For the Birds Radio Program: Lead: Still a Threat

Original Air Date: Dec. 16, 2010 Rerun Dates: Dec. 17, 2020; Dec. 20, 2018; Dec. 15, 2011

People have known for millennia how toxic lead is, but hunters are still defending its use. Why?

Duration: 4′55″


When I first started birding in 1975, one of the first things I learned was that ducks were dying of lead poisoning in dangerous numbers. A 1959 study by the Illinois Natural History Survey estimated that every single year between 1938 and 1954, at least 2 to 3 percent of the North American waterfowl population was killed by lead poisoning. In addition to waterfowl, lead shot was killing more than 27 other bird species, including bald eagles, which are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they often feed on the carcasses of hunter-crippled and lead-poisoned waterfowl.

Even today, every raptor center in the country sees a huge increase in eagles this time of year, many with dangerously high lead levels, as eagles eat carcasses of deer and other game that were shot but eluded the hunter.

It seemed like a no-brainer to me to ban lead shot for hunting, period. But the National Rifle Association and hunting groups fought tooth and nail to keep using lead shot even for duck hunting, and it took two decades, until 1991, before it was finally banned on waterfowl. By then, most hunters were ready to accept the ban, so compliance was high. US Fish and Wildlife Service researchers examined thousands of ducks harvested in the Mississippi Flyway during the 1996 and 1997 waterfowl seasons, the fifth and sixth seasons after the 1991 ban on lead shot. They found that the ban on lead shot reduced lead poisoning deaths of Mississippi Flyway mallards by 64 percent, while overall ingestion of toxic pellets declined by 78 percent over previous levels.

After such proven success, but because so many waterfowl and scavenging birds such as Bald Eagles were still being exposed to lead shot from hunters using it on upland birds, it seemed like the logical next step was to ban lead shot on upland birds. Steel is the cheapest alternative to lead but has a much shorter effective range than lead because of its lower density: thirty to forty yards is considered the maximum effective range for duck hunting. Many companies have improved steel shot by increasing muzzle-velocity by using faster burning powder. In recent years, several companies have created “heavier than lead” non-toxic shot out of tungsten, bismuth, or other elements with a density similar to or greater than lead. These shells have a more consistent patterns and greater range than steel shot. The increase in performance comes at a higher cost, but is still only a tiny fraction of a hunter’s expenses.

California is a critical place for lead issues, because critically endangered California Condors are still dying of lead poisoning. A proposal to ban lead shot for non-waterfowl hunting on state Wildlife Management Areas was rejected this year, again by heavy lobbying on the part of the NRA. Field and Stream published a balanced news story about it. The only comments on their online forum were by hunters supporting the continued use of lead shot. One guy actually wrote, quote, “Why pussy-foot around about lead and its poisoning affect on living things? We know it does. Lawmakers know it does. Various Commissions within CF&G know it does. Myself and those I hunt with have all spit out lead shot, eating game birds we killed…And we all know that lead is readily available for our reloads, store bought shells and slugs and IS CHEAPER. Which is the main reason we hunters want the next bill to die in committee as well.”

In other words, the hunters speaking out on this issue understand perfectly that lead shot is still killing wildlife. But saving a few dollars a year—just a tiny fraction of how much they spend on hunting—is worth millions of animals suffering, the enormous expenses to wildlife rehabbers, and the loss in even critically endangered species. I’d love for anyone who claims that hunters today deserve to be called conservationists to explain this to me.