Posted by: Wild Instincts | November 15, 2016

A Plea for Non-Lead Ammo

In a few days Wisconsin’s Gun Deer Season opens, bringing an estimated 600,000 hunters to the woods.

Now is the time they are making their last minute preparations and packing for the trip to the Hunting Camp. The lists are long: food, beverages, long underwear, extra socks, playing cards, etc. The top of everyone’s list should read: LEAD ALTERNATIVE AMMUNITION.

Every fall after upland game hunting season starts, but especially after gun deer season begins, Wisconsin wildlife rehabilitators see an increase of bald eagles suffering from lead poisoning.

It’s not from eagles being shot, accidentally or otherwise, but rather from lead bullet fragments being ingested from gut piles and carcasses that succumbed to hunters using lead ammunition but are not found or retrieved.

We recently said as much on TV and received some heated challenges indicating we made that up. We wish we had because that would be easy to fix, but alas, we did not. A simple Internet search will lead you to many scientific studies on the subject, but we know you are busy getting ready for Saturday, so we’ve brought some of the important findings to you here.

Lead is a naturally occurring highly toxic mineral. The earliest known lead mine dates to 6500 BC. Lead toxicity was known and recorded as early as 2000 BC. Our modern society has removed it from gasoline and paint. It’s been outlawed from ammunition used for waterfowl since 1991 because of the incidental deaths of over 2 million waterfowl annually by their eating of spent lead shot in sediments while feeding and developing lead poisoning from it. Lead shot and rifle bullets, however, are still widely used for hunting mammals and upland game birds. Lead sinkers and lures are still in use by anglers. These uses expose bald eagles, loons, swans, vultures, ravens and other birds to the hazards of lead poisoning by adding lead to your hunting grounds.

Hunting guns today come in a huge variety. They shoot a projectile that expands on impact to help inflict a humane kill. How that projectile expands and what happens to it after it enters the target’s body depends on what it is made from. There have been many studies in recent years to show how far the projectile expands and where the fragments end up. The results may amaze you:

  • No matter the type of animal or type of lead-based bullet, lead bullets fragment when fired into an animal.
  • The fragment size and number varies but can number in the 100’s in just ONE carcass.
  • Fragments sprayed out from the wound channel a great distance, up to 18”
  • Monolithic copper bullets produce few, if any, fragments within carcasses.

Interesting and scary, huh?


Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group, 35365 800th  Ave, Madelia, MN 56062


This is scary, too. An x-ray of a domestic sheep shot with lead ammo. Bullet fragments are within the red circles and throughout the body cavity and pelvic cavity, even though it was shot behind the shoulder blade.

Think about that. Your use of lead creates a firestorm of small lead fragments that significantly increases the chance eagles or other wildlife will scavenge these fragments in the gut pile or carcass you leave behind. It also means more than one animal can be poisoned by a single carcass. Bald eagles are great scavengers. Gut piles and un-retrieved carcasses are easy buffets. Especially in hunting seasons with no snow to cover them. This is HOW eagles get lead in their systems this time of year. Really. We aren’t making this up and there are many scientific studies out there to prove it.


Eagle admitted to Wild Instincts with lead shot fragments in its stomach.

In years when there is a lot of snow for hunting season and throughout the winter, we have a delay in admissions with a second surge of patients. When snow starts to melt and uncover lead-tainted carcasses from hunting season that had been snow covered for the winter, we see another uptick in lead poisoned eagle admissions.


What happens after an eagle accidentally ingests lead fragments from the ammunition you used on your 30 Pointer?

The lead fragment(s) are broken down by the stomach acid to form toxic lead salts which are absorbed into the blood stream. Lead interferes with calcium and causes neurological effects –think seizures here. It affects kidney and liver function. It affects growth, feeding behavior, locomotion, balance, depth perception. It affects every aspect of that bird’s life and its ability to survive in the wild.

We draw blood on each eagle we admit to test for lead. There are guidelines that divide the results into different levels. Background level (<.2 ppm (20 µ/dl)) is a very low elevation. Subclinical level (.2 to .5 ppm (20-50 µ/dl)) means they have elevated levels, but they aren’t high enough to cause visible symptoms and finally clinical lead toxicity (>greater than .5 (50 µ/dl)). Our years of experience, however, have shown us these guidelines are often misleading. We have admitted quite a number of birds that should fit into the Background Level of less than .2ppm (20 µ/dl) that are showing clinical symptoms!

Our protocol is now not to release a bird until its blood level is too low to read. Birds that have lead levels supposedly too low to cause death, still have effects on their health and life. There have been reports of birds with low blood lead levels being more susceptible to predations, hunting, collisions with vehicles or powerlines, etc.

Birds that have elevated levels of lead in their blood are started on treatment immediately. Chelation binds the lead from soft tissue and bone for excretion. It depletes good minerals along with the lead. The treatment for lead poisoning is grueling on the bird. Lots of supportive care is given and rehabbers invest their hearts and souls into every bird. Still, some make it and many do not.

This happens not only in Wisconsin, but across the U.S.

Think about all the needless deaths from just ONE lead fragment contaminated animal and multiply it across the U.S.

Deer hunting is the most popular type of hunting in the U.S. with over 10 million people participating in 2006. It’s common practice to field dress deer by removing the internal organs to leave a lighter, easier-to-drag-out-to-the-car carcass. The entrails are left in place in a gut pile for wild animals to scavenge. There are also deer that are wounded, but not recovered that die in the woods, again for wild animals to scavenge. Small game hunters number around 7.5 million. The above deer scenario is repeated for these rabbits, squirrels, grouse, etc.

By now you shouldn’t be surprised that doesn’t just happen in the U.S., but all over the world.

It’s heartbreaking.


It’s totally and easily preventable.

Replace your lead ammunition and fishing tackle with non-lead alternatives. Get your friends and family to do the same thing.


They can’t wait.




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