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John McCoy: Why don't we all switch to non-lead ammunition?

I’ve made the switch.

This spring, if I’m fortunate enough to end up in the turkey woods, my trusty old 12-gauge will be loaded with non-toxic shot.

It will seem strange, stuffing a different brand of shell into the gun’s magazine. For the last three decades, I’ve used the same ammo — 3-inch Magnum loads of No. 5 copper-plated lead shot. The formula has worked well for me; I’ve yet to miss a bird, and those I’ve hit have gone down and stayed there.

So why have I chosen to switch from something so tried-and-true?

Responsibility.

The next time I read about a hawk or an eagle being poisoned by lead they ingested while scavenging a carcass, I don’t want to be the one responsible.

Raptor rehabilitators have been dealing with cases of lead poisoning for as long — well, as long as they’ve been rehabilitating birds of prey. Wendy Perrone, executive director of the Three Rivers Avian Center in Brooks, said they’ve only been able to test the birds’ blood for lead since about 2005.

“We knew something was up before then, but we figured it maybe was due to concussion, or maybe the birds were sick from some disease,” Perrone added. “Once we were able to test for lead, we got a better handle on the number of birds being poisoned by it.”

Many scientific studies — including one partly conducted by researchers at West Virginia University — have reached the same conclusion: When scavenging birds ingest lead shot or lead bullet fragments found in bird or animal carcasses, they get poisoned.

A little lead can do a lot of damage. Perrone said it only takes a piece the size of the tip of a pencil eraser to poison an eagle or a vulture.

It doesn’t take many bullet fragments or shot pellets to reach that amount. Not surprisingly, the number of lead-poisoning cases increases every year during West Virginia’s hunting seasons.

Perrone said a lot of the lead appears to come from deer gut piles, and from squirrel and rabbit carcasses. That makes sense; hunters routinely leave behind the offal removed from deer during field-dressing, and squirrels and rabbits shot by hunters sometimes aren’t recovered.

Outside of California, it’s still perfectly legal to use lead-based ammunition. Even so, more and more hunters are switching to non-toxic loads.

I understand some hunters’ reluctance to convert. In 1991, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forced waterfowlers to switch to non-toxic shot, the only alternative was steel, which wasn’t dense enough to produce clean, reliable kills.

Non-toxic ammunition has gotten a lot better since then. Alloys of bismuth, tungsten, tin and copper, coupled with modern polymer technology, now give hunters quite a variety from which to choose.

Some options are expensive. The shotgun shells I just purchased cost close to $6 each. Ouch. Fortunately, I only need about half a dozen rounds a year: Three or four to pattern my shotgun, and one or two for hunting.

The copper-based ammo I bought for my deer rifle cost much less — only slightly more than the lead-based alternative. The copper rounds I purchased for my “squirrel gitter” .22 cost about 50 percent more than the lead-based match loads I usually get, but .22 ammo is dirt-cheap anyway.

As I calculate it, non-toxic hunting ammo for turkey, deer and squirrel hunting will cost me about $30 more than I would usually spend over the course of a year. If switching over saves the life of just one eagle, hawk or vulture, I’ll consider it money well spent.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.