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Group Asking Hunters To Switch Ammunition To Protect Eagles

Yathin S Krishnappa

As autumn approaches, so does hunting season in New York. And as hunters begin preparing for treks into the woods, the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society is asking for a change: this fall, use bullets that are lead-free.

Tom Salo, co-chair of the society’s research committee, said for a long while, lead bullets found in the bodies of game, like deer, were not considered a danger to humans and animals.

“Lead is a traditional metal. It’s been used for hundreds of years, and very effectively. It was cheap and easy to work. And the toxicity of lead in regards to bullets was not really a problem historically because bullets moved relatively slowly. At least, slow compared to modern bullets,” said Salo.

But as technology advanced and rifles became more powerful, the traditional lead bullets began to behave differently. When a traditional lead bullet hits a target after being fired from a high-powered hunting rifle, it may splinter, sending shards of metal into the meat and body cavity of a target.

The fragments may be too small to detect or see, which can create risks for humans. And scavenging animals in the woods are certainly not inspecting their food for lead before eating.

A study from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that lead fragments can scatter between 2 and 18 inches from the bullet entry point.

Salo says animals like bald eagles often feed on gut piles from carcasses left behind by the hunters.

“These gut piles become a pile of meat left on the ground in the woods or in the field that are readily visible to avian scavangers and eagles, crows, ravens, hawks all love to eat this stuff,” said Salo.

Those scavengers can get lead poisoning and die from the contaminated gut-piles.

So Delaware-Otsego Audubon is trying to spread the word on the environmental dangers of lead bullets and encouraging hunters to use non-lead ammunition that does not carry the same risk. 

Salo, a hunter himself, made the switch, even if it is a little more expensive.

“The four or five dollars I spend to have lead-free bullets is insignificant and when I know I’m not feeding lead-contaminated meat to my grandchildren and I’m not leaving lead-contaminated gut piles in the woods for eagles, it’s a comfort,” said Salo.

The society is working with partners using funding from a grant by the American Eagle Foundation.

The Otsego County Conservation Association is administering the grant for the Audubon Society.

OCCA Program Director Jeff O’Handley said a few focus groups and meetings with hunters were held this summer.

“We’re also trying to get hunters to participate in a survey about their experience with lead and non-lead bullets and about whether they’re willing to switch,” said O’Handley.

O’Handley said it’s not about taking something away from hunters.

“Hunters are great conservationists. They care very much about the resources and I think that the issue of lead and the way that the bullets are fragmenting is something that people are just not aware of,” said O’Handley.

Hunting for waterfowl with lead shot is already prohibited in New York. The State Health Department also recommends anyone hunting small game use non-lead shot.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation lists some benefits of non-lead ammunition on its website. In addition to being less prone to fragmentation, the agency says, non-lead ammunition can yield higher-quality meat.

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Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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