[Editor’s Note] For some, the fall season means hitting the roads and hiking trails for color. For others, it’s getting the gear ready to hunt waterfowl, upland game birds, and deer, or keeping an eye on falling temperatures in the north, with ice fishing in mind.
Unlike waterfowl hunters (for whom toxic lead shot was banned nationwide in 1991) and anyone hunting anything in Federal Waterfowl Production Areas (where only non-toxic shot is allowed) fishermen and hunters of upland game face a choice at the sporting goods store. Will they buy ammo and tackle containing toxic lead? Or will they choose non-toxic alternatives?
Certainly, no-one purchases lead ammo or tackle with the intent to poison humans or wildlife. But toxic lead is indiscriminate in who and what it harms. No level of consumption is considered by the World Health Organization to be safe for humans. Fragments contaminate venison from deer killed with lead ammo, and the gut piles left on the land are a toxic buffet for non-target scavengers such as eagles, hawks and ravens. Lead in fishing sinkers and jigs is among the leading causes of loon mortality, often ingested as grit and releasing its poison from the gizzard. And “lead litter” continues to accumulate on public and private lands. As reported by outdoors writer Doug Smith in a commentary for the Star Tribune, a 2018 DNR study estimated that Minnesota small-game hunters deposited 178 tons of lead on state-owned public lands during the 2017 hunting season alone (a figure which does not include lead deposited on private or other government land).
There are strongly held opinions around this topic; but it’s wrong to characterize the issue as a divide between hunters and non-hunters, since many outspoken, conservation-minded hunters are choosing non-toxic alternatives. As one such hunter asked in an on-line comment, “Would you sprinkle lead on the garden?”
It’s an easy choice for avid hunter Carrol Henderson, who made the following statement at a 2016 public hearing in support of a proposed non-toxic shot requirement on Wildlife Management Areas in Minnesota’s Farmland Zone. His perspectives are as timely now as ever, with hunters headed for the fields and yet another state legislative session wrapping up with multiple bills related to toxic lead ammo and fishing tackle left languishing on the public table.
My name is Carrol Henderson, and I am commenting on this proposal as a private citizen and as a lifetime hunter. I have hunted pheasants for over 50 years, and I own half of our family century farm in Iowa which I manage for farmland wildlife and pheasants with a mix of cropland, CRP, shrub plantings, and corn food plots.
Pheasant hunting has been an important part of our Henderson family traditions for over 50 years. On the first weekend of November each year we celebrate our annual Henderson family reunion called “Pheasgiving”—a combination pheasant opener and early Thanksgiving. We gather at our farm near Zearing for a morning pheasant hunt and at the local American Legion in the afternoon for a potluck supper which includes pheasants taken in the morning. Our reunion typically includes over 60 members of the Henderson family.
I have been using steel shot for pheasant hunting for over 20 years in Iowa and for duck and pheasant hunting in Minnesota at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and on Wildlife Management Areas in the Marshall area. During the Iowa hunts I provided steel shot for my son Craig, my brothers, and my nephews. They never complained about the performance of the steel shot. It was totally noncontroversial, readily accepted without comment, and never affected the quality of our hunts. In fact, I believe that hunting with steel shot both for waterfowl and pheasants gives better results than if one were switching back and forth between lead and steel, since it avoids the need to adjust for their differing velocities when aiming at birds on the wing.
Over the past several years, I have observed that nontoxic steel shot is readily available and that many pheasant hunters have already switched to steel shot. However, it is unfortunate that lead shot advocates have created misleading and inaccurate excuses about why use of lead shot should be continued.
The first misconception is an attempt to link the Second Amendment to an imaginary right to use lead ammunition. The Second Amendment is an important part of our Bill of Rights. I am a gun owner and support efforts to protect this vital part of our national heritage.
However, the right to keep and bear arms says nothing about what kind of ammunition we use or that we need to protect an imaginary “right to use lead ammo.”
The second misconception is that advocacy for nontoxic ammunition is part of an anti- hunting conspiracy. That is ridiculous. If you are hunting with nontoxic ammunition, you are still hunting, and you are still killing game. I am not an anti-hunter. I have been a proud and avid hunter for over 50 years and resent the insinuation that use of nontoxic ammunition somehow has anti-hunting implications.
A third complaint made by lead ammo proponents is that the steel shot is too expensive and that the cost of the ammo will drive Minnesota’s pheasant hunters to other states. That excuse demonstrates how poorly those people are informed. Current pheasant grade 12 gauge 2¾ inch lead shotgun shells at Cabela’s and Gander Mountain average $16.99 per box and comparable boxes of 25 nontoxic steel shells average $11.99. That is $5.00 less per box for steel.
A fourth excuse used by lead ammo proponents is to say “Where’s the proof that this is a problem?” Such proof is well-documented in the literature. A total of 130 different species of wildlife have been documented to die from poisoning by lead ammunition. There are comprehensive reports in the proceedings of the 2014 Oxford Lead Symposium and in Volume 237 of the 2016 Review of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It appears, however, that lead ammo zealots are too myopic to read the literature about the effects of lead on wildlife.
