Lead bullets poison wildlife and people

Lead poisoning destroys brain tissue, diminishing motor and cognitive function
spent bullet comparison lead vs. copper
Photos of standard copper jacketed lead core bullets and solid monolithic copper bullets before and after firing. All fragments recovered were lead (photo: North American Non-Lead Partnership).

“Until they reach the gizzard where the wildfowl grinds his food, these [lead] pellets do no harm, but, when reduced to powder…they become a violent poison.” That timely warning issued from Forest and Stream editor George Bird Grinnell 129 years ago.

The gun lobby, imagining a plot to disarm America, delayed a ban on lead waterfowl pellets for decades — this despite the fact that each year 300,000 ducks and geese were being fatally poisoned by ingesting that lead. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally issued the ban in 1991 the Firearms Coalition called it “the latest scalp in a well-organized, scarcely recognized series of flanking attacks upon the right to keep and bear arms.”

Lead bullet fragments and pellets, scavenged from carcasses and gut piles, poison far more wildlife than did lead waterfowl pellets. But the gun lobby has blocked a national ban on hunting with lead bullets and pellets for all game other than waterfowl. Today hunters can legally fire lead in every state save California.

People are being poisoned, too. While most states have programs in which hunters donate big game to the needy, few check for lead bullet fragments. Exceptions are North Dakota and Minnesota whose health departments impounded 17,000 pounds of donated, lead-impregnated venison.

Lead poisoning (plumbism) destroys brain tissue, diminishing motor and cognitive function. People who regularly ingest lead bullet fragments or pellets can survive such debilitation, but it’s a death sentence for wildlife. Animals need all their faculties to survive. Those that aren’t fatally poisoned succumb to starvation, disease, roadkill, or predation.

In 2020 the Journal of Wildlife Management reported that 94.5 percent of 91 golden eagles captured in western Montana had “elevated” lead levels in their blood. And in 2022 the journal Science reported that 46-47 percent of 1,210 golden and bald eagles in 38 states had “chronic” lead levels in their bones. Lead bioaccumulates like DDT.

“The real goal of those who are pushing lead ammunition bans is to hinder participation in hunting and shooting,” proclaimed the National Rifle Association’s Leadership Forum on May 5, 2023. But the NRA speaks out of both sides of its mouth. On the pages of American Hunter, its “official journal,” experienced hunters routinely gush about the efficacy of copper bullets. American Hunter even awarded the Barnes VOR-TX copper bullet, its 2012 “Ammunition Product of the Year Award.”

Copper bullets weren’t developed to prevent plumbism but to kill game more effectively, and they do. This, respectively, from Idaho big-game hunters and outdoor writers Scott Stouder, Matt Miller, and Holly Endersby: “Nothing but stellar performance and the knowledge that I’m not killing others out there from magpies to eagles”; “I have found copper superior in every way”; “Copper bullets are excellent... There just isn’t a reason not to use them.”

The North American Non-Lead Partnership (NANP) — 46 organizations and agencies representing hunters committed to saving wildlife and humans from plumbism — gives demonstrations in which a lead bullet and a copper bullet each weighing 180 grains are fired into plastic bags filled with water. In one typical demonstration the retrieved lead slug weighed 137.5 grains, having shed and scattered 42.5 grains of fragments. The retrieved copper slug weighed 179.9 grains.

lead-poisoned eagle
Lead-poisoned eagles are often debilitated, weak, exhibiting depressed mental activity and open-mouth breathing. This bald eagle was fatally poisoned by a single lead-bullet fragment (photo: Raptor Education Group, Inc., Antigo, Wisconsin).

NANP isn’t plotting to “hinder participation in hunting and shooting.” Its co-founder is Chris Parish, CEO of The Peregrine Fund, started by hunters using falcons instead of guns.

Parish, who hunts with shotguns and rifles for everything from birds to elk, offers this: “Back in the early 2000s the Peregrine Fund did a study in which we quantified rates of fragmentation in lead bullets. We shot 34 deer and X-rayed them whole, then the gut piles. Our research showed how scavengers like condors were vulnerable. I spoke at the California Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, explaining where the lead was coming from — up to 400 fragments in a gut pile. This was news to us as hunters and researchers, and we wanted to share it. I urged voluntary compliance, not regulation.

