Kim Delfino, California Program Director
This week, the California Fish and Game Commission was supposed to demonstrate the use of non-lead ammunition. They were going to show how there was no practical difference in the use of non-lead ammunition and lead ammunition – except for one very important distinction: non-lead ammunition is not toxic and won’t poison wildlife and humans. Unfortunately, that demonstration never happened because the shooting range owners pulled the plug on the event at the 11th hour.
It is too bad because the demonstration of the use of non-lead ammunition would have been an important educational moment for the hunting community – one that would have benefited their health and safety, as well as that of their family and of California’s wildlife. The dangers of lead as a poison to humans is widely known. That is why it is banned from everyday items such as gasoline, paint, pencils and water pipes. Everyone knows that even a little exposure to lead can seriously poison a child. What some may not know is that even a little exposure to lead can seriously poison wildlife as well. A single ingested shotgun pellet or lead fragment can cause a horrible death in birds and other wildlife. Lead poisoning isn’t pretty. It affects the brain and collects in the bloodstream and organs. Birds with lead poisoning are slow and lethargic, unable to sustain flying or eating. They lose weight and are unable to navigate around things like wind turbines, buildings and power lines. They are too slow and tired to avoid predators.
Lead was such a threat to waterfowl that in 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use lead ammunition in waterfowl hunting. This was great news for waterfowl, but today other birds are still threatened by lead ammunition. Raptors, such as the highly-endangered California condor, the golden eagle and the bald eagle, suffer most from lead poisoning because they eat the carcasses of animals left behind by hunters. Lead poisoning is one of the leading obstacles to the recovery of the California condors. Biologists have to bring in condors regularly to “chelate” them – that is, treat their blood to remove lead.
States are beginning to address the problem of lead ammunition. At least 25 states have banned lead shot for hunting specific species beyond what the federal government prohibited for the hunting of waterfowl. Sixteen states have banned the use of lead ammunition in dove hunting. In 2007, Defenders of Wildlife worked to enact a state law banning the use of lead ammunition within the range of the California condor. A recent study by the University of California at Davis Wildlife Health Center found that lead levels in raptors such as golden eagles and turkey vultures within the range of the ban were reduced after the ban went into effect . Unfortunately, that ban covers less than 15 percent of the state of California, and wildlife is being poisoned by lead in the rest of the state.
Despite these limitations on the use of lead in some hunting activities, hunters are still depositing huge amounts of the toxic metal into the environment through the hunting of all animals other than waterfowl (and doves in some states). In fact, frequently-used upland hunting fields, including those in California, may have as many as 400,000 shotgun pellets per acre. And biologists are continuing to find carcasses of birds dead from lead poisoning. The time has come to ban the use of lead ammunition in hunting statewide in California.
Some in the hunting community resist a ban on the use of lead ammunition. They claim that there are no good alternatives to lead ammunition. That isn’t true. If the California Fish and Game Commission demonstration on the use of lead ammunition had taken place, they would have seen that there are very viable and low-cost non-lead ammunition alternatives on the market today. These are bullets that hunters are already buying and using.
What the Fish and Game Commission demonstration would have also shown is that lead ammunition fragments inside the body of whatever the hunter is shooting and also poses a risk to whoever is eating the meat from that animal. For example, x-rays of deer carcasses shot by lead ammunition show a body riddled with tiny fragments of lead. These tiny pieces of lead can’t be removed and are eaten by whoever is eating the meat – the hunter and his/her family. Tests by the Center for Disease Control have shown that eating venison and other game can raise the amount of lead in the human body by 50 percent! This has caused states like North Dakota to issue health warnings to pregnant women and children not to eat game shot by lead ammunition.
With the overwhelming evidence of the threat of lead poisoning to humans and wildlife from the use of lead ammunition, and the fact that there are safe, cheap and viable non-lead ammunition alternatives, why do we still allow the use of lead ammunition in hunting? The time has come to get the lead out!