Real hunters get the lead out

Lead bullets are dangerous to hunters and wildlife

  • Paul W. Hansen


It is time for those of us who hunt to quit using outdated lead bullets and start moving toward high-tech copper bullets -- even if they are more expensive. Lead bullets are bad for everyone: They contaminate the meat we bring home as well as the gut piles we leave behind, and they also poison any scavengers that consume the contaminated meat.

Moreover, the evidence against lead bullets is now solid. In a North Dakota study of 738 people whose blood was tested, those who ate a lot of wild game had higher lead levels than those who ate little or none. And the more recent the consumption of wild game harvested with lead bullets, the higher the level of lead in the blood. That is why the federal government now urges pregnant women and children under the age of 6 not to consume any game shot with lead bullets.

In Jackson Hole, the Beringia South Research Institute has found that 50 percent of ravens have elevated blood lead levels during the hunting season, compared to only 2 percent during the non-hunting season. In the Greater Yellowstone area, 85 percent of the bald eagles tested had elevated levels of lead in their bodies -- more than half of them at levels that can cause impairment or death.

What happens after a bullet kills a big game animal is surprising. According to a Minnesota Game and Fish study, an average of 141 bullet fragments per carcass dispersed far from the wound channel, for an average maximum distance of 11 inches. That means that routine trimming of a bullet wound will not remove all of the lead. Because most lead particles in venison are too small to see, feel or sense when chewing, they're liable to be unknowingly consumed.

For centuries, lead has been known to be a broad-spectrum poison for humans and wildlife, and recently the Environmental Protection Agency described it as "one of the most dangerous neurotoxins in the environment." The young of all species are at higher risk because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their developing brains are more easily damaged by it.

Lead has been banned from paint, gasoline, toys, and even tire-balancing weights. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a ban on lead shot for hunting migratory waterfowl. The agency took action because about 1 to 2 million ducks, geese and swans were dying each year from eating spent lead-shot pellets. Now, the Wildlife Society -- the professional association of the nation's leading wildlife biologists -- advocates replacing all lead-based bullets used in the field.

Hunters already have alternatives. They can either buy bullets with no exposed lead -- a heavy copper case surrounds the lead core -- or they can buy a solid copper bullet that fragments very little and leaves no lead behind.

Hunters contribute a great deal to wildlife conservation through license fees, an excise tax on gear, the purchase of habitat conservation stamps and donations to wildlife conservation groups. Given this great conservation legacy, it makes no sense to contaminate our hunt by bringing home tainted meat or leaving toxic lead in the field. When informed of the problem, 90 percent of Arizona hunters in regions critical to the endangered California condor voluntarily switched to copper.

Unfortunately, this issue has become unnecessarily polarized.  After making a well-referenced case for banning lead in the field, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity then overreached by petitioning EPA to ban the manufacture of all lead bullets. The group is now suing the agency. The lawsuit over-reaches because most lead bullets are fired in target practice, which presents little hazard to wildlife or people. The issue is what happens during hunting, and that is where federal and state governments should take a stand and eliminate lead bullets.

This fall, I made a killing shot on an elk using the lead-core copper case bullet. I found the bullet, with the lead core intact within the copper case. Advanced ballistics make these bullets very accurate and more likely to make a clean kill.

It was nice to come home and process the elk with no second thoughts about the lead I brought home, or left behind.

Paul Hansen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a lifelong conservationist and former executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

AL Osinski
AL Osinski
Dec 26, 2011 04:52 PM
 Thanks Paul,
This is the first nonpolitical intelligent good sense information I have seen on the subject. I tripped(while looking for something else) on the following info:
Lead in Venison
From: the Michigan DNR 'Hunting and Trapping Digest('rule book', back on pg.35) "Precaution About Lead in Venison

Deer that are shot with rifle bullets containing lead, particularly copper-jacketed and hollow-point bullets, can have particles of lead remaining in the meat, some too small to be seen or felt.

Lead can be harmful to humans, even in very low amounts. Children under seven years old and pregnant women are at the greatest risk from lead exposure.

The following suggestions can minimize potential exposure to lead in venison:

Remind your meat processor to, or if you process your own venison, trim a generous distance away from the wound channel and discard any meat that is bruised, discolored or contains hair, dirt or bone fragments.

Avoid consuming internal organs.

Practice marksmanship and outdoor skills to get closer, cleaner, lethal shots away from major muscle areas (don't shoot running deer).

Consider alternative non-lead ammunition such as copper or others that have high-weight retention

And this:

"If you use high-velocity lead bullets,
here are some ways to remove or reduce
lead fragments:
• Place your shots carefully. Shots that go through large bones,
like the hindquarters of a deer, elk, or bear, will cause more
• Fragments are often found farther from the wound channel than
expected. This makes it impossible to recommend a safe distance
for trimming. However, liberally trimming around the wound
channel should remove some fragments.
• Do not rinse the carcass. Rinsing the meat will not necessarily
remove lead fragments. It may spread lead fragments to other parts
of the animal, causing more of the meat to have lead.
• Ground venison has been found to have more lead fragments.
Venison steaks and chops usually contain less lead.
• Some commercial processors combine several deer. Venison that
contains lead fragments could be mixed into venison that you
receive. Ask the processor not to combine meat from other deer
with yours.
• Acids make it easier for the human body to absorb lead. Avoid
using acidic substances (like vinegar or wine) when cooking

came from,

For more information about lead:
Call 1-800-MI-TOXIC (1-800-648-6942)
Or visit
 and this from the bottom of the page, of NRA's synopsis on the subject:
 Q: What guidelines should I follow when handling or processing deer? A: There are common sense guidelines anyone can follow:
• Cut away all shot-damaged meat.
• Cut away a generous portion of meat around the wound channel.
• Don’t attempt to wash away lead fragments—it may just spread them more.
• Studies show that ground venison may contain more lead fragments than whole cuts of meat.
• Wash hands, face and clothing after shooting or reloading ammunition.
• Pregnant women and children under six have been cautioned not to ingest any lead at all for years. Avoid cooking venison in acidic sauces (wine, vinegar, lemon).
 After all this, it obvious, there is a problem with lead use, the trouble is most hunters are unaware of the dangers/risks. I agree with Paul Hansen, its time to get the 'Lead' out. I do hunt/fish, have for over 50 yrs and will be 'Lead Free' in the future. Pauls article deserves National attention.