Lead Bullet Risks for Wildlife and Humans

Lead is an extremely toxic element that we’ve sensibly removed from water pipes, gasoline, paint and various household items. Yet, toxic lead is still entering the food chain through widespread use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle, poisoning wildlife and even threatening human health. There are no defined safe levels of lead intake in humans, and people who frequently consume game shot with lead ammunition are at risk from high dietary lead exposure. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body, produces no obvious symptoms, and frequently goes unrecognized, potentially leading to serious health issues. Lead poisoning is especially serious in infants and children.

Hunting is an important part of Montana’s heritage. Hunters that use non-lead ammunition carry on the proud tradition of wildlife conservation by preventing eagles, turkey vultures, hawks, and other scavenging animals from being exposed to lead; as well as protecting human health.  When a lead rifle bullet strikes animal tissue, it quickly expands and fragments into minute particles. Studies using radiographs show that numerous, imperceptible, dust-sized particles of lead can infect meat up to a foot and a half away from the bullet wound. Non-toxic ammunition that is just as effective and comparably priced as its lead counterpart is available from various arms manufacturers (see link below).

At the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, all eagles we admit are tested for lead toxicity and 90% test positive for elevated lead levels. Lead- tainted meat may become part of a raptor’s food supply when any of the following occur: a wounded animal escapes a hunting attempt, an animal shot as a pest is not retrieved from the field, or when a gut pile remains on the landscape after a hunt. Once the lead is in raptors stomach, the stomach acids corrode the lead, allowing the lead to leach into the bird’s blood stream.  As many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning symptoms in raptors include:

  • Bird may be off balance or unable to stand
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Bird may be making a honking due to distressed breathing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dehydration and starvation
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Seizures
  • Death

Useful links about lead ammunition and its alternatives:  USGS Lead Fact Sheet

Manufactures and retailers of lead-free bullets:  Lead Free Hunting Products