Any hunter worth his salt wants to know the animal he shoots won’t suffer.
For that reason alone, many sportsmen have been hesitant to change from lead bullets to another alternative.
On Sunday, at the MPG Ranch in Florence, hunters will have a chance to see first hand what happens to lead and copper bullets when they strike an animal.
The two wildlife biologists offering the demonstration say it will offer a whole other view to what’s become a controversial issue in some quarters.
Leland Brown and Chris Parish are lifelong hunters who have been taken their demonstration to a variety of venues nationwide.
Parish’s interest in the issue dates back more than 20 years, when he first began working with California condors, birds whose numbers had dropped precariously low. Since 2000, he has been directing The Peregrine Fund’s field effort to preserve the species.
Parish and other researchers found that a high percentage of the condors they captured had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
Montana researchers have found similar issues with eagles.
The concern is that birds pick up the lead from bullet fragments in gut piles left behind in the field by hunters using lead bullets to kill game.
On Sunday, Brown and Parish will set up two different demonstrations to show hunters what happens to a lead and a copper bullet after it strikes an animal.
The first demonstration involves a water-filled bullet trap that collects the bullet and its fragments.
“Hunters are surprised by how many fragments come off a lead bullet,” Parish said. “Many say they don’t want to leave that amount of lead out in the wild.”
In a second demonstration, the two types of bullets will be fired into a block of ballistic gelatin that approximates the density of an animal’s carcass.
That demonstration offers hunters a chance to compare the difference in the wound channel created by lead and copper bullets.
Hunters want to know that their bullet will deliver the necessary trauma to kill the game animal in the most humane way possible, Parish said.
“The demonstration shows that the wound channel is almost the same between lead and copper bullets,” he said. “The solid (copper) bullet tends to travel further because it doesn’t fragment as much.”
Hunters target the vital organs of game animals. When they begin to consider the amount of lead they are leaving on the ground in those vital organs for scavengers like eagles to consume, Parish said it makes some reconsider the use of lead bullets.
Over the last decade, many hunters in Arizona and Utah have voluntarily made the switch to non-lead ammunition due to concerns over the plight of condors.
In Utah, there is an incentivize process that offers a voucher to hunters drawing a tag on the North Kaibab for a free box on non-lead ammunition. About 87 percent of those sportsmen choose to use copper bullets.
For those who want to continue using lead bullets, Parish said there’s a different approach. Those hunters can opt to remove the gut piles from the field and then enter their name for a drawing for a custom rifle.
The issue of lead versus non-lead ammunition was recently in the news after Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke of Montana overturned a ban on using lead ammunition on wildlife refuges on his first day in office.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, asked for the repeal.
“I’m pretty certain the bureaucrat that put this regulation in place has never hunted elk in Montana,” Daines said in a statement. “Secretary Zinke is off to a strong start protecting Montana’s and our country’s hunting and fishing heritage.”
Parish said it’s been his experience that sportsmen are impressed by the lead versus non-lead demonstration that offers people a chance to see for themselves what the differences are between the two types of ammunition.
“I can guarantee that the results have raised some eyebrows,” Parish said. “The common response that we get from hunters is: ‘I can support making the change. This is real science and it’s real conservation.’ Hunters are the original conservationists. This provides them with an opportunity to demonstrate that once again.”
Mike McTee is the environmental scientist with the MPG Ranch who arranged for the demonstration. McTee has been doing his own research into the issue for an article he’s writing.
Lead poisoning is an issue that comes home when eagles in this state are blood tested by the Missoula-based Raptor View Research Institute.
The institute’s executive director, Rob Domenech, found that 89 percent of the eagles they capture have elevated level of lead.
McTee knows the notice is short and that spring turkey season opens this weekend, but he still hopes that sportsmen interested in conservation will take the time to attend the 1 p.m. Sunday demonstration.
To get there, drive south from Missoula on Highway 93. Take a left at the stoplight in Florence to the Eastside Highway. When you reach the roundabout, circle about three-quarters of the way around to Lower Woodchuck Road. Drive to the end of the road and through the gate to the MPG Ranch. Take the first left and continue one mile to a parking area.
The event is free and open to the public.