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Hunters slow to switch to copper bullets

(MCT) — DULUTH, Minn. — Deer hunters are slow to switch to non-toxic copper bullets despite studies indicating that potentially toxic lead fragments disperse up to 18 inches from the wound channel in firearms-killed deer.

“It’s not a stampede, that’s for sure,” said Pat Kukull of Superior Shooters Supply in Superior, Wis. “I’ve used them. They’re very effective. But there’s a cost factor involved. They’re almost $10 more per box.”

Others say that copper bullets are not available in a wide variety of cartridges.

After research by several agencies in 2008, awareness rose among hunters about the toxic effects of lead. Other stories highlighted the plight of eagles, which can acquire lead poisoning after feeding on the entrails of hunter-killed deer. Some of those eagles are found and transported to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota each fall.

But many hunters don’t see lead in venison as a serious problem, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

“I think most hunters feel that lead is not a toxicity problem,” Johnson said, “primarily because it hasn’t affected them. It does affect eagles. I think 99 or 100 percent of hunters would say it can (affect eagles). We’ve heard enough of those facts.”

But Johnson contends that contamination in eagles is not a widespread problem, especially in Minnesota.

“We have the largest eagle population in recorded history,” he said.

Twenty-five percent of the 100 to 120 eagle patients The Raptor Center sees each year are admitted because of lead poisoning, according to Dr. Pat Redig, a veterinarian at the center.

“An eagle with lead poisoning is very likely to die,” Redig said.

Some hunters did move to non-toxic copper bullets as a result of research.

“I’d say there was maybe a 5 percent or 3 percent interest,” said Scott VanValkenburg, owner of Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake. “But I don’t think I’ve had anybody coming in and asking for copper. It’s so expensive.”

A typical box of 20 deer cartridges might cost $22, Kukull said, while comparable copper loads might cost $32, and premium copper loads could cost $50 a box.

Many copper loads cost about twice as much as comparable lead cartridges, VanValkenburg said. He said hunters he has spoken to who switched to copper bullets did so at the urging of their wives. Kukull said hunters seeking copper bullets told her the same thing.

“Their wives said, ‘If you’re going to go hunting, you’re going to use non-toxic shot,’ ” she said.

VanValkenburg said some hunters have modified their shot placement on deer to minimize fragmentation of the lead bullets they’re using.

“They’re shooting behind the shoulder, trying not to hit areas that make the bullet explode,” he said. “And they will cut a wider girth around the bullet hole (when butchering the deer).”

Johnson has switched to copper bullets for deer hunting, although he said some calibers have been hard to find in stores. As a result, he has begun reloading his own cartridges, using copper bullets.

“I think there’s a fair number of hunters exploring (copper),” he said, “although not the majority by any means. Availability is No. 1: It’s hard to find. The second thing is, copper is only done in a premium cartridge. Because of that, the expense is high.”

After research came to light a few years ago revealing how much lead was found in ground venison, some food shelves no longer will accept venison if it has been taken by firearms.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources discusses lead in venison on its website at

“Information discovered in spring 2008 indicates that small lead fragments often are present in hunter-harvested venison, particularly ground venison,” the DNR’s website states.

The DNR conducted its own study about lead fragmentation that same year.

“To date, no illnesses have been linked to consumption of lead particles in hunter-harvested venison. But the DNR recognizes that the potential impacts of lead fragments ingested when eating hunter-harvested game are not well understood. Only now are state and federal health, wildlife and food safety agencies beginning to collect, study and analyze data to determine exactly what those impacts may be,” says a statement on the DNR’s website.

The DNR’s study includes this information for hunters:

“A key take-away message from the study is that given fragments were found so far from the exit wound, routine trimming likely will not remove all of the fragments and DNR cannot make a recommendation as to how far out trimming should occur.

“In counting fragments, only about 30 percent were within 2 inches of the exit wound. The vast majority was dispersed further from the carcass. In some cases, researchers found low levels of lead as far away as 18 inches from the bullet exit hole. The DNR also learned that rinsing a carcass produced mixed results. While rinsing tends to reduce lead around the wound channel it also transports lead away from the wound.”

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