Hunting Kills, Then Kills Again…And Again…Yet, ‘The Great Conservationists’ Demand Lead Ammunition

By Joe Miele

By itself, lead is pretty boring. It is a naturally occurring metal found in the earth’s crust that is used in the production of car batteries, pigments, weights for lifting, weight belts for diving, X-ray shields, and in some solders. While it has its place and is useful under the right circumstances, it also poses significant dangers when used improperly.

If lead gets into our food, you can be sure that trouble will commence. But how can that happen? If it is naturally occurring in soil, is it really that harmful? In natural concentrations found in untainted soil, lead exposure is not of significant concern. A problem occurs when lead is released to the air since it may travel long distances before settling to the ground. If blasted directly into the ground (as happens when hunters use lead ammo) it increases lead concentration and eventually works its way to the water supply. That’s where things get interesting.

Lead affects nearly every organ and system in the human body, with the nervous system being especially vulnerable to its toxic effects. Low-level lead exposure may cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles, increases in blood pressure, and anemia. At higher levels of exposure lead can severely damage the brain and kidneys and ultimately cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2007. Toxicological Profile for Lead [Update]. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service).

There is also an interesting sociological result to environmental lead exposure – increased crime.

Dr. Bernard Gesch, a physiologist at Oxford University studied the effect of diet and other environmental factors on criminals. Dr. Gesch says of lead “Lead alters the formation of the brain. It reduces the grey matter in areas responsible for things such as impulse control and executive functioning – meaning thinking and planning.”

Amherst College economist Jessica Wolpaw-Reyes studied the link between lead exposure and crime rates. Wolpaw-Reyes gathered lead data from each of the 50-states, and plotted the crime rates in each area. She crunched the numbers, excluding other factors that could cause crime, and found a “substantial causal relationship” between lead exposure and the rate of crime. “States that experienced particularly early or particularly sharp declines in lead also experienced particularly early or particularly sharp declines in violent crime 20 years later” she said.

Realizing the inherent dangers of lead exposure, the United States government has taken significant steps to reduce the amount of lead released into the air, water, and soil. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned lead paint in 1977 in residential properties and public buildings (16 CFR 1303), along with toys and furniture containing lead paint. Additionally, the US Environmental Protection Agency completed a full phase-out of lead gasoline in 1986.

Then in 1991 the Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead bullets when hunting waterfowl on Federal wetlands. Seventeen years later lead ammunition was banned in California on lands within range of California condors and California will outright prohibit the use of lead hunting ammunition by July 2019. These moves were made to prevent the lead poisoning that was being seen in wildlife living in areas where lead ammunition was being used. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 10 to 20 million animals from more than 130 species die from lead poisoning each year in the United States.


Hunters complained of course (do they ever do anything else?), but the bans went through. Then on January 19th, 2017 Interior Director’s Order 219 was signed, expanding the 1991 ban to all hunting on all federal lands, national parks and wildlife refuges. A no-brainer, right?

Fast Forward to March 2, 2017. On his first day in office, US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed Director’s Order 3346, which revoked Director’s Order 219, rolling back the protections to where they were in 1991. Why did Secretary Zinke do this? Not because any new science shows that the ban was not needed, but because he wanted to make hunters happy. Seriously. Secretary Zinke says Director’s Order 219 was “anti-hunting,” stating further “it worries me to think about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite.”

Despite all the known and proven dangers of lead exposure in both humans and wildlife, Secretary Zinke believes that allowing the increased use of a scientifically-proven neurotoxin is more valuable to the country than protecting the health and well being of wildlife and even the hunters he’s aiming to please.

What can possibly go wrong with such a move? Hunters and their families who eat the animals they kill may be slowly poisoning themselves by ingesting increased amounts of lead. Now that Secretary Zinke has rolled back prohibitions against the use of this unnecessary metal, the number of lead-poisoned animals will decline only with the decline of hunting and no faster. When key positions of authority, such as Secretary of the Interior, are filled by operatives of the hunting and weapons industries, wildlife and the American public will come out on the short end every time. Wildlife health and human health are of little concern when up against the hunting lobby and their need to destroy everything in their path.

North County Public Radio reports that just this spring bald eagles died in Washington and Warren Counties in New York, and state wildlife biologists tested both and found that they were poisoned with lead. How did the eagles become poisoned given that they are not a hunted species? The contamination cycle works like this: hunters and anglers shoot lead bullets or use lead sinkers in the wild. Fish and other species ingest the lead and are then eaten by raptors or waterfowl. This continues and the lead levels build up until they become fatal.

In addition to poisoned eagles, the link between waterfowl deaths and lead poisoning is significant. Back in the late 1800’s lead had been recognized as a mortality factor and more attention began being paid to the issue in the 1980s when it was discovered that loons were ingesting lead fishing tackle. Necropsies on dead adult common loons in New Hampshire revealed that 48% had the remains of lead sinkers and jigs in their gizzards and had died from lead poisoning.

After a loon eats a fish that has been poisoned by lead tackle, the acidic juices in the bird’s gizzard break down the food and the lead is also broken down and gets into the bloodstream of the bird,” said Emily Preston, a wildlife biologist with the N.H. Fish and Game Department.  The lead enters the circulatory system and mimics the movement of calcium. It becomes stored within the bones and is excreted via the bile into the feces. Clinical signs of chronic lead poisoning include lowered food intake, weakness, weight loss, drooping wings, inability to fly, and green watery diarrhea. Internally, a necropsy may reveal an enlarged gallbladder, impacted proventriculus, and a cracked, green-stained, peeling gizzard lining, with or without lead shot present.

Eagles, loons, ducks, geese, and swans are the animals most commonly affected by lead ingestion, however, upland game birds including mourning doves, wild turkeys, pheasants, and quail are occasionally affected. Lead poisoning has also been noted in small mammals presumably from the ingestion of lead contaminated prey.

More than 500 scientific studies published since 1898 have documented that worldwide, 134 species of wildlife are negatively affected by lead ammunition. One of them is the California condor – a bird threatened with extinction. Some condors have been measured with blood lead levels as high as 570 ug/dL, a value that would potentially kill a human.

Human Health Concerns

Studies are increasingly showing that lead fragments can also be found in wild game meat processed for human consumption, even though best attempts are made in the field to remove sections that are within the bullet wound channel.

A recently published scientific study examined the prevalence of lead bullet fragments in packaged venison. Thirty different white-tail deer were harvested using lead rifle bullets and then given to 30 different game meat processors. Researchers randomly selected 324 packages of ground venison and whole cuts from the processors and x-rayed them to document how many contained lead bullet fragments.

Of the 324 randomly selected packages of ground venison, 34% contained metal fragments; some packages contained as many a 168 separate pieces. Further analysis positively identified the metal as 93% lead and 7 % copper. Also, when these tainted packages were fed to domestic pigs, blood levels became elevated with 2 days of ingestion. This demonstrates that while the results are preliminary and much further study needs to be done to better assess risks to humans, it appears that the if lead bullets are used, odds are high that you will ingest lead particles in ground game meat.

Another study was conducted in North Dakota that examined ground venison packages that had been donated by hunters to food pantries. It found that 59% of the packages had lead fragments.

Ryan Zinke was sworn in as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior on March 1, 2017. His efforts to roll back prohibitions against lead use have been applauded by hunting groups that do not believe the science linking lead to wildlife poisoning (seriously). Lawrence Keane, the senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says he opposes bans on lead ammo because it will make hunting more expensive.

Joe Miele is a board member of C.A.S.H., author and researcher of many articles related to wildlife management, and the author of the Ask Uncle Joe column. He has served as President of C.A.S.H.



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