By Ranger Steve Mueller
The U.S. Army is going with green ammunition. This summer soldiers in Afghanistan began using a new “green” bullet that experts say is more effective than the traditional lead round. The green bullet will eliminate up to 2,000 tons of lead from the manufacturing process annually.
Lead hazards in the environment have been known for over a century. Alternatives for lead shot are known. Questions remain regarding the impact on wildlife. Some hunters are concerned that more wildlife will be injured and escape if alternates are used. For the past 40 years, I have heard hunters state that steel shot is not as lethal so we should not use it. Research conducted at Shiawassee River State Game Area in 1973 and other locations across the US showed no significant statistical difference in crippling loss between steel and lead shot. People’s perceptions often do not match verifiable research studies.
The distance at which waterfowl are shot is important. Shooting birds from too far away results in escape of injured birds. It is an unfortunate reality that there will be injured wildlife that are not killed for various reasons.
In 1977, steel was required in the Mississippi flyway for waterfowl hunting and that includes Michigan. Lead is still permitted for upland game hunting. This is not the place to list decades of research papers. For quick concise information I suggest reviewing the Michigan DNR website.
Embryonic exposure to lead can affect avian immune systems, brain development, and hatchability. Early post-hatch exposure can affect behaviors critical to survival including brain development, and growth. In adult birds, the effects of lead exposure include anemia with potential detriment to migration capability, increased mortality due to environmental temperature stress, immunotoxicity, behavioral deficits, and reduced egg production.
The banning of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in wetlands 40 years ago has likely reduced lead levels in some areas. Lead poisoning in animals continues. Animals ingest it thinking pellets are seeds, nuts, or eat it when scavenging on carcasses. It is ingested as stones to grind food in their gizzard.
Similar concerns have made headlines recently regarding lead exposure to people in Flint’s water and how it affects people’s health. For some reason it has been ok to knowingly inflict this on wildlife but not people.
What goes around comes around and I suspect what we do to life in nature niches will return to impact our families. We want to believe we are isolated from damaging substances we put in to the environment but we are not. Whether it is lead, excessive carbon, DDT, oil in drain sewers, or toilet boil cleaners, we are not isolated.
Three studies, as example, estimated densities of 11,000 lead pellets per acre in a field managed for dove hunting in Indiana; the Washington Fish and Wildlife Nontoxic Shot Working Group in 2001 estimated densities of 188,000 to 344,000 pellets per acre at two pheasant release sites in Washington; and over 122,000 pellets per acre were in uncultivated fields near duck blinds in Missouri.
Hunting and fishing gear containing lead could economically be replaced with non-toxic alternatives. I still have lead sinkers in my tackle box but I do not use them. They were my grandfather’s. I do not think my grandfather understood the dangers from lead. I didn’t, as a youngster. I bit on lead split-sinkers to attach them to my fishing line. My dad had a lead rod used for soldering. I demonstrated my strength by showing how I could bend a “steel” rod like superman. My hands probably went in my mouth afterwards. What damage was done?
Once lead reaches toxic levels in tissues, muscle paralysis and associated complications result in death in eagles, loons, ducks, geese, swans or others that ingested it. The Common Loon on display at Howard Christensen Nature Center washed into the shore of Lake Michigan. A DNR autopsy showed it died from lead pellet ingestion. I would rather see it live in a healthy wild world than be displayed as a casualty of lead we put in the environment.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.