Today was the official opening date for firearm hunting of deer in Minnesota. This start of the hunting season represents a longstanding cultural tradition of communing with nature and living off the land. Minnesotans love the outdoors; from kayaking and canoeing to hunting, nature has served us for generations for both enjoyment and survival. As firearm season opens for whitetail hunting, it is important to consider the impacts that we as hunters have on the environment and its conservation for the future. Even with current legislation on hunting and conservation, there is a regulatory gap that leaves critical components of our wildlife at risk: lead.
The vast majority of rifle bullets used to hunt deer are composed of lead. Lead is an extremely toxic heavy metal, and most experts agree there is no safe level for exposure. This is particularly true for raptors, which are large predatory birds (including the North American Bald Eagle). According to an article by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, over the past 25 years between 21 and 25 percent of injured or sick eagles admitted to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center were found to have toxic levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning affects the nervous system, causing the body to shut down. In the winter when prey becomes less available, bald eagles and other raptors will scavenge the carcasses or gut piles of deer that have been shot with lead ammunition. The contaminated meat introduces lead into the nervous system of the raptors. The increase of lead poisoning cases correlated with the opening of firearm hunting season and the following thaws during the winter provide strong evidence that the way we hunt directly impacts our wildlife.
On Oct. 11, California became the first state to completely ban lead ammunition for hunting purposes. Although the law will not be fully implemented until July 1, 2019, it is a step in the right direction for animal conservation. The law was passed to help protect the California Condor, which nearly went extinct in the 1980s. This is not the first time lead ammunition has been banned for the conservation of wildlife. Lead shot was nationally banned for waterfowl in 1991, and this has been successful in reducing lead poisoning in waterfowl and (to some extent) raptors. According to a study done by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Natural History Survey, the ban saved more than 1.4 million ducks from death via lead poisoning in 1997. However, because of the wide use of lead ammunition in deer hunting, raptors are still at risk.
This is not an attack on hunting as an institution — in fact, hunters are often more aware of these issues because of their more direct relationship with the environment. However, should we really allow raptors and other wildlife to suffer if the solution represents a minor price increase? (It’s approximately 50 cents per bullet.) Unfortunately, the monetary cost represents only a fraction of a much more complex issue. Copper bullets are the most available lead-free alternative, but an increase in demand for copper simply represents a different type of environmental hazard. Even today, Polymet is working to reopen an open-pit mining operation in the Duluth Complex. Surface mines are used to extract minerals like copper but represent a great environmental risk to ecosystems and general biodiversity. Environmental concerns are rarely black or white. They often result in compromises, or the sacrifice of one thing for another.
It is important to remember that we are not limited by current technology. An increased social demand for safe lead alternatives could spark research to find viable options, and I am hopeful for the future. Until then, if and when you are hunting, please remember to safely cover your gut piles and remove as much of the lead slugs you can from what you leave behind. Hunting is a cornerstone of Minnesota’s heritage, and it is important to consider how we can make it sustainable and safe for future generations.
Sydney Firmin is a student in St. Peter, Minn.