Change comes hard to most folks, especially those of us from northern New England. We tend to be set in our ways, living by the old creed: If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. We go along to get along, but sometimes we have no choice.

In the early 1980s there was an initiative to ban the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. I, like most hunters, was adamantly opposed to the idea. Lead shot worked just fine. In fact, we would later learn it was far superior to most non-toxic options in terms of ballistics. I was well stocked and had made a substantial investment in reloading supplies and equipment. I also didn’t see the need for a change.

The claim that waterfowl were dying of lead poisoning from spent shot was met with skepticism. Where was the evidence? Hunters like myself were out on the marshes, ponds and lakes from October through December and even into January, and finding waterfowl dead or dying from lead poisoning was a rarity. My mind would soon be changed.

In the mid ’80s I worked on a research project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) evaluating the impact of lead shot on waterfowl. Part of the project involved taking soil samples at random locations, sifting them and counting lead pellets. The volume of pellets we found was eye opening. Certainly there was cause for concern, but was it justified?

The next part of the study consisted of searching for and collecting dead or dying birds. The effects of lead poisoning occur slowly, over several months as afflicted birds gradually become sick and weak. Where all seemed fine in December and January, we found quite a different situation in February and March. Daily trips around the refuge turned up dozens of dead or severely weakened birds, mostly geese. From those birds we recovered the gizzards, which we dissected and counted lead pellets present. There was indeed a serious problem.

FWS began a progressive program to restrict lead shot, starting with federal land and eventually prohibiting its use for all waterfowl hunting in 1991. Some entities claim that waterfowl populations subsequently rebounded as a result of banning lead shot. In truth, waterfowl numbers have waxed and waned over the last several decades, based largely on spring nesting conditions. Still, reducing one major form of mortality probably helped boost numbers in years with favorable nesting conditions.


There is a more recent trend toward eliminating lead ammunition for big-game hunting. The impetus is largely an effort to protect scavengers from being exposed to lead when feeding on carcasses. Incidence is far less than with waterfowl. Big-game hunters fire a single projectile rather than a load of shot. If that projectile performs as intended, it remains largely intact. And, hunters remove the carcasses from the field whole, except for the internal organs. However, some contamination does occur and it’s often to what biologists sometimes refer to as charismatic megafauna – high-profile species like bald eagles.

So far the FWS and all but one state have taken a sensible approach, educating first. An outright ban would not go over too well with our nation’s 12 million hunters. First, we must consider the millions, possibly billions of dollars in lead ammunition in homes and stores that needs to be used up. Then, ammo manufacturers, which represent a multi-billion dollar industry, must do research and development to find practical and cost-effective alternatives, then gradually shift their manufacturing, packaging, marketing and distribution, all while hoping their customers will be receptive to this change.

In following, consumers need to buy in to the concept. Non-toxic alternatives cost more and perform differently. Hunters can be quite particular about what they put in their guns. A lot goes into making a hunt successful, and poor or under-performing projectiles are unacceptable.

The industry has been working on alternatives and there are already options available for those willing to make the transition, and it must be a transition rather than an abrupt change. So consider this fair warning. We may still (hopefully) be a generation away from an outright ban on lead ammunition for big-game hunting, but now is a good time to get the next generation of hunters started on alternatives.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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