When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rode Tonto, a handsome bay roan horse, through the busy streets of Washington, D.C., into work his first day on the job, he was making a statement: Zinke is a Westerner, a Montanan, a sportsman.
But beautiful Tonto was an unwitting accomplice to a nefarious deed. Zinke's very first act on the job was to break trust with the wild lands of the West that he has sworn to protect, by repealing an order that blocked the use of lead ammunition in national parks, federal wildlife refuges and other public land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The order he revoked had been put in place during the last days of the Obama administration and was a step in the right direction toward protecting hunters and their families from unintended exposure to toxic lead in their meat.
The problem with lead bullets is that they fragment, leaving microscopic traces in animals that have been shot. Lead is extremely toxic, and residual lead from bullets is a serious issue for endangered condors, other birds and animals—and very likely for people. Venison donated to food banks by hunters frequently contains lead, and people who eat wild game have more lead in their blood.
While we know with certainty that lead is toxic and that microscopic residual lead from shattered bullets can be found in hunted meat, studies are just beginning to explore at what point the levels of residual lead in game pose a human health risk. Still, even very low levels of lead can harm children and developing fetuses, and no level is considered safe, so a better-safe-than-sorry attitude seems like good horse sense. Hunters are proud of their sport and consider the meat they obtain to be much healthier than the store-bought kind. Maybe so, but these folks need to rethink the use of lead bullets if they plan to feed their kids elk burgers.
In the wild, birds are particularly sensitive to lead toxicity, and when they feed on gut piles left behind by hunters who use lead bullets, it can kill them. Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death among California condors, which were very near extinction with only 22 left in the world in 1987. All were captured for a breeding program, and their descendants have been re-released into the wild in the Grand Canyon, Utah and Big Sur. Their numbers are growing, but the survival of the species remains precarious.
As the big scavengers widen their range, what takes place on the land becomes important throughout the West, not just near release sites. A condor named N8, known as Nate, flew into Los Alamos, New Mexico, last year, near my home. The whole town hoped he was house shopping. These birds are a wonder, with up to a 10-foot wingspan. Condors can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour in flight and soar 15,000 feet above the Earth. They can live for up to 60 years and they mate for life. These highly intelligent birds are an integral part of Mother Nature's cleanup crew. They deserve to survive. But with the continued use of lead bullets for hunting, they may not make it.
Residual lead is also a frequent cause of death for bald eagles. My hunting friends all share a love for the wild and are thrilled whenever they look up to see an eagle soaring overhead. Not one of them would want to inadvertently kill one of these majestic birds.
Copper bullets—a good alternative to lead—do not fragment like lead. It is true that they are more expensive, but friends who hunt, and who have switched to copper, tell me the change was no problem, the cost difference really minor, and the switch didn't impact ballistics.
One New Mexican hunter raised an interesting concern: Animals that have been shot but survived can carry an old bullet in their bodies. Hunters typically cut out their own bullet around the fresh wound, but could undiscovered bullets increase the risk of lead contamination?
In California, using lead bullets for hunting is illegal. But as Zinke demonstrated, there will be few if any regulations coming from the current administration to protect hunters and their families, let alone wildlife. Still, hunters can make their own informed choices. Most hunters I've spoken with say they simply weren't aware of this issue, but after they read up on it, most opted for safer ammunition. It's a simple choice that's good for the wild and good for people.
Bette Korber is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in New Mexico.