In August of this year, five conservation groups, led by the American Bird Conservancy, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a nationwide ban on lead in ammunition and fishing tackle.
The EPA declined to review the proposal to ban lead in ammunition, saying it did not have jurisdiction, but the agency did review the request to ban lead in fishing tackle, which it rejected earlier this month. The EPA said the petitioners had not proven that lead was a danger to the environment.
Marge Gibson is a wildlife rehabilitator and director of the Raptor Education Group
in Antigo, Wisconsin, and she disagrees.
“The EPA really has a responsibility you know, to protect the public from toxins. It was a very difficult day when I had received the notification that they’d decided not to ban the lead. I had been working with a trumpeter swan, a beautiful adult that had lead poisoning and had come to us just a few hours before. He came to us really too late to save him, but I was holding him, basically, when his heart stopped. So it was a very difficult time at that point in time. It was as if they had, sort of a slap in my face, and that of all our country’s wildlife. I wish they could spend a day with me, their minds would be changed.”
Each year, an estimated 10 to 20 million wild birds die from lead poisoning. The problem isn’t new and it’s no secret that lead exposure, at very low levels, is highly toxic. There’s been a ban on lead in paint, gasoline, and consumer products in the U.S. since the 1970’s. And there’s been a national ban on the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting since 1991. Some states have enacted partial restrictions on lead sinkers, but most have opted to educate rather than regulate. Campaigns to educate hunters and fishermen about the toxic effects of lead have had some impact, and lead-free alternatives are becoming increasingly available, but the problem persists and huge quantities of lead are still ending up in the environment from spent ammunition and lost fishing tackle.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the five groups that petitioned the EPA, 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunting annually, another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams as fishing lures and sinkers. Wildlife rehabilitator Marge Gibson:
“Trumpeter swans and a lot of the water birds get lead poisoning when they siphon lead pellets from the bottom of lakes and streams. Loons get lead poisoning, in some ways the same way as trumpeter swans. If they eat something, for instance a small fish that has ingested a lead sinker or has swallowed a hook with a sinker attached to it. Bald eagles become poisoned mostly after hunting season. In fact, now we’re gearing up for another hunting season which will be another winter-filled time of lead poisoning for bald eagles in particular.”
Gibson says that bald eagles and other scavengers often feed on deer carcasses and gut piles left behind during hunting season.
“And unfortunately they’re really filled with a lot of lead fragments and the birds eat it. In our small area, we’ll see about 25 bald eagles. Most of the time they’re adults, which is particularly sad. The adults stay on territory, or near territory in the winter time, while the youngsters go to the wintering area. So, the adults that have survived the mortality of youth are the ones that are affected most readily at this point. And they don’t become adults, full white head, ‘till they’re about seven, mate for life, and are long lived, and these are the ones that are being taken from the population.”
To protect eagles and other wildlife, hunters are encouraged to bury gut piles and dispose of deer carcasses where they can’t be scavenged. Lead-free ammunition is also available. But birds and other wildlife aren’t the only ones at risk from lead exposure. Lead ammunition can also pose serious health risks to people. Lead bullets explode and fragment into minute particles in shot game which can spread throughout the meat. A recent study found that up to 87 percent of cooked game killed by lead ammunition can contain unsafe levels of lead. The Minnesota Department of Health
has recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of six do not eat venison from food shelves or from animals killed with lead ammunition. A study by the Minnesota DNR in 2008 found that lead particles are commonly found farther from the wound channel than many hunters might assume and that most lead particles in venison will be too small to see, feel or sense when eaten.
Visit the links below for more information about lead-free alternatives for hunting and fishing, and ways to minimize the risks of lead exposure to wildlife and humans.