Hunters start to turn against lead bullets
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.