by Joel Schnell
April 8, 2016
Recently the Minnesota DNR proposed banning lead shot in Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) in the farmland zone, roughly the Southern 2/3 of the state. Would this effect grouse hunters? Let’s take a look at this volatile issue.
Q: What’s Lead Shot?
A: Lead shot is a naturally occurring element used for centuries in ammunition. It is inexpensive to mine and manufacture. It is a dense, heavy metal that retains more energy, and therefore hits harder, than shot made of most other materials. It is also soft, which makes it practical to shoot in older firearms without damaging the barrels and chokes. It’s soft quality allows it to deform on impact, making a larger wound channel more likely to kill than just cripple.
Q: So What’s the Problem with Lead?
A: Lead is highly toxic. It can poison water, and kill when ingested. Studies of carrion-eating scavengers like bald eagles show lethal amounts of lead can be consumed by eating hunter-killed game. Along with lead shot, lead in other products such as fishing tackle are also being studied as poisonous in the environment. Lead shot for waterfowl hunting has been banned for decades, and some federal lands like Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA’s) are non-toxic shot only. Some states such as South Dakota have already banned lead shot in the uplands.
Q: What are the Alternatives to Lead Shot?
A: Steel shot is the most cost-effective substitute for lead. In premium game loads, the cost can be considered the same. Other materials, such as tungsten, copper or alloys of different metals are effective but much more expensive.
Steel is harder and lighter than lead, and produces tighter patterns. Hunting with steel requires moving up two shot sizes for similar hitting power, and using a more open choke. Also, some older firearms, such as Belgian-made Brownings, cannot fire steel shot without damage to the gun and perhaps the shooter. A gunsmith may be able to insert a barrel lining to correct this, depending on the gun- and if it is cost effective.
Q: What is the Minnesota DNR’s Take on all this?
A: Roughly ten years ago, the DNR formed the Nontoxic Shot Advisory Committee to study the issue. While the committee generally supported some version of a ban on lead shot, opposition by ammunition makers, hunting organizations and others prevented any action being taken. Currently, the DNR, supported by organizations like The Audubon Society, the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, and Conservation Minnesota, is seeking legislation this session to ban lead shot in WMA’s in the farmland zone. If the legislature does not take action, the DNR commissioner may ban it anyway using an administrative rule. However, there is a bill being pursued by legislators to prevent the DNR from taking any action.
Q: So What?
A: Since most grouse hunting occurs North of the famland zone, it may not be important to ruffed grouse hunters. Be assured, however, that this issue will not go away.
As the nation’s premier conservationists, we should be concerned if our activities are harmful to the environment. Depending upon how much lead each hunter shoots, he or she may want to investigate changing over to steel shot if it makes sense to them. It is my opinion that since the price is the same for premium loads, many hunters will voluntarily move to shoot more steel shot. Personally, after I shoot the lead pheasant loads I already have purchased, I will probably buy steel instead. But I’m not primarily a pheasant hunter, my game is ruffed grouse and woodcock. I have experimented with Winchester’s Xpert Steel game loads in #7 shot (other manufacturers may offer a similar product). I find it the same price at some retailers as Super X lead game loads. But more shooting with the product is required before I decide to shoot it exclusively.
I believe it should be up to individual hunters to decide what works best for them, bearing in mind lead’s toxicity.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
He can be reached at info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com