Regulations require nontoxic, i.e. non-lead, shot when hunting waterfowl, but lead pellets are still popular with sportsmen for other applications such as upland bird hunting and skeet shooting as pictured here. (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

It is time for all of us who hunt to move away from using outdated toxic lead bullets and transition to using high-tech nontoxic copper ammunition. I am a lifelong hunter and angler. For the last 10 years, I have exclusively used nontoxic ammunition for all of my hunting.

Lead has been known for centuries to be a broad-spectrum toxin for humans and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency calls lead “one of the most dangerous neurotoxins in the environment.” In general, children are at higher risk for harm because they absorb more lead than adults and their developing brains are more easily damaged by the lead. Most of the effects are subtle and not easily recognized.

Since the 1970s, lead has been banned in paint and gasoline. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a ban on the use of lead shot for hunting migratory waterfowl. An estimated 1 million ducks, geese and swans were dying each year from eating spent lead shot pellets.

A similar ban has not been implemented on big-game hunting, but there are many reasons to make the switch nonetheless. Nontoxic ammo performs better than toxic lead. Because nontoxic copper is less dense than lead, bullets of the same weight are larger, so they carve a larger wound channel. Copper is harder. It does not lose mass when it hits a target like lead does, so it penetrates farther. The ballistics and killing power of high-caliber nontoxic ammo are superior, so using it for big game helps make us better hunters.

Nontoxic ammo is generally more expensive, but the price differential is coming down. Today, premium lead bullets cost more than standard copper. What I do is practice with a cheaper lead bullet, then finish with a few rounds of copper, so my additional costs are minimal. Steel shot for upland bird hunting is now available in size #6 and #7. I find that it performs very well. I am no worse a wing shooter using steel.

California has decided to phase-in a ban on hunting with lead ammo to protect the California condor — a large and endangered scavenger. The state prohibited the use of lead for any hunting effective July 1, 2019. There is a chance the California condor could become extinct from poisoning by lead ammo. If that happened, it would be a stain on hunters’ reputations as wildlife conservationists.

Hunters contribute a great deal to wildlife conservation. We pay an excise tax on guns and ammunition that raised almost $1 billion for wildlife management last year. We pay more in license fees than any other recreational users. Unique among outdoor users, we buy a habitat conservation stamp to benefit all wildlife. Given this great record, none of us should want to contaminate our hunt by bringing home tainted meat or leaving toxic lead in the field. We now have good alternatives that allow us to prevent both.

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Only about 5% of Americans hunt, but about 95% support hunting if it is conducted ethically, safely and as humanely as possible. Using nontoxic ammunition is the right thing to do for our families who eat game, for wildlife scavengers and for the reputation of hunting and hunters.

Wyoming resident Paul Hansen is a lifelong hunter and angler and the former executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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  1. Hi Paul, I hope all is well and good with you.. I am still a member and now a life member of the League. Guess what, we still struggle with membership.!

    My question is, when did you leave the League as executive director.