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Get the Lead Out
The New York Times, December 16, 2010

Get the Lead Out of Hunting
By Anthony Prieto

Santa Barbara, Calif.

I’VE hunted elk, deer and wild pigs in the American West for 25 years. Like many hunters, I follow several rules: Respect other forms of life, take only what my family can eat and the ecosystem can sustain, and leave as little impact on the environment as possible.

That’s why I hunt with copper bullets instead of lead. We’ve long known about the collateral damage caused by lead ammunition. When bald and golden eagles, vultures, bears, endangered California condors and other scavengers eat the innards, called gutpiles, that hunters leave in the field after cleaning their catch or the game that hunters wound but don’t capture, they can ingest poisonous lead fragments. Most sicken, and many die.

When I began hunting, I buried the lead-laden gutpiles. It would help if more hunters did this, but it’s not enough. Scavengers often dig gutpiles up anyway. And the meat that hunters take home to their families could be tainted. I’ve seen X-rays of shot game showing dust-sized lead particles spread throughout the meat, far away from the bullet hole. The best solution is to stop using lead ammunition altogether.

So last summer conservationists — along with the organization I run — formally petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead bullets and shot nationwide (there are limited bans for some hunting areas and game). The E.P.A. rejected the petition, and we’ve since filed a lawsuit to get the agency to address the problem.

Unfortunately, there is vocal opposition to any ammunition regulation from groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which see the campaign as an attack on hunting rights, and fear that the cost of non-lead ammunition would drive hunters away from the sport.

But this campaign has nothing to do with revoking hunting rights; if it did, I would not be involved. It’s an issue of using non-toxic materials. Was the removal of lead paint from children’s toys a plot to do away with toys? Did the switch to unleaded gas hide an ulterior motive of removing vehicles from our roads?

And although copper bullets can be more expensive than lead ones, the cost of ammunition is a small fraction of what I spend on hunting, which includes gear, optics, food, gas and licenses. No one will quit hunting over spending a few more quarters per bullet. Besides, the more hunters switch to copper, the faster prices will come down. Back in the ’90s, before pre-loaded copper cartridges could be bought over the counter, I had to hand-load my copper bullets. But already it’s easy to find them in many calibers, including those for my Browning .270 and my Winchester .300.

The dozen friends I hunt with love shooting non-lead bullets, and it’s not just because they’re doing something good for the environment. The ballistics are better. I’ve killed more than 80 pigs and 40 deer shooting copper. These bullets travel up to 3,200 feet per second and have about a 98 percent weight retention — meaning they don’t fragment as easily as lead. Copper kills cleanly. It can help keep our hunting grounds clean as well.

Anthony Prieto is the founder of Project Gutpile, a hunting group that advocates lead-free ammunition.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton