Resources for Hunters

Regulation isn't the place to start—information is.

Hunters make great conservationists. They understand wildlife management, and they see firsthand the ways that human activity can affect our precious wildlife resources. 

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is reaching out to hunters to raise awareness about an unintended (and entirely preventable) side effect of using lead in hunting ammunition—the lead poisoning of eagles, hawks, and other raptors and scavengers. Wildlife Center of Virginia President Emeritus Ed Clark, a lifelong hunter himself, puts it this way: 

“Lead ammunition fragments in deer remains are tiny toxic time bombs in the environment.”

Making the switch to non-lead ammunition for deer hunting is a straightforward solution to the significant problem of lead poisoning. Not only is non-lead ammunition better for eagles, hawks, and other scavenging animals, but it also eliminates the lead exposure of any humans who are consuming hunted game.

To learn more:

  • Watch an episode of our Emmy-nominated series UNTAMED: Life is Wild about the effects of lead on wildlife—includes perspectives from life-long hunters on why they switched once they learned the extent of the problem.  
  • Learn more about the extent and the effects of Lead Poisoning in Raptors and How Raptors Get Lead Poisoning
  • Understand the potential effects on human health. Studies have shown that very small lead fragments often end up in processed game, which are in turn ingested by hunters and their families. While there is no evidence that adult humans have been severely poisoned by lead by eating game meat, no amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Children and pregnant woman are particularly sensitive to lead exposure, and small amounts of lead can have health consequences for anyone. Learn more about the toxicity of lead at the CDC Toxic Substances Registry. 
  • Research lead alternatives. Ammunition with non-lead projectiles is now widely available in all of the most popular calibers for hunting rifles. For pistol and rifle ammo, the solution is a solid copper bullet, which is often ballistically superior to traditional lead ammunition.  For shotgun hunters, there are a variety of alloys that have been developed which approach the density and “knock-down power” of lead, but which do not have the toxic side-effects
  • Read our white paper on the issue. It includes discussion of the political background and why voluntary action by hunters is better than banning all lead ammunition.

What you can do:

  • Make the switch: the major ammunition manufacturers all offer excellent lead-free options for deer hunting. There are links to discussions and buying guides below. 
  • If you can’t find non-lead ammunition right now, or already own lead, you can bury your gut piles. This will go a long way toward limiting exposure to lead fragments.
  • Help us spread the word that ammunition should stop killing when it stops moving. Talk to your fellow hunters, hunting groups, and your suppliers about lead-free alternatives. You can share our episode of UNTAMED on lead in raptors. And there are more shareable videos and websites in the Resources section below. 

Resources for Non-Lead Hunting

“The Non-Lead Hunter” 

We as hunters must realize that the remains of the kill we leave in the field are eaten by scavengers like eagles, vultures, ravens, and crows. That’s nature's way. Unfortunately just a small lead fragment in a gut pile will poison a bird.” -- Anthony Prieto. 

Online Discussions and Buying Guides:

Non-Lead Hunting FAQ

Q: Is it true that non-lead bullets are less effective than lead, and can damage firearms?

A: No. While so-called “steel shot” used in shotgun shells 20 years ago was less effective than the more dense lead shot, and that steel pellets could scratch or score shotgun barrels, modern non-lead shotgun and rifle ammunition has come a long way. Today, non-lead ammunition is as effective as or more effective than lead. The ballistics of copper rifle and pistol bullets are nearly identical to lead bullets but, unlike lead, they leave no residue behind, making them even better for the gun than lead bullets.

Q: I don’t want to harm Bald Eagles, but non-lead ammunition is just too expensive. Why can’t it be cheaper?

A: Some types of non-lead ammunition may cost a small amount more, though in most cases, the price of non-lead ammunition is about the same as premium lead ammo. In cases where lead alternatives cost more, the difference is often less than $10 per box. Ammunition is the least expensive part of a hunt, and given the health implications for both wildlife and humans, many hunters agree that paying several dollars more is worth it.

Q. Do all types of firearms present the same risk to wildlife?

A: No, shotgun ammunition generally presents a far greater risk because each shell contains a lot more lead by weight, and frequently more than a hundred times the number of separate pieces of lead as a rifle cartridge.  Rifle and pistol ammunition typically contains only a single projectile in each cartridge.  A single round of “birdshot” (#9 or #7½ shot) can contain hundreds of tiny lead pellets, each only slightly larger than the head of a straight pin.  Each one of these lead pellets is enough to contribute to lead poisoning of an eagle or another scavenger.

While even single-projectile rifle and pistol bullets can distribute lead throughout the body of the quarry (up to 18 inches from the exit wound), the distribution of shotgun pellets can cover a circle several feet in diameter. A few pellets striking an animal – whether big game like deer or elk, or small game like rabbits and squirrels – may not kill it; in fact, shotgun pellets may remain inert in the muscle tissue of such animals for years. However, if the target animal is subsequently killed by a predator, like a hawk or an eagle, is hit by a car, or simply dies of natural causes, those pellets can subsequently kill the predator or scavenger that consumes the remains, even months or years after the original shot was fired. Many heavily populated localities require hunters to use shotguns for hunting deer since the range of buckshot and shotgun slugs is far less than rifles or pistols. In these areas, it is almost certain that every carcass or pile of discarded internal organs will also contain lead pellets or fragments.  In such areas, it is even more critical to eliminate lead-based hunting ammo, or assure proper disposal of what could total thousands of animal carcasses each season!

Have you made the switch to hunting with non-lead ammunition? We’d love to hear from you. If you’d consider writing a short summary about your experience that we could feature in a blog post, please email edu@wildlifecenter.org.