Lead Ammo and Tackle, Decades Later, Still Fought Over by Big Guns

October 19, 2022
Scavengers that eat carrion can be poisoned by the lead ammunition used by hunters. Above, trail cam footage captured bald eagles feeding on a deer carcass. Photo: Chelsea Geyer, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

TipSheet: Lead Ammo and Tackle, Decades Later, Still Fought Over by Big Guns

By Joseph A. Davis

It’s getting to be hunting season in many parts of the country. And it’s still fishing season in some places. That means the environmental consequences of lead shot and tackle are ripe for local journalists to cover.

It’s an intensely local story if you look for it — tied to specific pieces of land or water. And if you think conflict makes news, you will find it by exploring this issue.

Over the last several decades, the pendulum on the lead issue has swung back and forth. On the last day of the Obama administration, Dan Ashe, his director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, issued an order banning lead ammo on USFWS lands. Then, on his first day in office, incoming Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinded that order.

So it goes. It was a big story for a few days. But then again it has been a story for decades.


Why it matters

Lead has been used for bullets, shot and fishing sinker weights for a long time. It is a heavy metal that is cheap, abundant and workable. Its weight or mass is what makes hunters and fishers want to use it.

But there’s a problem. Lead is also toxic — both to humans and animals. It is primarily a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children and can permanently harm their neurological development, as well as other aspects of their health. Lead poisoning can permanently lower a child’s IQ.

This explains why pediatricians routinely test kids’ blood lead levels. You may remember that it was lead-poisoned kids who played a key role in the 2014 Flint, Mi., water contamination crisis.


When hunters use lead slugs and shot,

and then miss their targets, the lead

is scattered over the land they hunt on.


But when hunters use lead slugs and shot, and then miss their targets, the lead is scattered over the land they hunt on. Alternately, when they hit their quarry — be it an elk or a duck — the lead ammo enters the animal’s body, but shatters when it hits, creating fragments that are hard to find and remove.

One consequence is that when humans eat the meat, they may ingest some amount of lead. Another is that when a wounded animal is left to die, scavengers who eat the carrion are quite often lead-poisoned.

An additional problem? Hunters who field-dress their kill leave gut piles that are then eaten by scavengers. Lead poisoning is a serious problem for scavengers, such as the majestic California condor, the largest North American land bird.

The condor went extinct in the wild by 1987, but a skillful and caring program of captive breeding succeeded in bringing them back. While still listed as endangered, it is being reintroduced to the wild. But the condor is a scavenger and can ingest lead from animals that have been shot and died. That means lead is now the single biggest threat to condors’ survival.

The problem is bigger, though, because many other wild species scavenge dead animals when they need to. Bald eagles, which are actually great fishers, will sometimes become victims of lead poisoning this way. And many others.


The backstory

The effects of lead ammo on wildlife have been known for decades. In 1991, the federal government banned hunting for waterfowl with lead ammunition. This was possible because the feds regulate waterfowl hunting under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

But the reach of the rule is limited because it only applies to some species and may not be enforced on nonfederal land. And, as the earlier anecdote about USFWS orders illustrates, it has always been controversial.

At the federal level, though, the issue is still in play. The Biden administration’s lead ammo rule is wending its way through the regulatory and court process. It is strongly opposed by some hunting groups.

In addition, the rules are different for specific species, states and land categories — making the story ripe for localization. California, for example, banned all hunting with lead ammo by 2019. Check out your state’s fish and wildlife agency for a better take.

By the way, there are alternatives. The U.S. military, for instance, has already developed “green bullets.”


Story ideas

  • What are the most popular hunting places in your area (this may vary by species)? Who owns that land? What are the rules there for ammunition use? Who sets them?
  • What waters are most used for fishing in your area?
  • Does your state have any laws or rules about lead ammo and tackle? What are they and where do they apply? Are they enforced? How do hunters and fishers feel about them?
  • Find local hunting and fishing organizations, and talk to them about lead ammo and tackle. Try going to a meeting.
  • Who does the wildlife rescue in your area? Talk to these people or organizations about their experience with threats to animals.
  • Find a wildlife biology department at a college or university near you. See if there are any experts there who have knowledge of this issue.


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 37. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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