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Get the Lead Out – for Wildlife’s Sake

by Ellie Nowels, April 2024

wood ducksWho doesn’t love to see a magnificent bald eagle soaring through the sky? Or a brightly colored wood duck swimming in a lake? And while they are not as photogenic, I always welcome the return of the turkey vultures to their roosting spots in my tall pine trees in mid-March as a sign of spring. But all these creatures, and more, are increasingly in peril from the lead used in fishing and hunting.

Lead tackle
Lead is very toxic material that bioaccumulates in animal tissue. This means it is absorbed at a faster rate than it is expelled, and toxic levels can be reached if the lead continues to be absorbed. While lead has been linked to human health concerns for centuries, only recently has its harm to wildlife been addressed. In 1991, due to waterfowl population health concerns, the federal government officially banned the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting.

However lead continues to be used in fishing tackle, primarily sinkers. These sinkers can cause illness and death to birds that ingest the lead while swallowing pebbles to aid in digestion, eat fish that have ingested the lead, or grab your bait from your line. Lead is especially problematic for birds since it can accumulate in a bird’s gizzard where it is continually ground into smaller particles and readily absorbed into the blood stream.

It has been estimated that over 4,000 tons of lead sinkers are purchased in the U.S. each year. While it is not known how much of that is deposited into the aquatic environment, it is assumed that a high percentage of this lead is lost each year. Various studies of the amount of lead along shorelines have produced results of almost none up to more than 100 pieces per square yard in heavily fished areas.

The current national estimate is 25% of adult common loon deaths are due to lead poisoning after ingesting lead fishing tackle. Once sickened with lead poisoning, loons suffer a slow and painful death.

Lead breaks down within 100 to 300 years, and is no longer available for direct ingestion by wildlife, but it can then enter the water system and potentially poison wildlife and people.

Lead ammunition
Bald eagleA recent study revealed that 47% of bald eagles had signs of chronic lead poisoning, which is the result of repeated lead exposure. As many as 33-35% of eagles had acute lead poisoning from exposure to high lead levels. A lead fragment the size of a grain of rice is lethal to a mature bald eagle. Even a small exposure to lead can cause devastating illness in eagles. Common symptoms include brain swelling, respiratory distress, muscle weakness, dehydration, starvation, kidney and liver damage, and seizures

Consumption of lead shot, bullets or bullet fragments from hunter’s gut piles or wounded animals has been a major mortality cause for imperiled birds of prey and scavengers, with bald eagles, golden eagles, and endangered California condors among the victims. In critical cases it can result in death, but often causes sub-lethal poisoning that has a number of other secondary effects (reduced mobility, increased risk of collision, etc.). Because vultures and condors feed on dead animals and are group feeders, even small amounts of lead can sicken or kill many birds.

Lead poisoning can also occur in scavenging mammals, such as coyotes, wolves and foxes, but because mammals pass lead pieces through their digestive system quickly, it is not usually fatal.

Despite the federal ban of lead shot for hunting over water in 1991, lead still remains in wide circulation for other types of hunting. When used in rifle hunting, lead has been shown to leave behind considerable traces of fragments large enough to poison raptors that feed on wounded game or gut piles. This lead exposure is hazardous to the hunter as well.

Because these exposures are accidental, such as when a fish breaks the line or when a gut pile is left behind, the best way to decrease the risk of lead exposure is to transition to non-lead ammunition and tackle.

Is your tackle lead?
The reality is that most fishing tackle with any density to it, especially older tackle, contains lead, based on current and historic trends in the tackle industry. Lead is a dense but soft metal that is easy to mold and shape. Using pliers is a good way to test this out. Lead is toxic to humans, especially children. Be cautious when handling and using lead tackle to minimize exposure from lead and lead dusts.

Lead-free alternatives
Anglers can choose lead-free materials when shopping for fishing tackle. Popular options include tungsten, steel, tin, bismuth/tin, and glass. Lead-free alternatives are also effective. In the case of tungsten, it performs much better than lead because it sinks faster, is denser, and more sensitive. Find lead-free fishing tackle in this manufacturer’s directory.

Lead-free alternatives for hunting
Look for these materials. There are many sources for alternatives to lead, as knowledge of the hazards to wildlife and hunters increases.

  • Steel
  • Copper
  • Bismuth
  • Tungsten
  • Brass

Legal status of lead tackle and ammo
An Obama administration ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands and waters was implemented but overturned in 2017 by newly appointed U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

There are a number of states that have implemented bans or partial bans on either lead tackle, lead ammo, or both. Some details can be found here.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is phasing out lead ammo by 2026 on some federal lands.

In Ohio: In addition to federal regulations, non-toxic shot is required when hunting with a shotgun in Metzger Marsh, Mallard Club, Pipe Creek, Magee Marsh, Toussaint, and Little Portage wildlife areas.