A fifth excuse is that if the loss of wildlife ranging from mourning doves to bald eagles from secondary lead poisoning is brought to the attention of lead ammo supporters, they claim they do not need to worry about such problems unless the wildlife is poisoned to the extent that it reaches a population level decline! That ridiculous claim is a unilateral decision by them and an excuse to ignore the toxic effects of their lead ammo on wildlife protected by state and federal laws. They are poisoning nongame wildlife, upland game, waterfowl, and even our national bird, the bald eagle.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibits poisoning of eagles, even a single eagle. This law, originally passed in 1940, provides for the protection of bald and golden eagles by prohibiting the take of any bald or golden eagle (16 U.S.C. 668(a); 50 CFR 22). “Take” includes pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb (16 U.S.C. 668c; 50 CFR 22.3). The law does not differentiate between primary and secondary lead poisoning. Now that we know the toxic effects of secondary poisoning by lead ammunition on eagles, it appears that use of lead ammunition on lands utilized by eagles would be a violation of this federal law.
There are, of course, two other largely unstated excuses that trump all other excuses — “I don’t want to change” and “I don’t want to be told what to do.” Amid all these excuses, there is not a single valid reason why lead ammo use should continue.
Broader public opinion favors phasing out lead in our environment, including lead ammunition. A state fair survey by Minnesota Senate research in 2015 (4,353 respondents) showed that 73% of the public believed lead ammunition should be phased out on all public lands, and 64% supported phasing out lead ammunition on both public and private lands. The recent DNR public input survey about eliminating use of lead shotshells on WMAs was supported by 60% of 3,743 respondents. And that was before the disaster involving lead pollution in Flint, Michigan. Lead is toxic whether it is in water supplies, in our wetlands, or in the soil of our farmlands and WMAs. It has been banned from gasoline and paint, and the US Army has undergone a switch to nontoxic ammunition. Hunting preserves and trap and skeet shooting ranges are shifting to nontoxic shot. The last lead smelter in the United States closed in Missouri in December of 2014 because of the air pollution it was causing.
The [Minnesota] DNR has estimated that 57,590 pheasant hunters harvested 152,800 pheasants in 2014 — an average of 2.65 pheasants per hunter. If about 5 shots were fired per pheasant harvested, a hunter would need about 15 shots per season-less than a box of shells annually. At just over one ounce of lead per shell, that is about a pound of lead fired per hunter. About 58,000 pheasant hunters would spread 30 tons of lead across Minnesota’s farmland and WMAs annually. Who supports continuing the cumulative pollution of our outdoors with lead when cheaper, effective, and nontoxic steel shot is readily available?
The worst consequence of efforts by persons and groups who blindly defend the use of lead ammunition is that they are shooting themselves in the foot by throwing American hunters under the bus! How? They are despoiling the image of hunters as hunter- conservationists. They appear to care only about the game they shoot and they are basically declaring that continuing the use of lead ammunition is more important than wildlife conservation and stewardship of our natural resources. If they continue to use lead, knowing of its toxic effects on wildlife, they are not conservationists. They have been lured to the dark side by intentional misleading national efforts to confuse gun-rights advocates who are encouraged to defend the 2nd amendment and defeat anti-hunters by responding to imaginary threats caused by a transition to nontoxic ammo. It is a red herring effort without basis in fact.
Do hunters want to be known as polluters of the land and poisoners of wildlife, or do they want to preserve their image as hunter-conservationists? I have always been proud to be a hunter and of the many conservation achievements that can be attributed to hunters. In fifth grade I learned that conservation means “wise use, without waste.” That simple definition provides an important lesson for hunters. Don’t waste our wildlife while pursuing game. Good ammo should not kill twice.
It is important to remember that our WMAs are publicly owned by all Minnesota citizens— not just hunters. Since the 1950s, dedicated conservationists like Dave Vesall, Roger Holmes, Hiram Southwick, Joe Alexander and others worked to establish and build the “Save the Wetlands Program”–a nationally known system of WMAs that we should all be proud of. They have all passed on, and now we share a stewardship responsibility to take care of those areas in perpetuity.
I sincerely believe most hunters care about Minnesota’s outdoors, all wildlife, and about preserving their image as hunter-conservationists. The era of lead ammunition is dying. It is no longer necessary for hunting, and it has become socially and ecologically unacceptable. Adapting to nontoxic ammo is not a threat to hunting traditions. It does not threaten the 2nd amendment, and it is not part of an anti-hunting conspiracy. It is an opportunity for hunters to take a leadership role in reclaiming their image as America’s conservationists by switching to nontoxic ammo and supporting proposals to require nontoxic shot on our Wildlife Management Areas. As Roger Holmes would have said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
About Carrol Henderson
Many people throughout Minnesota’s conservation community recognize the name Carrol Henderson as the former Supervisor of the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. Now “retired,” he continues to lead international birding trips and is active as ever in advocating for conservation of all wildlife. He has authored a host of books, among them Landscaping for Wildlife; Birds in Flight: The Art and Science of How Birds Fly; and Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide. Throughout the years, he has waded into the stickiest of conservation issues, contributing to positive change with a combination of boundless energy, research-based data, a spirit of collaboration, personal experience on the land, and optimism rooted in hard work.
Find out More
The MPCA Get the Lead Out campaign aims to restore the state’s loon population by providing education and assistance that helps anglers transition from lead tackle to nontoxic alternatives. It is funded by a settlement agreement with BP related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill directly and indirectly impacted Minnesota’s loon population, for which the Gulf of Mexico is a primary wintering area.
The nonprofit Friends of Minnesota Scientific & Natural Areas has been among those organizations active in the effort to prohibit lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle throughout the state. Check out the “Actions & News” menu on their website for a wealth of information.