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Hunting is a pastime steeped in tradition. Conservation, coming-of-age hunts, first beers and butchering parties, to name a few. One tradition that is on its way out, however, is the use of lead core bullets. Growing numbers of hunters are giving up their “daddy’s bullets” for more modern, equally effective and wildlife-friendly non-lead alternatives.

Hunters making the switch have become aware that lead bullets often fragment, even when only striking soft tissue, inevitably leaving lead pieces in “gut piles” and carcasses left in the field, and almost certainly poisoning wildlife inadvertently. It is well-established science that contaminated gut piles were a major barrier to the recovery of the California condor in Arizona, and the voluntary use of non-lead bullets by hunters on the Kaibab Plateau helped turn the tide in favor of the condors.

Other scavengers are also suffering because of ingested lead fragments. In research that is still ongoing by the Raptor View Research Institute and MPG Ranch, they have found that 87 percent of overwintering bald and golden eagles in the Bitterroot Valley have elevated levels of lead in their blood. There is no other probable source of lead besides scavenged hunter kills.

Eagle deaths from lead poisoning have also been documented across the country. The Centers for Disease Control also found that humans who consume meat hunted with lead core bullets have elevated levels of lead.

Many hunters do not need to read the massive body of evidence showing the ill effects of lead before deciding to use an alternative. For them, leaving lead fragments in the field is akin to hand-feeding bits of toxic lead to wildlife, and they believe that their responsibilities as conservationists extend beyond the game they pursue. Most of these hunters use a simple calculation to make the decision: Lead is toxic to animals and humans who consume it, whereas non-lead (usually a copper alloy which does not fragment) is much less toxic, non-lead bullets are affordable and equally or more effective than traditional lead core bullets, so why not switch? Hunters have little to lose by doing so, but wildlife and humans who consume hunted meat have much to gain.

The voluntary use of non-lead by hunters is also good press, which for the hunting community can be hard to come by; think Cecil the lion, or the now former Idaho Fish and Game commissioner posing with a dead family of baboons, or the mortally wounded grizzly bear tumbling down a snow field in British Columbia. Hunters switching to non-lead honors the tradition of hunters being leaders in conservation and environmental stewards while strengthening the image of hunting to non-hunters. It could also improve bonds with sporting conservation groups and their non-hunting conservation allies. Moreover, it could appeal to the ethics of new hunters who are most interested in hunting as a way of obtaining good clean food and thereby bolstering dwindling hunter numbers.

I have personally taken about a dozen animals using non-lead ammunition. Most fell instantly and all of them quickly. I have seen gray jays, ravens, magpies, bears, coyotes, bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks and other scavengers feeding on the remnants from my animals. I find comfort knowing that these animals did not suffer needlessly as a result of me making a simple ammunition switch.

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Corey Ellis lives in Missoula and is an avid hunter, angler and active member of several hunting, fishing and conservation organizations.

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