In mid-November, a bald eagle found in Howland died of lead poisoning, according to the rehabilitation center that was caring for the sick bird. X-rays showed several pieces of birdshot were in the eagle’s stomach. Lead has long been known to be toxic, so lawmakers and sportsmen should consider a plan to move Maine away from lead ammunition.
At least 14,000 tons of lead are introduced into the environment every year by U.S. hunters and anglers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This not only poses a risk to wildlife, especially scavengers such as eagles, but also to humans who eat deer, moose and other game.
Lead ammunition already is illegal for hunting big game in much of California, and it has been banned by the federal government in the hunting of waterfowl since 1991. Lead shot has been banned in game bird hunting in Canada since 1999. Many states require nontoxic ammunition in specific areas, such as wildlife protection zones, and for certain species, usually birds.
Efforts to have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ban the use of lead in hunting and fishing equipment have failed, most recently in 2012.
Maine lawmakers expanded a ban on the use of lead sinkers for fishing in 2013. A previous ban, passed in 2002, applied to sinkers weighing a half-ounce or less. The new law applies to sinkers 1 ounce or less. Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death among adult loons in the state, according to Maine Audubon.
Non-lead ammunition is made primarily of copper, and dozens of manufacturers make non-lead bullets, slugs, shot and other ammunition. The cost is comparable to high-quality lead ammo but more expensive than cheaper lead bullets, according to the group, huntingwithnonlead.org, which was started by hunters.
Non-lead ammunition has several advantages. Lead ammunition breaks apart when it hits an animal, often spreading dozens of small pieces of metal through the meat. This happens less with copper bullets. These small pieces of metal can contaminate the meat, which is bad for whoever eats it — a person, a bald eagle or other animal.
In 2011, a longtime sportsmen family in Wisconsin switched to copper bullets on their 750-acre farm, according to a profile of the family published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Who in their right mind would want to take the chance of feeding a toxin to their family?” Mark Noll of Alma, Wisconsin, said in 2011. That year, he asked everyone who hunted deer on the farmland to switch to copper bullets.
“I know some people are resisting changes like going to copper bullets,” Noll said. “I’m as concerned about the future of hunting as anyone.
“And that’s why we switched to copper. The bullets work great, that we’ve already proven. And they also reduce risk from exposure to lead. It was an easy decision for us.”
Given the health risks of lead — to animals and humans — using alternatives could be an easy personal choice. As a matter of state policy, the move away from lead is worth serious consideration.