Published March 19, 2010, 08:24 AM

Lead vs. steel is no contest

With major dieoffs in four bighorn sheep herds, plummeting elk numbers in the Gallatin due to wolf, bear and lion predation, and the ongoing bison fiasco, you would think the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission would have more important issues to deal with.

By: Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun

With major dieoffs in four bighorn sheep herds, plummeting elk numbers in the Gallatin due to wolf, bear and lion predation, and the ongoing bison fiasco, you would think the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission would have more important issues to deal with.

But you would be mistaken, because last month the Commission examined the tired, old non-issue of lead shot, then voted 3-2 NOT to ban lead shot from state-owned wildlife management areas. According to news articles, no one seems to know who proposed the ban, but I happened to catch the testimony of FWP bureaucrat Jeff Herbert on a televised airing of a winter FWP Commission meeting, and he spoke at length about a Texas steel shot study that was being conducted on dove hunters. Herbert, who has long been a disciple of steel shot, certainly was instrumental in the proposal to ban lead shot on state-owned WMAs. (“I use steel for everything,” he piously told me one time in the 1990s.)

Soon after the Commission’s decision, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle ran a front-page story with a subheading that read, “Raptor Center dealing with the effects of lead in the environment.” The gist of the story was that since last December, four raptors from across the entire state of Montana were brought to the center with lead poisoning, and two other bald eagles died. There was no proof how these birds happened to get lead poisoning, but Becky Kean, director of the nonprofit raptor center, and others at the center along with one local woman who wrote a letter to the editor, are convinced the raptors got lead poisoning from lead bullets or shot pellets. Hunting seasons have been over for months, gopher shooting in Montana doesn’t occur until spring, so how did bullets or shot pellets cause lead poisoning? No one knows, but still, these advocates want to ban all lead core bullets and lead pellets.

Back in the late 1970s wildlife biologists took the late bird authority Frank Bellrose at his word, that there were two to three million ducks dying each year of lead poisoning caused by lead shot pellets. “Where are all the duck carcasses?” skeptics asked. “Oh, they crawl off into the rushes and are difficult to find and count,” was the answer.

Soon, however, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) set up “hotspot” areas like Freezout Lake in Montana and Horicon Marsh in Illinois, where lead shot was banned. Few in the hunting community opposed banning lead shot in places like these where a great deal of shooting occurred in concentrated areas. But then, predictably, in the early 1980s the USFWS with the blessing of the National Wildlife Federation and without a whimper from spineless state wildlife agencies, rammed through a total ban of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Waterfowl hunter numbers plummeted almost overnight when hunters were forced to shoot expensive steel shot rather than the far more lethal lead loads.

Over the years steel shot loads have improved, but they still are nowhere as lethal as lead. The crusaders who promote lead said simply, “Use a shot size two sizes larger than you would use in a lead load.” They attempted to defy physics, because a shotshell has only so much room in it for the shot charge. Use No. 2 steel instead of No. 4 lead and you may have pellet energy in the steel approaching that of the smaller lead pellets, but you have fewer steel pellets in the load!

“You have to learn how to shoot steel,” Herbert once said to me. He is correct. Steel pellets fly a couple hundred feet a second faster than lead (although they lose velocity quicker) and they string less than lead pellets. But I do know how to shoot steel as well as lead loads. (I set up three steel shot shooting clinics for steel shot guru Tom Roster while I was at FWP, and I participated in two of the clinics!)

Anyone who believes steel shot kills as well as lead has never used lead shot. Knock down a duck or a goose with steel shot, and often as not you have to shoot it again on the ground or water. Many ducks or geese hit with steel sail off, never to be seen again.

Nowadays hunters can buy “non-toxic” loads of Bismuth, tungsten-iron, tungsten-polymer and other variations of non-lead, non-steel materials that are lethal — at least as effective as lead loads. But such shells cost $2 to $4 APIECE!

Meanwhile, the clamor goes on for a ban on lead-core bullets and lead shot. Expect it to continue.

Tags: