CORVALLIS, Ore. - The ingestion of lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle accounts for illness and mortality in more than 120 different species of birds in North America, according to a newly published review of scientific studies on the issue.
What impact that has at the population level for species is less clear, the researchers say, as is how to deal with the growing controversy over the use of lead for hunting and fishing.
The lead issue is complex and steps to mitigate the impacts will be challenging – from cost and performance factors to manufacturing output – but they are possible, the authors point out.
"Although lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in the United States since 1991, and in Canada since 1999, exposure to lead remains a problem for many bird species," said Susan Haig, supervisory wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author on the study. "However, we did find several examples of ways wildlife managers have helped reduce exposure of birds to lead."
The review of scientific studies, conducted by biologists from several different institutions and agencies, was published in the July edition of the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications. A companion perspective article, written by Clinton Epps, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, examines the challenges of transitioning to non-lead ammunition.
In their papers, the researchers do not call for any policy changes, but they outline some of the challenges of reducing the use of lead and explore tactics that have been used to reduce lead exposure.
"Shifting to non-lead alternatives is a lot more complicated than some people think," said Epps, who has hunted for more than 30 years. "Any efforts to shift hunters and fishermen from using lead needs to be well-informed and collaborative. Everyone concerned with this issue must be prepared to invest time, money, and expertise to work not only with hunters and fishermen, but with ammunition and tackle manufacturers."
Epps has looked at copper bullets as one less-toxic alternative to lead and notes that they generally work well in modern firearms commonly used for big game hunting. However, effective non-lead alternatives have not yet been developed for all types of hunting firearms, he added.
In the review article, the researchers outline the availability of non-lead ammunition in October 2013 in 35 different calibers and 51 rifle-cartridge configurations at three major online retailers. Of the non-lead options sold by those retailers, only a small proportion was actually in stock: Cabela's had non-lead ammunition in 18 percent of available sizes; Cheaper Than Dirt, 27 percent; and Bass Pro Shops, 10 percent.
"Non-lead bullets can be difficult to find in all calibers needed, but availability is improving," Epps said. "Premium quality hunting ammunition costs about the same for lead-based and non-lead options, but I see a lot of people using the cheaper options, which invariably contain lead, so cost may be an issue – particularly for high-volume users."
The physical properties of lead – including high density, low melting point, malleability and resistance to corrosion – have made it popular in the manufacturing of ammunition and fishing sinkers. However, many birds are sensitive to lead exposure, affecting the structure and function of kidneys, bones, the central nervous system and the blood system. Impacts range from lethargy and anorexia, to reproductive issues and death.
In their review, the researchers noted that lead has widely varying impacts.
- One study of common loon carcasses found across six New England states found that about 23 percent (118 of 522) of the deaths were caused by ingestion of lead fishing tackle and ammunition;
- California condors are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer significant mortality, yet a related species known as turkey vultures can survive with greater and longer exposure to lead;
- Few studies have been done on population-level impacts of lead with the most complete studies conducted on waterfowl, where deaths from lead poisoning are estimated to be 2-3 percent overall, and 4 percent in mallard ducks.
A survey by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2013 found that 69,000 metric tons (a metric ton is about 2,204 pounds) of lead were used in the production of ammunition in the United States in one year. Annual estimates of lead fishing weights sold in the U.S. equal 3,977 metric tons.
Birds and other animals ingest lead in different ways, according to Haig. Loons, for example, were found to have swallowed lead sinkers and jigs, perhaps mistaking them for prey. Scavengers including condors and eagles often feed on carcasses of animals killed by hunters and cannot avoid incidental lead ingestion.
"Some birds use lead pellets or fragments as grit to aid in digestion after consuming it at hunting areas or shooting ranges," said Haig, who is a courtesy professor of wildlife ecology at OSU. "Another potentially important lead source is recreational shooting of ground squirrels, which leaves lead-laced carcasses available to be eaten by golden eagles, Swainson's hawks and other birds of prey.
"We found one estimate that more than 1.1 million ground squirrels were shot in one state during a one-year period," she added. "It would be helpful to better understand what kinds of risk this poses to raptor scavengers."
The review outlines some steps to reduce lead exposure to birds, including redistributing shot in the surface soil by cultivating sediments; raising water levels in wetlands to reduce access by feeding birds; and providing alternative uncontaminated food sources.
"Managers have found a number of ways to reduce the risk of lead exposure to birds while preserving the important role hunting plays in wildlife conservation," Haig said.
One example cited involved Arizona Game and Fish working with other groups in that state on a voluntary approach to the issue.
"They formed a coalition to educate hunters about the negative effects of lead," Haig pointed out. "The result was more than 80 percent compliance with voluntary non-lead ammunition use among hunters on the Kaibab Plateau and no birds were found with lead poisoning the following year."
Other authors on the review include Jesse D'Elia, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Collin Eagles-Smith, U.S. Geological Survey and OSU Fisheries and Wildlife; Garth Herring, U.S. Geological Survey; Jeanne M. Fair, Los Alamos National Laboratory; Jennifer Gervais, Oregon Wildlife Institute and OSU Fisheries and Wildlife; James W. Rivers, OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society; and John H. Schulz, University of Missouri.