Is it time to switch to copper ammunition?
By David Hart
In 2008, North Dakota dermatologist and hunter Dr. William Cornatzer sent 95 pounds of ground venison through a CT scan in an effort to determine if lead fragments were present in the meat. His findings sparked a fierce debate within the hunting community.
Fifty-three of the 95 packages of venison had lead fragments in them, prompting some states, including Minnesota, to throw away thousands of pounds of venison donated by hunters to food banks. State agencies feared consumers would become sick from lead poisoning.
Although the issue essentially fell to the wayside in the years following Cornatzer’s findings and Minnesota restarted its venison donation program, lead is making headlines once again.
Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group known mostly for filing lawsuits against the federal government, renewed calls for a ban on lead ammunition. The CBD and other groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate lead ammunition under the Toxic Substance Control Act.
The EPA declined, stating their oversight did not include lead ammunition, but the CBD filed a second petition, which was again denied by the EPA. The debate, however, isn’t going away.
What About the Birds?
The entire lead issue started when researchers discovered high levels of lead in endangered California condors in the mid-1990s. Since then, there have been at least 400 studies that examined lead poisoning in condors and other scavengers and the link to lead bullets. Few scientists doubt the findings.
After researchers discovered that lead bullet fragments were poisoning and killing condors, biologists throughout the west and Midwest began examining lead levels in sick eagles and other scavengers. The findings were alarming. In one report published by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 13 of 25 sick eagles found and treated in Iowa showed signs of lead poisoning, and up to 25 percent of eagles treated at the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center had toxic levels of lead in their blood. Left untreated, the birds would have likely died.
The culprit? Lead fragments in unrecovered animals or in gut piles from field-dressed big game. The Raptor Center also examined 13 years of data to determine when the birds were most susceptible to lead poisoning. Researchers found a strong connection between hunting season and higher levels of lead in the blood of eagles.
“It’s clear there is a direct correlation between hunting season and lead poisoning,” says Dr. Grainger Hunt, lead scientist for The Peregrine Fund, a conservation group. “As a hunter and a condor researcher, it was easy for me to put two and two together, but the science proves the connection.”
The Human Factor
The good news is that lead fragments in venison have not been linked to lead poisoning in humans, despite what some groups claim.
The Centers for Disease Control tested 738 North Dakota residents in 2008. Nearly all of the study participants (98.8 percent) ate venison and more than 80 percent ate venison throughout the year. Lead levels were highest among participants who ate more and different types of game. However, no one showed levels of lead that exceeded the CDC’s minimum threshold for what the Center calls “case management,” meaning medical treatment, for lead poisoning. In fact, the average lead levels in those studied in North Dakota was actually lower than the nationwide average of everyone tested, not just those who ate venison, according to the CDC’s report.
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing?
That’s one reason groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation are opposed to any prohibitions on lead ammunition. It is the position of the NSSF that anti-hunters figure strongly in the push to ban lead ammunition.
There’s no doubt some individuals and organizations pushing for a nationwide lead ban have an anti-gun, anti-hunting agenda. The Sierra Club led a fight to ban lead shot for dove hunting in Iowa, lobbied for the end of running bears with hounds in California and has joined with other groups calling for a nationwide ban on lead ammunition. The nation’s most powerful and most active anti-hunting group, the Humane Society of the United States, also called for an outright ban on lead ammunition. In addition to their EPA petition, the CBD has also been involved in other efforts to ban lead.
But not everyone who wants tighter restrictions on lead ammunition is opposed to hunting or guns. Dr. Grainger Hunt is an avid big game, upland and waterfowl hunter who also happens to be one of the most respected raptor biologists in the country. Hunt says many of the researchers calling for hunters to switch from lead to copper bullets are also hunters themselves, including many of his fellow staff members at The Peregrine Fund.
“I’m always hearing how we are a bunch of tree-hugging lefties who want to end hunting, and that’s just not true,” insists Hunt. “Even those researchers who don’t hunt are glad hunters are out there feeding condors and eagles with gut piles. We just want hunters to switch to non-toxic bullets for the sake of wildlife.”
Hunt says he became suspicious of lead and its effect on condors after his son Philo shot a mule deer in Arizona in 2004. They took the entire carcass to a local veterinarian who X-rayed the deer. Hunt was amazed at the number of lead particles scattered throughout the meat several inches from the wound channel. He and his sons have since switched from lead to copper bullets.
“I think anyone who understands the situation would like to see an end to lead fragments in gut piles,” says Hunt. “A condor, golden eagle or bald eagle that dies of lead poisoning usually starves to death standing on the ground because the digestive tract is paralyzed by the substitution of lead for calcium in nerve tissue. That’s a cruel death if you ask me. There are also sub-lethal effects to consider. Lead is debilitating in a variety of ways, and if you like eagles, it’s bothersome to think about.”
Other studies have also X-rayed deer shot with lead bullets and found upwards of hundreds of tiny lead particles not just around the wound channel, but several inches away. Even when hunters cut away bloody scraps, lead particles remain in the gut pile left behind.
The High Cost of Copper
But even with lead remaining in gut piles, populations of bald eagles and other scavengers are thriving, which is one reason skeptics insist switching from lead to copper is unnecessary. Another more pointed reason, according to the NSSF, is that hunters and shooters will leave the sport in droves due in part to the high cost of non-toxic ammunition.
There’s no question lead-free bullets are more expensive than standard copper-jacketed lead-core bullets and that copper is a more expensive material in general. A box of 130-grain .270 Hornady GMX non-toxic bullets retails for about $40. A similar box of Barnes VOR-TX copper bullets is about the same price, while a box of standard ammo like Remington Core-Lokt .270 bullets sells for about half that. But premium ammunition is expensive, whether made from lead or copper. It’s not unusual for a box of high-quality lead ammo to cost $30 or $40.
That’s why Hunt has no problem with hunters and target shooters using standard lead ammunition at ranges. He is not in favor of an outright ban, which happened in a large part of California in 2005.
“They went about it all wrong,” Hunt said. “There was no effort to educate hunters. It was just this sudden ban that likely ended up doing more harm for condor conservation than good.”
Instead, he and other researchers would like to see hunters make the change on their own as a result of public relations and education campaigns. Arizona instituted an education program that not only encouraged hunters to switch in areas where condors live, the state wildlife agency actually gave free non-toxic ammunition away to help hunters make the switch.
“It’s been a great success,” says Hunt. “The overwhelming majority of hunters in the region where condors live are now using copper and are very happy with its performance. Knowing what we know, I have no problem with target shooters and hunters using lead ammunition at a shooting range. That’s not the issue.”
He would, however, like to see hunters switch from lead to copper when they are in the woods. Even though condors only live in a few places in the western United States, bald or golden eagles live in all 50 states. As America’s most vocal and active conservationists, hunters not only have an obligation to protect and preserve those animals we love to hunt, but we also have a moral duty to protect those we don’t.
Editor’s note: Evidence suggests meat from animals shot with lead bullets is perfectly safe for humans. Further, there is nothing to be gained from banning lead ammunition at shooting ranges, which already follow EPA guidelines for lead removal and cleanup.
Jackie and my fellow editors at Buckmasters think legislation banning lead ammunition would give unfounded credit to the anti-gun/anti-hunting groups whose only goal is making it more difficult and expensive for hunters and shooters.
Copper bullets provide great accuracy and performance on big game, however, and the only known drawback of using them is cost. Ammunition manufacturers are providing lots of new copper-based bullet choices, and they’re becoming more popular every year.
It is our hope this article will help you make informed decisions about your ammunition choices and help you sort through the rhetoric surrounding lead ammunition legislation.