by Lewis Young and Kate Stone

Found near Hamilton MT, 2014, this Bald Eagle died from lead poisoning. It exhibited clinical signs of lead poisoning such as head and wing droop, muscle tremors, and anorexia. Photo courtesy Brooke Tanner, Wild Skies Raptor Center.

With big game rifle hunting season approaching you can help wildlife by switching to non-lead bullets if you are hunter using lead bullets . Lead bullets, even copper jacketed lead bullets, fired from high velocity guns fragment on impact losing 20-40% of their mass when they hit an object. As many as 200 fragments disperse throughout the carcass and are often too small to see. The fragments may permeate the meat you bring home and often riddle the gut piles and carcasses left in the field.

Lead fragments are a problem because avian and mammalian scavengers feed on the gut piles and carcasses and ingest the lead fragments. Overwintering eagles in many parts of Montana test positive for elevated lead levels and several die each year from acute lead poisoning. Evidence from multiple studies points to lead fragments as the culprit behind elevated lead levels in eagles and other scavengers.

Simply switching to a non-lead bullet makes a difference. A voluntary program in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming in 2009-2010 to get hunters to switch to non-lead bullets resulted in a corresponding decrease in the blood-lead levels of eagles using the area so it does work. 

Non-lead bullets are available in factory loaded ammunition and multiple choices are available to those who handload their own ammunition. They are normally all copper or copper alloys and retain virtually 100% of their weight upon impact. Non-lead ammunition costs about the same as premium lead bullets.

Give our eagles and other wildlife a break and consider switching to non-lead bullets.

X-ray images of lead (top) and non-lead (bottom) bullets shot into a ballistics gel – Photo Credit: Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media.