Coastal Voices: Lead, ammo and facts

By Chris West September 01, 2011 06:18 pm

The Yurok Tribe’s Wildlife Program  started the “Hunters as Stewards” campaign with the idea that hunters, if presented with the most timely and trustworthy information, would strongly consider switching to non-lead ammunition.

It was our initial opinion that the majority of hunters — critical thinkers by nature — want to preserve natural resources and are proactive in their approach to conservation.  Given our experiences at our shooting demonstrations in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, this approach was completely on target. We couldn’t have asked for a better start in our effort to get people talking about lead.

Most participants walked away with a new perspective, and traded boxes of lead ammo for high-quality copper ammunition to use in the final test, harvesting live game. We encourage the public to ask us tough questions and hold us accountable for all information we present.

Recently, a letter writer to The Daily Triplicate submitted a piece containing almost all of the same queries we’ve heard from hunters in the field. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to provide a response to Troy Messal’s letter and open up a broader dialogue about the use of non-lead bullets for hunting. Although Mr. Messal has not yet participated in one of our shooting demonstrations, his main misgivings about the “Hunters as Stewards” campaign included: a valid fear about a lead ban, safety concerns about eating lead-shot game, apprehension about effectiveness of copper bullets, and doubts about the validity of the link between lead ammunition and condor poisoning.

First, the Yurok Tribe believes that voluntarily removing lead from the food chain is far superior to legislation. The tribe takes gun ownership, ammunition availability and hunting rights very seriously. We are confident that it’s possible to drastically decrease the amount of lead in the ecosystem, of which we are an inextricable part, if hunters have access to accurate information. The tribe’s interest in removing the toxin from the environment reaches much further than condors and eagles.

It only takes an infinitesimal amount of lead entering the blood stream to cause ill health effects in humans, which is precisely why it was banned in paint in 1978 and in gasoline in 1996.

According to world-renowned toxicology expert and past president of the American Medical College of Toxicology, Dr. Michael Kosnett, lead is especially harmful to children who are developing their cognitive abilities. A child with only 0.00001 grams of lead per liter in his or her blood has been shown to lose an average of 6.2 points on a standard IQ test.

For adults, the primary concerns relate to increased risk of hypertension, renal disease, diabetes and reproductive difficulties in women. Safeguards put in place to regulate the use of lead make negative health effects like these rare. We as hunters are uniquely at risk from lead in ammunition, and we can protect ourselves and our families through new ammunition technology.

The letter writer also cited three “reports” criticizing the research linking lead ammunition to condor deaths. Only one of these reports has actually been published in a peer-reviewed journal. This was a comment on the highly scrutinized “Church Study,” which concludes that the lead poisoning and killing the critically endangered condor is from lead ammunition fragments ingested in from shot animals carcasses or gut-piles from field dressed game. This comment was addressed in a response by Church et al. and clarified why the commenter was in error. The Church study remains a solid and accepted piece of research.  This type of misinformation is what is keeping lead in the food chain.

Many hunters at our events have asked us about the efficiency of copper bullets in killing big game such as elk and deer. When Barnes and Nosler, both leading ammunition manufacturers, developed their premier copper and copper-alloyed bullets, it was not for the benefit of the environment. The company’s intentions were to create superior, high-performance, hunting rounds. This was the birthplace of the non-lead ammunition you see on today’s market.

The ammunition is accurate, effectively retains weight, and the controlled expansion delivers devastating energy for excellent terminal performance on game. Again, we ask that hunters come to our events, try out the bullets, read the literature, and make an informed decision.

Our next demonstration is Monday, Sept. 5, on the Hoopa Reservation. Participants will fire lead and non-lead bullets from their own guns to assess accuracy.  You’ll see demonstrations with both ammunition types fired into ballistic gelatin, to assess wound channel formation and penetration, and fragment-retention barrels, to assess fragmentation potential of each type of bullet. The Wildlife Program will also be trading non-lead for lead ammo, bullet for bullet.

Bring your gun, ammunition and your toughest questions. We hope to see you there.

Chris West is the senior Yurok Tribe wildlife biologist and an avid hunter.