Hun­ters start to turn against lead bul­lets

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY IAN URBINA New York Times

Aim­ing a ri­fle loaded with a cop­per bul­let rather than the stan­dard type made of lead, Chelsea Cassens fired at an elk from 70 yards away, hit­ting it squarely be­hind its shoul­der. To avoid spook­ing the an­i­mal if it was only in­jured, Cassens waited sev­eral min­utes be­fore ap­proach­ing as her father nee­dled her skep­ti­cally, sug­gest­ing her new­fan­gled am­mu­ni­tion might not have im­me­di­ately killed it.

Mo­ments later, Cassens, her father, Ed Hughes, and the three oth­ers in their hunt­ing party de­scended on the fallen 450-pound beast, carved it open, in­spected the in­ter­nal dam­age, and found the spent bul­let.

“Will you look at that!” Hughes said, pleas­antly sur­prised. The cop­per bul­let had ex­panded on im­pact, as it was de­signed to do, open­ing a gap­ing hole in the elk’s lungs and killing it al­most in­stantly.

“Her bul­let did the trick just fine,” Hughes, 63, con­ceded, adding later that he also planned to switch from lead to cop­per bul­lets, a tran­si­tion more and more hun­ters are mak­ing amid mount­ing ev­i­dence that lead bul­lets are poi­son­ing the wildlife that feed on car­casses and pol­lut­ing the game meat that many peo­ple eat.

At least 30 states reg­u­late the use of lead am­mu­ni­tion, in­clud­ing Ore­gon, where Cassens and her father met for a week­long elk hunt this fall. In Ore­gon, hun­ters are not al­lowed to fire lead bul­lets in a num­ber of state wildlife ar­eas. Neigh­bor­ing Cal­i­for­nia, which al­ready en­forces some of the na­tion’s most re­stric­tive gun laws and was the first state to pro­hibit lead am­mu­ni­tion in spe­cific re­gions, re­cently im­posed a statewide ban on that type of bul­let that will go into ef­fect next July.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, lead ex­po­sure is the lead­ing cause of death in Cal­i­for­nia con­dors, the largest land birds in North Amer­ica, which three decades ago were on the brink of ex­tinc­tion. And be­tween 10 mil­lion and 20 mil­lion an­i­mals, in­clud­ing ea­gles, hawks, bears, vul­tures, ravens and coy­otes, die each year not from be­ing hunted, but from lead poi­son­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Hu­mane So­ci­ety.

Yet many hun­ters are re­luc­tant to stop us­ing lead bul­lets. They cite a range of rea­sons, from be­ing un­aware of the po­ten­tial health threat or harm to scav­enger an­i­mals, to hav­ing a stock­pile of tra­di­tional am­mu­ni­tion they do not want to waste. Some also see the push away from lead bul­lets as a ruse for lim­it­ing gun rights or ban­ning hunt­ing more broadly. And many hun­ters ques­tion the avail­abil­ity, ac­cu­racy, price and lethal­ity of non-lead am­mu­ni­tion.

In­deed, reg­u­lat­ing lead am­mu­ni­tion has long been a hot-but­ton point of con­tention among both con­ser­va­tion­ists and hun­ters. The topic was so charged, in fact, that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion waited un­til its last day in of­fice to im­pose a ban on lead am­mu­ni­tion on fed­eral land. Just hours af­ter tak­ing of­fice as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior, Ryan Zinke over­turned that pro­hi­bi­tion in his first ac­tion.

Be­fore start­ing the elk hunt, Cassens, 33, who has been hunt­ing since she was 10 years old and had al­ways used lead bul­lets, was joined by Le­land Brown, an avid hunter and the non-lead hunt­ing ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor for the Ore­gon Zoo. She fired both lead and cop­per am- mu­ni­tion into wa­ter jugs to com­pare the amount of metal frag­ments that splin­ter off dur­ing pene- tra­tion.

A lead bul­let fired from Cassens’ Rem­ing­ton .3006 ri­fle, Brown ex­plained, of­ten sheds nearly a third of its orig­i­nal weight – more than enough to kill a bird if it con­sumed the par­ti­cles.

Still, de­spite the grow­ing ev­i­dence and leg­isla­tive reg­u­la­tions, a non­profit cre­ated by the firearms in­dus­try has chal­lenged much of the sci­en­tific re­search into the risks of lead am­mu­ni­tion. The group’s web­site, Hunt for Truth As­so­ci­a­tion, claimed that lead used in bul­lets is not suf­fi­ciently sol­u­ble to dis­solve in most an­i­mals’ di­ges­tive tracts. If poi­son­ing oc­curs in the wild, it is more likely from other sol­u­ble sources like leaded gaso­line, paint, pes­ti­cides, land­fills, min­ing tail­ings, or il­le­gally dumped lead acid bat­ter­ies, said the web­site, which was re­cently taken down.

Lynn Tomp­kins, who runs a bird re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter called Blue Moun­tain Wildlife in Pendle­ton, Ore­gon, re­jected those ideas. She held up pho­to­graphs of X-rays of birds with lead bul­let frag­ments in their stom­achs, and said that roughly half of those she treats have lead poi­son­ing. Of­ten they are partly par­a­lyzed and ema­ci­ated, she said, be­cause the lead dis­ori­ents the birds, mak­ing them in­ca­pable of hunt­ing.

On a re­cent day, Tomp­kins fed a bald ea­gle with an 8-foot wing­span that had been res­cued. It had a blood lead level of 813 mi­cro­grams per de­ciliter. Any­thing above 10 mi­cro­grams per de­ciliter is con­sid­ered es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous, and even 3 mi­cro­grams per de­ciliter can in­crease an an­i­mal’s mor­tal­ity rate.

“I’m not op­posed to hunt­ing,” she said, “but we moved away from lead in gaso­line, paint and plumb­ing and now we need to do the same with am­mu­ni­tion.”


Chelsea Cassens, left, and her hunt­ing party look for elk at the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Pre­serve in Im­naha, Ore., on Sept. 17. More and more hun­ters are mak­ing the tran­si­tion to cop­per bul­lets.

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