Try lead-free ammo this deer season, Iowa conservation officers advise

Eagles feeding off deer remains are poisoned by lead, study shows

An immature bald eagle carries a fish in one of its talons Jan. 4 after swooping down to catch an easy meal of fish disoriented from tumbling through the Coralville Dam spillway below Coralville Lake. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
An immature bald eagle carries a fish in one of its talons Jan. 4 after swooping down to catch an easy meal of fish disoriented from tumbling through the Coralville Dam spillway below Coralville Lake. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As Iowa deer hunters gear up for firearm season next month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is urging them to try non-lead ammunition to reduce the risk of poisoning bald eagles.

The results of a recent study by the agency determined the federally protected birds are dying because they feed off the remains of deer that have been shot with lead slugs and bullets.

Researchers tested the livers of 58 dead eagles collected in 2011 throughout the Mississippi River corridor in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota and found that 60 percent had detectable concentrations of lead, while 38 percent had concentrations considered lethal.

Ed Britton, manager of the Savanna District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, contributed to the peer-reviewed study. Parts of lead bullets, he said, break down quickly in an eagle’s acidic stomach and enter its bloodstream, “almost immediately” causing paralysis and blindness, as well as digestive and neurological problems.

Those that do not succumb to lead poisoning within a couple of days of consuming the soluble metal will starve to death, Britton said.

While eagles primarily feed on fish and birds along the Upper Mississippi and other large waterways in the Midwest, they also scavenge deer guts during the winter. Hunters usually leave behind internal parts of the deer after field-dressing the animal.

As part of the study, researchers gathered 25 deer gut piles from managed hunts within the refuge, and they found that 36 percent of the piles contained from one to 107 lead fragments.


The 240,000-acre refuge extends 261 miles and covers parts of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin along the Mississippi River.

Copper vs. lead

Although he no longer hunts, Britton dedicates time to promote the benefits of using ammunition composed of alternative, less-toxic metals that do not fragment as much as lead.

Copper, Britton said, “tears right through the animal. The folks who have tried it and are familiar with it use it for all their hunting now.”

Iowa’s first shotgun season opens Dec. 2 and runs through Dec. 6.

When hunting with his handgun, Luke Webinger, the Clinton conservation officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, prefers using copper bullets because they pierce through deer with more power and remain intact after impact.

“I’m one of those guys that like to find the bullet after it’s in the animal,” he said. “I like to see what it has done and where it ends up.”

When hunting with his muzzleloader, however, Webinger uses traditional lead round balls. In the field, he does not document what ammunition every hunter uses.

“My duty as a conservation officer is to make sure people are hunting, trapping and fishing legally,” Webinger said. “If they’ve met the requirements, I’m usually on to the next group.”

Copper ammunition also is popular among customers at R & R Sports in Bettendorf, but it costs “significantly more,” almost three times as much as lead, said Jay Morgan, who helps run his family’s business.

“That’s why a lot of guys still shoot lead,” said Morgan, an avid bow hunter.


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Britton said hunters who have made the switch from lead to copper tout the value and efficiency of the latter.

“If it only takes one shot to kill that monster buck you’ve been searching for the past 10 to 15 years, it’s worth that extra dollar you pay per shell,” he said.

‘Just asking,’ not regulating

Looking ahead, Britton doubts federal lawmakers ever will restrict lead ammunition for deer hunting. Iowa legislators have talked about it, but not passed a measure prohibiting lead ammunition.

On former President Barack Obama’s final day in office, former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe signed an order to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands by 2022. But President Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, reversed the ruling on his first day in office, a move lauded by the National Rifle Association.

The Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, after being sued by the National Wildlife Federation, the nation’s largest conservation organization.

Morgan of R & R Sports, an early twenty-something waterfowl hunter, does not mind shooting alternative metals, such as steel or tungsten, to “better the environment.” It is all he has ever known.

“Everybody’s used to it, so I don’t see why it would be any different with deer,” he said. “After a while, it would just become the norm.”



Editor's note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geosci ...

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