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Retired DNR conservation officer makes case for copper bullets during deer hunting trip with his daughter

Johanna Birchem, 13, harvested this eight-point buck using copper bullets during the opening day of Minnesota's firearms deer season. Submitted photo.

ROOSEVELT, Minn.—There are few things as rewarding in hunting as getting to spend time in a deer stand with a son or a daughter.

Talking in whispers, with no social media distractions—we had very poor cellphone coverage—was a great time to talk about anything and everything Nov. 4, the opening day of Minnesota's firearms deer season.

My daughter, Johanna, 13, and I talked a lot about deer hunting. We talked a lot about doing the "right thing." We talked about hunting safety, hunting laws, ethics and how our actions as individual hunters reflect on the whole hunting community.

We also talked a lot about using copper bullets. I explained to her how we as a family have been using copper bullets for a decade. I explained to her that before I had retired from my job as a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, I routinely received numerous calls on sick or dead bald eagles just after the firearms deer season. I would send these birds to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. The testing results were always the same: The eagle had ingested small fragments of lead and had been too sick to recover. These eagles almost always either died on their own or were euthanized.

After about five hours of talking, napping and eating almost everything we had brought along, a beautiful 8-point buck walked through our shooting lane at 50 yards. My daughter made a good shot and shortly afterwards, she was listening intently on how to field dress the buck.

We were soon done with the work and went back to the stand to watch the shooting lane for more deer activity. The first raven showed up on the gut pile in less than 30 minutes. Then four more ravens showed up. Then the magpies, followed by the gray jays, and finally by two mature bald eagles—all getting their share of the gut pile.

We watched the avian show for well over an hour. I explained to her that if we had been using lead bullets, and with her shot placement on the deer (she hit the ribs and sternum), there was little doubt that the lead bullet would have fragmented in very small pieces, only to be fed upon by every bird we had just seen at the gut pile.

My daughter always asks good questions. When she asked, "Why don't all deer hunters stop using lead bullets and replace them with copper?" I didn't have a good answer. I told her I didn't know why. Even after years of letting hunters know the dangers of lead in gut piles, showing them that copper bullets outperform most lead bullets and are now equal in price to good quality lead cartridges, hunters in huge percentages continue to use lead bullets.

My answer to her was not good enough. She wanted a better one. It made perfect sense to her, after watching all the birds feed on the gut pile, that fragmenting lead bullets need to be replaced by solid copper bullets. She still wanted a better answer. She expected one from her hunting partner, who was also her dad. I didn't have one.