BEMIDJI -- If you deer hunt, your bullets may be finding their way into more bodies than you realize.
The hot topic at a Minnesota Wildlife Society panel discussion held Wednesday at the South Shore Conference Center in Bemidji was finding a solution to the issue of bald eagles eating lead bullet and shotgun slug fragments while scavenging for food.
Options for putting eagles on a lead-free diet include a mandatory ban on lead ammunition as well as a voluntary approach that lets hunters learn about nonlead alternatives such as copper bullets.
During Tuesday’s events, scientists presented data that showed a significant percentage of dead eagles found with lead bullets in their digestive systems and a toxic level of lead in their bodies, as well as fragments found in deer carcasses and “gut piles” hunters leave behind after dressing their kills.
There are concerns not only with eagles eating the fragments, but humans, as well,when the toxic shards show up in harvested meat.
“I’m not afraid of copper -- I’m afraid of lead,” Paul Radomski of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office in Brainerd Brainerd said Wednesday.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not going to feed my children poisoned venison.”
Ryan Bronson, representing the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun ammo industry trade group, said health concerns over lead in venison were “unsubstantiated” at a presentation titled “Not So Fast, Everybody” before the panel. Copper bullets don’t have as much stopping power and are therefore less humane, he said.
At the panel discussion, Bronson said there needed to be more substantial proof of lead’s effect on the eagle population as a whole before a ban could be justified.
“If you’re going to implement regulations that have an economic and social impact that’s going to be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s incumbent to be able able to demonstrate population effects,” Bronson said. “If you want to do voluntary and educational efforts… that’s a different story.”
Sean Strom with the Wisconsin DNR countered by saying if a sustained pattern of dead bald eagles suddenly appears, it’s already too late.
“You don’t want to see population-level effects,” he said. “Once you do, you’ve lost.”
Audience member Karen Noyce of the Minnesota DNR said people should focus not just on the entire eagle population but on individual animals, too, as a means of prompting action.
“We shy away from talking about the individual suffering of animals,” she said. “If we really want to go about this in an organized, voluntary way or get people on board… we’ve got to address that.”
On Tuesday, Strom reported on how he’s seen copper bullets win over hunters across the Dairy State as he and fellow wildlife workers embarked on an informational tour, asking people to compare the performance of copper and lead ammo.
In Minnesota, the question of whether the idea of a voluntary approach or a government lead ban will gain more traction remains to be seen. Generally speaking, Strom said he’d rather see more efforts to encourage a voluntary switch in order to prevent the animosity that would accompany a ban.
“I’d prefer to avoid the regulatory route,” he said after the panel.