In the wild, a bird’s death is in secret, but when a sick bird arrives at a rescue center, the pain is revealed. Lead poisoning first causes lethargy and weakness. Birds fail to fly or can do so only briefly. The weakness becomes more distinct—the birds can’t hold their necks straight or tuck their wings or call as they once did. They become crippled by severe appetite reduction, losing fat and muscle mass, so much so that the central bone of their ribs can protrude—what is called “hatchet breast.” Their digestion becomes so ruined that food sits inside their esophagus. When poisoning is fatal, near the end, they become paralysed, comatose after muscle convulsion.

Occasionally these birds ingest large amounts of lead and die quickly, but usually they die slow deaths, the lead taking two to four weeks, or even 15 weeks, to kill. And then more eagles and vultures come along to eat the carcasses and also become poisoned.

A bird can eat a sublethal amount of lead but easily be killed by the resulting weakness. It can’t fly or hunt as well, causing broken wings and other injuries. Sometimes veterinarians can treat lead-poisoned birds, but often they have little success. As Milton Friend, the former director of the federal National Wildlife Health Center, warned in 1989 in the “Waterfowl Management Handbook,” “The use of nontoxic shot is the only long-term solution for significantly reducing migratory bird losses from lead poisoning.”

Heeding this and other warnings, in 1991 the federal government imposed a ban on all lands nationwide on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting after studies found widespread poisoning of ducks. A study of the ban’s effectiveness several years later found that it had prevented the premature deaths of millions of waterfowl. For centuries, lead has been the ideal metal for bullets because of its weight, density and availability. Where I live in Virginia, nearby lead mines supplied much of the ore for the bullets used in the Revolutionary War. Today we have the technology to make highly effective bullets with other, safer metals like copper, and this technology has answered many hunter objections. These bullets are also lethal and accurate, though admittedly more expensive.

In California, hunters have been required to use non-lead bullets for the past 10 years in territory frequented by the critically endangered California condor, which faced a significant threat from lead poisoning that continues. Next July, California will become the first state to ban the use of lead bullets to hunt wildlife, though about a half-dozen states already require some form of “nontoxic ammunition” for hunting in certain circumstances.

The Obama administration, in its waning days in 2016, imposed a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands and waters, arguing that exposure to them “has resulted in harmful effects to fish and wildlife species.” But President Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, quickly rescinded the ban, which was opposed by the National Rifle Association and hunting groups, writing that the order was “not mandated by any existing statutory or regulatory requirement.”

He was wrong to do that. And no, fellow hunters, this is not about taking away our guns or protecting Bambi or outlawing hunting. This is about protecting and ensuring the health of the wild world on which we depend.

And not just the health of the wild world. One 2009 study in the journal PLOS One found that people risked exposure to lead when they ate venison from deer killed with standard lead-based rifle bullets and processed under normal commercial procedures. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a study that among 736 people in North Dakota tested for lead, those who ate wild game had 50 percent more lead in their blood and those who did not. Critics at the time complained these were based on small sample sizes, but the co-author of the C.D.C. study nonetheless recommended that pregnant women should not eat wild game.

In the United States, hunters number over 11 million. We all have a responsibility to protect what we love. To protect our children, we outlawed lead paint. To keep the air we breathe healthy, we got rid of lead in our gasoline. We should do the same with bullets to protect our wildlife. The lead has got to go.

Published: 04-11-2018 07:25

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment