The primary birds affected by lead bullets are waterfowl and raptors, including bald eagles. ©Eric Rock

Kudos to California. Last October, it became the first state to ban lead ammunition for all types of hunting. The ban will benefit the state’s namesake condors, which nearly went extinct. In 1982, only 22 California condors remained on the planet. Fortunately, conservation efforts brought the population back to nearly 400 by 2010, with about half of those living in the wild. But researchers warn that without greatly reducing or eliminating the risk of lead poisoning, the condors are unlikely to ever be able to establish a self-sustaining population.

However, those who are opposed to the ban believe that it will drive up the cost of hunting, resulting in even less funds for wildlife conservation; that it could eventually lead to the elimination of all hunting in the state; and that voluntary programs are far more effective at achieving hunter compliance.

Because of lead’s extreme toxicity to birds and mammals, should there be a nationwide ban on ammunition containing it?

In 1982, only 22 California condors remained. Due to conservation efforts, by 2010 there were close to 400. But without greatly reducing or eliminating lead ammunition, California condors probably won’t be able to establish a self-sustaining population. ©Joe Lewis, flickr

The spread of lead

Lead is particularly harmful to the nervous system and the brain. Because it’s soft, it fractures and fragments into tiny pieces upon impact with muscle. As a result, animals and birds that eat carcasses containing lead-bullet shards risk exposure to the toxic metal. Its health hazards extend to hunters who eat a lot of meat that has been laced with lead ammunition.

Reports of lead poisoning in waterfowl date back to the late 1800s. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a nationwide ban on lead shot for hunting such birds. Since then, evidence has continued to mount about lead ammunition poisoning in other types of wildlife. Species that scavenge—such as bald and golden eagles, bears, California condors, mountain lions, ravens and turkey vultures—have especially been exposed to and affected by lead.

However, wild animals aren’t the only ones suffering from lead in the environment. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that some popular hunting grounds in California may contain up to 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre. Since commonly used shot ranges in weight from under a gram to five grams or more per pellet, that can easily work out to more than a ton of lead per acre. Livestock that graze on land contaminated with lead shot often ingest the metal, leading to lead-contaminated meat and dairy products.

While mountain lions are predators, they are known to scavenge on scraps that human hunters leave behind. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In order to provide some protection for its condor population, California banned the use of lead ammunition in the state’s condor range (in eight counties) in 2007. And at least 30 other states regulate lead ammunition in some manner. But California is the first to institute a statewide ban.

Legislation or voluntary compliance?

On October 11, 2013, when Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 711, which requires that nonleaded ammunition be used in all hunting of mammals, birds and other wildlife by July 1, 2019, he noted that hunters and anglers are “the original conservationists” and that switching to nontoxic ammunition “will allow them to continue the conservation heritage of California.”

Many hunters, however, believe that “heritage” may be a factor that will keep them attached to their lead bullets. The use of lead ammunition dates back to the 14th century, and hunters historically tend to rely on traditions that brought them success in previous hunts.

Despite a 1991 federal ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting, lead poisoning remains a problem for birds through bigger game hunting, such as for deer. ©John T. Andrews

Another objection to the statewide California ban is that nonleaded bullets may drive up the cost of hunting—that they are more expensive and harder to find at stores. That could move people away from hunting, reducing the amount of funds that hunting licenses contribute to conservation efforts. And, if federal laws start classifying nonleaded ammunition as prohibited “armor-piercing” bullets, the California ban would effectively eliminate all hunting in the state.

Proponents of the bill counter that according to a recent study, lead-free bullets are available at the same retail cost as leaded ammunition for most popular calibers. And, as a nod to hunters, Assembly Bill 711 contains an escape clause lifting the lead ammo ban if federal laws do start classifying nonleaded ammunition as prohibited, armor-piercing bullets.

As an alternative to California’s legislation, other states have tried volunteer approaches to getting rid of lead ammunition. Since 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has provided free, nonleaded ammunition to big game hunters in certain regions. If hunters still prefer to use lead ammunition, they are offered incentives to haul shot animals and gut piles out of the field in order to remove the source of lead. The participation rate in such voluntary measures is 88 percent. In the long run, say those who prefer a voluntary approach, appealing to a hunter’s conservation ethic may be more effective than legislation.


Loons can swallow lead sinkers or jigs attached to a fish that has broken an angler’s line or may strike directly at a piece of tackle on an angler’s line as it is trolled or retrieved. Loons may also swallow lead tackle from the lake bottom along with the pebbles they scoop up to help grind and digest food. The ingestion of lead fishing tackle is virtually always fatal for loons, with death typically occurring within two to four weeks.

Do you think that other states should follow California and ban all nonleaded ammo? Or will voluntary programs and education about the harmful effects of lead in the environment resonate with hunters?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,