Still poison: Lead bullets remain a big problem for birds

You may have noticed a rare of show of Congressional compromise recently, when members from both sides of the aisle jumped at the chance to sponsor and vote for the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014. The bill would have done a number of things, but two stood out: it would have exempted lead hunting ammunition and fishing tackle from longstanding regulations, and it would have allowed federal lands (like, say, in National Parks) to be leased for the construction and operation of shooting ranges. Mix that with some new research by the US Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, and others, and you’ve got very bad news for birds.

Now, we’ve known about lead’s toxic effects in humans and every other creature for a long time. Because of its toxicity, regulations in the US have been in place for decades now limiting lead’s use in hunting certain birds (waterfowl in particular). Even still, there were hints that lead exposure from bullets is still a major issue, so researchers set out to review and characterize what we know about this. Their conclusion: “The cumulative body of scientific evidence unequivocally suggests that Pb exposure from ammunition and fishing tackle is directly responsible for numerous bird deaths each year.” They noted certain species in particular; the endangered California condor, for one, is at serious risk thanks to lead accumulating in its environment.

eaglesleadThe image above shows how lead bullets fragment on impact, which can scatter either into an animal it hits or simply into the ground around a shooting range. Copper bullets, an easy alternative to lead, do not shatter as lead does. Lead can build up in birds from direct exposure, meaning when birds mistake lead pellets for food and ingest it, or when birds eat an animal that has the lead shot in it. To the right is a golden eagle chick in a nest ready to enjoy a meal of Belding’s ground squirrels; below are x-rays showing that very type of squirrel riddled with lead fragments.

So obviously, exempting ammunition makers from lead regulations seems a poor idea if it is already a widespread problem in birds. But mix that with the shooting range provision and it gets even worse. Back to the new paper: “The highest human-caused Pb concentrations associated with ammunition are found in and near shooting ranges… many grit-seeking birds pick up Pb fragments at or near shooting ranges.”

So, let all hunting ammunition be made with lead, and let people start building shooting ranges in places where, generally, your average bird wouldn’t come into as much contact with lead bullets. Sounds good all around.

Luckily for the birds, this bill died in a procedural vote in the Senate, but the bipartisan support suggests it could reappear in some form or other in the future. It only fell in the Senate because some heavily pro-gun folks tried to include amendments outside of the “sportsmen” genre, like loosening gun restrictions in the District of Columbia. There doesn’t seem to have been much argument over bird conservation, though clearly the weight of evidence suggests there should be.  – Dave Levitan | July 15 2014

Source: Haig SM, D’Elia J, Eagles-Smith C, et al (2014). The persistent problem of lead poisoning in birds from ammunition and fishing tackle, Condor: Ornithological Applications, 116 (3) 408-428. DOI: 10.1650/condor-14-36.1

Images: Haig et al, Condor


1 Comment

  • Rick July 16, 2014 at 9:31 am

    This is a good example of selectively writing an article. Let’s just add a little context, shall we?

    Leasing federal lands for a gun range? And of course, point out that federal lands include national parks. However, let’s NOT point out that federal lands include huge chunks of many states: 85% of Nevada is federal lands; 69% of Alaska… even 45% of California is federal lands. 30% of the US is federal land; of that, only 3.4% of the land is a national parks.

    Should we have gun ranges in National Parks? No, and I doubt they would be approved and I further doubt there would be an economic case for asking to build a gun range in a national park in the first place. Where are all the users going to come from to make it viable?

    But let’s have a little context instead of fear mongering about gun ranges being built in the waters of Biscayne Bay, Carlsbad Caves, etc. To be equally provocative, why NOT gun ranges in those parks – as long as the Pb free ammunition mentioned in the article is all that is allowed to be used at those ranges?

    As another point, suggesting that copper is an easy alternative to lead is simplistic at best. There are significant differences in the relative densities of lead versus copper, ballistic coefficients, etc. The most popular ammunition used in the US is the .22 rimfire; more rounds of this ammunition are shot on and off gun ranges, inside and outside federal lands, every year than any other caliber. Isn’t even close. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, despite all the areas now closed to Pb ammunition, copper bullets for the .22 rimfire still do not exist. It’s not like there isn’t a market there for the industry to make a buck on if copper was indeed the “easy alternative” the author suggests…

    Pb free bullets are becoming increasingly common – and increasingly effective. There is also a very good case to be made for requiring their use in areas where there is a demonstrable risk to birds – and mammals – from Pb ammunition.

    However, the issue is a little more complex than suggesting that gun ranges will be appearing everywhere in our national parks, and copper bullets are an easy alternative to lead.


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