Swearing off lead shot and its deadly legacy

PAXSON -- We crouched by the slough, shotguns forgotten, our heads tipped skyward as the two pintails spiraled in, wings locked, through the morning fog. There is nothing prettier than the intensity of a pintail dropping in from the heavens with the sound of a small jet aircraft. The birds touched down, fluffed their feathers and began to swim toward our hiding spot. Regaining his senses, Ray slowly raised his shotgun. "Hey," I whispered. "You're not going to shoot them swimming, are you?"

"No, no," He replied. "I'm going to wait 'til they stop!"

Such are my bird hunting partners. Duck season has long passed in the Interior. Small lakes are frozen, and most birds have departed southward from the bigger waters. Bird hunters' attention now turns to grouse and ptarmigan.

The spruce grouse population is fair north of Glennallen, but these birds have a propensity to taste like the spruce needles that are their main diet after late September. I have yet to see a ruffed grouse this fall, though there may be some pretty decent pockets if one knows where to hunt.

Old lead shot

Ptarmigan had a successful summer and their numbers are very good along the Denali and Richardson highways. Sharptails are a real bright spot. The Delta area has some huge flocks this year. They seem tamer than they've been in recent years. Perhaps the goshawk population is down? Flocks have been allowing me to get within shotgun range and squeeze off several shots off before they scatter.

Instead of just getting a shot at sharptails, our family actually gets to eat some. The good thing about hunting grouse is I can use up some of my ancient lead shot from 20 years ago. Wait. Maybe I shouldn't be using that lead shot after all?

Lead isn't anything we should risk eating or even handling. Lead poisoning almost took out the population of bald eagles in this country. It was also a huge contributing factor in waterfowl mortality.

There was enough lead in heavily hunted areas for ducks and geese to ingest significant amounts. Lead shot was outlawed for waterfowl hunting in 1991. The benefits of that regulation were apparent almost immediately. Pintail populations rebounded quickly, as did populations of other birds. Predators such as peregrine falcons and eagles also began to recover.

Residue and lead fragments

What about hunters? Do we eat enough lead for it to be a health risk? California thinks so. They recently passed a ban on all lead ammunition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested more than 700 people in North Dakota who ate game they had shot or were given. Lead levels in their bloodstream were 50 percent higher than those of non-hunters.

That confounded me. Who eats the shot in the birds we take? If I shoot a moose, I cut out the bloodshot meat. I don't think I'm eating any lead.

It turns out I'm wrong. Most of the packaged wild game tested had lead residue and tiny fragments throughout. The packages tested came from a deer shot in the chest.

We are ingesting lead. How many of us bite those lead shot sinkers to open and close them?

Kids are at the greatest risk. Lower IQs and learning disabilities occur at fairly low lead levels. Huh? I did a lot of fishing as a kid. At least I think I did …can't really remember.

I can't say I am 100 percent convinced I am poisoning my kids by feeding them the caribou we took this fall. However, there are a lot of studies available on the Internet that urge heightened care. And there is no doubt that bald eagles, other scavengers and high-end predators are at risk for lead poisoning.

There is lead shot in a couple of those sharptails that flew away. A great horned owl will feed on one. A goshawk will take the other. Both of the big predators will suffer from the lead shot. It was tough for me to throw out perfectly good ammunition. But I did.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.