Getting the lead out 

Big game rifle hunters preparing for Montana’s September 15 backcountry opener have new information to use when selecting this year’s ammo.

Recent studies in Wyoming and Montana indicate that lead levels in avian blood increases dramatically with the onset of hunting season, a likely result of the birds scavenging lead-rich carcasses discarded by rifle hunters. Designed to expand and fragment upon impact, small and sometimes undetectable bits of lead bullet are often left in the field among bullet-damaged meat, bones and offal. This “gut pile” presents an inviting source of protein for eagle-eyed raptors and other scavengers to eat, but may prove dangerous.

According to a study conducted by the Wyoming-based Beringia South and published in the January issue of The Journal of Wildlife Management, 47 percent of 302 ravens showed elevated lead levels at the onset of the 2005 hunting season, up from 2 percent in the non-hunting season. Another study by the Missoula-based Raptor View Research Institute testing golden eagles found similar results last year, with 9 of the 17 eagles suffering elevated lead levels.

In fact, lead poisoning in birds is well documented, and the federal government banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunters in 1991. But while shotgun hunters have been forced to go lead-free, rifle hunters haven’t, primarily because lead makes a cheap, readily accessible and efficient projectile.

Experts say that other metals can produce similar ballistics, but they are invariably more expensive and, until recently, have suffered a poor reputation for accuracy and availability. New developments are changing that, and bullets made of copper, tungsten and other materials—including the popular all-copper Barnes “Triple Shock”—are now widely available in Missoula, for about twice the cost of their lead counterparts.

“It’s become one of our better selling bullets,” says Ross Templeton, hunting manager at Sportsman’s Warehouse, referring to the Barnes Triple Shock. But Templeton doesn’t believe that hunters choose the cartridge to feel green.

“It’s accurate and ballistically even better on game,” he says. “I’ve been here four years, and I’ve worked at other gun stores in Missoula, but I’ve never had someone come looking for all-copper bullets for environmental reasons.”
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