Why some ranches are requiring non-lead ammo

Many landowners put a lot of time and money into creating healthy wildlife habitat that rewards hunters with memorable and productive opportunities to bring home healthy food. So why would they allow hunters to spread a dangerous neurotoxin around their property all season long, wonders Mike McTee.

Lead fragments in the carcass of a prairie dog (circled) demonstrate how much fragmentation of lead bullets occurs upon impact. These lead fragments are left behind in the gut piles of game or carcasses of varmints in the field, putting wildlife like eagles at risk of lead poisoning. Lead fragments also remain in game meat consumed by hunters and their families.

Yet, according McTee, who works as a researcher at MPG Ranch near Missoula, Montana, that is just what landowners that allow lead bullets for hunting on their property are doing. 

McTee, who has studied how much lead moves from carcasses of hunter kills into the bloodstreams of eagles and other scavengers through his work on the MPG Ranch, says hunters he has talked to “are often shocked to learn that 9 out of 10 eagles caught near Missoula in the winter have been exposed to lead.” But once they know the science, they are usually on board with a switch to non-lead bullets. “Many hunters are already on board and shoot copper bullets. The remainder are eager to know more,” says McTee. “At MPG Ranch, we require hunters to shoot nonlead ammunition. We’ve averaged an annual harvest of about 45 cow elk.”

Research on lead exposure has shown that lead fragments from bullets end up in just about every kind of scavenger, from coyotes and bears to golden and bald eagles to endangered California condors. Meanwhile, ballistics research has shown that non-lead alternatives have just as much stopping power as their more harmful, and more common, counterparts. As the website says, “Every gun handles ammunition differently. Try different brands or different bullet configurations to find out which works best in your gun and for your hunt. As with any ammo, take time to sight in. Non-lead ammunition is extremely accurate but may shoot to a different point of impact in comparison to lead ammo.” 

“We also use copper bullets for field slaughtering our bison. Again, great results,”

Craig Knowles, Townsend, MT

In a 2020 Montana Outdoors article titled “Choosing the Unleaded Option” Craig Knowles, a hunter who runs a bison ranch near Townsend, Montana with his wife, says that when he switched to copper 15 years ago he was skeptical at first, but quickly changed his mind when he saw how they performed in his .270 Win. “We also use copper bullets for field slaughtering our bison. Again, great results,” Knowles says.

Louis Wertz is editor-in-chief of On Land and communications director at the Western Landowners Alliance. He lives in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, with his wife and two young children.