“I was so excited because here was an opportunity for us as hunters. We could have been responsible for the recovery of California condors. What a great win for hunters if we had pulled this off ourselves, another fine example of our conservation heritage.”

But the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States used The Peregrine Fund paper to threaten litigation. That helped convince California Governor Schwarzenegger to sign a bill banning lead for hunting.

The gun lobby blamed The Peregrine Fund for the ban. Parish and his colleagues received death threats.

In its pitch for voluntary hunter compliance NANP cites the 87-percent participation of hunters voluntarily shooting copper on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau. Impressive as that statistic is, voluntary participation is clearly not a national solution. Most hunters still use lead bullets; and, influenced by the gun lobby, they’ve been resisting regulated change since 1894 when George Bird Grinnell warned about plumbism in wildlife.

Litigation doesn’t work either. On November 3, 2023 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bid by the Center for Biological Diversity to ban lead ammo on the Kaibab. “This victory,” effused the NRA, “is a significant setback for gun control and anti-hunting advocates who see ammo bans as a pivotal leap in their agenda.”

Congress needs to act.


Great piece, Ted. I’ve used copper ammo for whitetail, mule deer, pronghorn and feral pig. It’s superior. Plus the science on the impacts of lead are indisputable. If hunters keep claiming to be conservationists, we have to take the lead on this issue instead of buying into ridiculous conspiracy theories.

This article is misleading through omission.

Copper bullets work fine, though have less mass than bullets of lead and copper combined which subsequently deliver less energy to the animal. This reduced energy can sometimes lead to animal injury rather than a humane kill. Not what anyone wants

Can I suggest readers look to this article for a more balanced view on the subject:


Finally, as fisherman, it feels hypocritical to suggest hunters stop using lead in their bullets while we continue to use lead in our weights. The primary lead issue is two fold:
1. Lead is a serious issue to large, carnivorous birds (such as the Golden Eagle mentioned above) and lead usage should be minimized when possible.
2. Lead is a serious issue to waterfowl, and lead in water - whether from lead shotgun shot (illegal since 1991) or lead fishing weights (still legal and in wide use).

I completely agree with AJ. Simply physics will tell you copper is not superior to lead and can lead to more wounded game either suffering, or getting away. Maybe both. Plus, copper bullets are more expensive than lead.

Having been a small-time gold miner back when it was allowed in my State, I would periodically find a lead .22 bullet and maybe a pellet or two but would find at least 100x more lead fishing weights/lures. The sad part is I and my fellow small-time miners removed this lead from the streams. But, since the State decided to eliminate this activity, not anymore. The lead will remain in the streams.

Remember, pitting sportsman against one another is an easy way to eliminate all sporting activity.

So you’re fine with poisoning eagles, condors, hawks and mammalian scavengers?

I have an idea/recommendation for you: Avoid mind reading in the future, you're not good at it.

Also, putting words in others' mouths, particularly absurdly extreme reduction ad absurdum statements like the one you made is not a good way to have a discussion, and never has been.

All it tells people is that don't have any solid, rational things to discuss, so you jump right into inflammatory rhetoric to try to score points.

It doesn't work, everyone see what you're doing right away, and if kills your credibility.

Huh? How and why do you imagine I “mind read in the future”? How would one do that? And what words do you wrongly imagine I put in someone’s mouth? I have no “solid, rational things to discuss”? Did you even bother to read my piece. Do you believe I made up the data and quotes?

You claim that No1Hunter is, and I quote, "...fine with poisoning eagles, condors, hawks and mammalian scavengers?"

How could you know that unless you can read their mind?

The same applies for the words you're putting in No1Hunter's mouth. They said nothing like that, nor did he suggest, imply, or infer it.

I read your response - that's how I - and everyone else here - knows that you are not interested in a reasonable, rational discussion, only in inflammatory rhetoric.

...and yes, I read the piece - it was decent, but your response to No1Hunter shows everyone you're not willing to engage in civil discourse...so that calls everything you write into question.

How about reading my comment before you vet it. I claimed no such thing. I asked a question. That’s not “civil discourse”?

Of course you said that. I quoted your words exactly.

And no, telling people what they said, or what they mean, so you can try to limit and control the range of their answer is no civil discourse.

The concluding lines to this article say it all. Hunting is becoming increasingly looked down on... percentages of Americans who hunt and even sheer numbers of hunters steadily declining despite overall population growth. People increasingly don't want to be associated with the "sport" as it has become the bastion of extreme views on guns, on all kinds of anti-environmental activities (including arbitrary and disgraceful predator kills), and general bad behavior. Drive any rural highway or road in America, and what do you see? Highway signs shot up by hunters. And most of us no longer buy the claim that the bad behavior is due to a minority of hunters. Nonsense. This is what hunting has become. Yeehaw. Freedom!

"Highway signs shot up by hunters" and you know this was done by hunters and how? Certainly signs have been shot, possibly many many years ago by the irresponsible people. They remain in place as THOUSANDS of non-sign shooting people pass by.

I've been hunting for over fifty years. Bullet fragments are a thing of the past except for "varmint" style bullets. They are designed to fragment so as to dispatch small animals like woodchucks quickly. Never seen one stay inside a woodchuck to be ingested by a scavenger. Having read several articles on this subject over the years and contacting the researchers, they refuse to divulge the type of bullet in their research. I assume they are not using controlled expansion modern bullets on the game they are sacrificing. Probably using "varmint" bullets designed to do what they want to prove. Just my two cents.

What utter nonsense.

Having worked twenty years at an institution of higher education and major research facility, I came to the understanding of how statistics and data are used to make your point on either side of the scale. Want more funding from Grant X, prove what Grant X believes. Of course lead poisons wildlife and humans, so does the tons of chemicals people spray in their homes, deposit on their lawns, and who knows what golf courses use to keep the grass green. No till meant no pheasant in Maryland. No undergrowth, no bugs, no habitat. Everything has it's consequences. Was moving to steel shot good for wildlife, yes. Since said wildlife fed in marshes where lead shot would have landed. Did banning DDT have a good effect, yes. Did more to save wildlife than banning lead in bullets will ever do. Mouse poisons that stay in the animal and continue through the food chain is detrimental to all wildlife. From my experience, most bullets pass through game, few are left in the guts unless it was a poor shot on the animal. So, I think moving to copper is great, but will not make a huge difference in wildlife ingesting lead and being poisoned by it.

"On the lower Susquehanna River, eagles congregate in fall and winter. A large concentration of eagles fish and scavenge for shad, channel catfish and carp at the base of the Conowingo Dam in Maryland." Sounds like fish may have some responsibility in the lead department also.

American Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders, but their main diet is fish. Not all eagles migrate, but since fish is their preferred diet, those in the north migrate south in late fall when rivers, lakes and other waterways begin to freeze. That is why at times there can be over 100 eagles near the Conowingo Dam, because the downside of the dam generally does not freeze, and where when the dam opens to run its turbines, fish flow through the dam along with the water, and the stunned fish are easy pickings for the waiting eagles. The large number of eagles in this concentrated area make it one of the best, if not the best, locations to photograph American Bald Eagles along the east coast."

Not sure of your points here. Are you seriously suggesting that the widespread poisoning of wildlife and humans that I documented in my piece is okay because DDT killed more wildlife? And, by the way, you have it wrong that “most [lead] bullets” pass harmlessly through game. You should trust wildlife managers and researchers like the ones I quoted in the piece rather than your limited and anecdotal “experience.”

...and there you go again: "Are you seriously suggesting that the widespread poisoning of wildlife and humans that I documented in my piece is okay because DDT killed more wildlife?"

Not what was written, or even close.

Your agenda is showing.

Hey Geoff. You really do need to start reading comments before pontificating on them. What was written was this: “Did banning DDT have a good effect, yes. [It] did more to save wildlife than banning lead in bullets will ever do.” Any literate reader would interpret that as “whataboutism,” id est, excusing plumbism by lead bullets because DDT killed more wildlife. But I never accused him of such whataboutism. I merely asked if that’s really what he meant. Finally, I do hope my “agenda” is showing. If you will read my piece more carefully (setting aside your own agenda), you’ll learn that my agenda is simply protecting wildlife and humans from being unnecessarily poisoned.