How Zinke’s lead bullet ruling fails the West

How toxic lead fragments follow wildlife from wilderness onto our dinner plates.

 

Bette Korber is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She writes in New Mexico.


When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rode Tonto, a handsome bay roan horse, through the busy streets of Washington, D.C., into work his first day on the job, he was making a statement: Secretary Zinke is a Westerner, a Montanan, a sportsman. 

But beautiful Tonto was an unwitting accomplice to a nefarious deed: Zinke’s very first act on the job was to break trust with the wild lands of the West that he has sworn to protect, by repealing an order that blocked the use of lead ammunition in national parks, federal wildlife refuges and any other public land administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The order he revoked had been put in place during the last days of the Obama administration and was a step in the right direction towards protecting hunters and their families from unintended exposure to toxic lead in their meat.

The problem with lead bullets is that they fragment, leaving microscopic traces in animals that have been shot. Lead is extremely toxic, and residual lead from bullets is a serious issue for endangered condors, other birds and animals — and very likely for people. Venison donated to food banks by hunters frequently contains lead, and people who eat wild game have more lead in their blood.  

Days after Interior secretary Ryan Zinke reported to Washington, he rescinded a ban on lead ammunition.

While we know with certainty that lead is toxic and that microscopic residual lead from shattered bullets can be found in hunted meat, studies are just beginning to explore at what point the levels of residual lead in game pose a human health risk. Still, even very low levels of lead can harm children and developing fetuses, and no level is considered safe, so a better-safe-than-sorry attitude seems like good horse sense. Hunters are proud of their chosen sport and consider the meat they obtain to be much healthier than the store-bought kind. Maybe so, but these folks need to rethink the use of lead bullets if they plan to feed their kids elk-burgers.

In the wild, birds are particularly sensitive to lead toxicity, and when they feed on gut piles left behind by hunters who use lead bullets, it can kill them. Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for California condors, which were very near extinction, with only 22 left in the world in 1987. All were captured for a breeding program, and their descendants have been re-released into the wild in the Grand Canyon, Utah and Big Sur. Their numbers are growing, but the survival of the species remains precarious.  

As the big scavengers widen their range, what takes place on the land becomes important throughout the West, not just near release sites A condor named N8, known as Nate, flew into Los Alamos, New Mexico, last year, near my home — the whole town hoped he was house-shopping. These birds are a wonder, with up to a 10-foot wingspan. Condors can reach speeds of 55 mph in flight, and soar 15,000 feet above the Earth. They can live for up to 60 years, and they mate for life. These highly intelligent birds are an integral part of Mother Nature’s cleanup crew. They deserve to survive, but with the continued use of lead bullets for hunting, they may not make it. 

Residual lead is also a frequent cause of death for bald eagles. My hunting friends all share a love for the wild and are thrilled whenever they look up to see an eagle soaring overhead. Not one of them would want to inadvertently kill one of these majestic birds.

Copper bullets, a good alternative to lead, do not fragment like lead. It is true that they are more expensive, but friends who hunt, and who have switched to copper, tell me the change was no problem, the cost difference really minor, and the switch didn’t impact ballistics.

One New Mexican hunter raised an interesting concern: Animals that have been shot but survived can carry an old bullet in their bodies. Hunters typically cut out their own bullet around the fresh wound, but could undiscovered bullets increase the risk of lead contamination?

In California, using lead bullets for hunting is illegal, but as Secretary Zinke demonstrated, there will be few if any regulations coming from the current administration to protect hunters and their families, let alone wildlife. Still, hunters can make their own informed choices. Most hunters I’ve spoken with say they simply weren’t aware of this issue, but after they read up on it, most opted for safer ammunition. In a way, it is a simple choice that’s good for the wild and good for people.

Learn more from:

The lead bullet bit starts at minute 7.

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: