The original conservationists: Wyoming lead-free group goes national with message

Posted 1/25/24

Sporting Lead-Free, a Wyoming hunting and angling conservation organization, has grown quickly since its inception in 2021, becoming a force encouraging hunters and anglers to use non-lead options …

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The original conservationists: Wyoming lead-free group goes national with message


Sporting Lead-Free, a Wyoming hunting and angling conservation organization, has grown quickly since its inception in 2021, becoming a force encouraging hunters and anglers to use non-lead options afield.

“We’ve taken this model that we built in Wyoming to a more national level,” said Bryan Bedrosian, research director of the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson and founder of the lead-free group. “We’re excited to expand Sporting Lead-Free. We’re working with several states now, including Colorado, Montana, a couple in the Midwest [Minnesota and Wisconsin] and Alaska to incorporate with their state agencies as well as other organizations in those states to increase our message and awareness and provide information to them so they can adapt it to their local communities.”

The organization hopes to reduce lead consumed inadvertently by people and wildlife and is proposing ways to help anglers and hunters see the positives of choosing tackle and ammo that doesn’t poison the environment. At the same time, the group advocates approaching outdoor enthusiasts with educational materials and demonstrations rather than seeking legislation outlawing the use of lead ammunition.

“We are 100% behind a voluntary educational approach,” Bedrosian said. “We have no interest in going down any kind of regulatory or legislative route.”

Lead is killing wildlife, including raptors like bald and golden eagles, and waterfowl. Bedrosian spoke in front of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission during the January meeting in Cheyenne, reporting an average of 160 fragments of lead in every gut pile left by hunters, and toxic levels of lead in 840,000 unretrieved upland game species and 4,384 tons of fishing gear lost in the U.S. each year.

The gut piles and injured game birds are consumed by predators, killing some of our most charismatic bird species, and lead fishing gear is picked up by waterfowl, often leading to death. A recent study by the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center revealed that 47% of bald eagle and 46% of golden eagle samples taken across 38 states over the course of eight years had signs of chronic lead poisoning. As many as 33%-35% of eagles had acute lead poisoning from exposure to high lead levels.

In Park County, Susan “the bird lady” Ahalt, who operates the nonprofit Ironside Bird Rescue, has already lost a golden eagle to lead poisoning in the last month and has another undergoing treatment.

“The count always goes up when big game hunting starts,” she said Tuesday.

The golden eagle she named Belle (because it was located near Belfry) had such a high blood lead level (BLL) that she couldn’t use her feet or legs. The eagle died Christmas Eve.

Lead poisoning also affects humans, according to the National Institute of Health. The use and maintenance of firearms is a common and often preventable source of adult lead exposure that is often poorly understood by medical professionals, the institute reported in its National Library of Medicine.

“Health care professionals should be aware of the potential dangers of ammunition reloading and indoor shooting, be familiar with ways to reduce lead exposure during these activities, and understand the resources that are available for the management of lead-exposed patients,” the NIH reported.

Indoor firing ranges continue to be a source of lead exposure and elevated blood lead levels among employees, their families, and customers, despite public health outreach efforts and comprehensive guidelines for controlling occupational lead exposure. There are approximately 16,000-18,000 indoor firing ranges in the United States, with tens of thousands of employees and about a million law enforcement officers train on indoor ranges.

The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported thousands of shooting range employees and target shooters had elevated blood lead levels during a study in 2012. Improvements suggested by the agency for reducing lead exposure in firing ranges includes using lead-free bullets, improving ventilation, and using wet mopping or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuuming to clean rather than dry sweeping.

Commission Vice President Richard Ladwig, of Manville, attended a recent Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) meeting reporting on research on elevated blood lead levels in people while reloading and handling bullets.

“It is unbelievable the amount of lead that’s consumed just handling bullets,” he said. “It was astonishing to me the effect that could have on a human body.”

Brian Nesvik, director of Game and Fish, was elected president of WAFWA in November.

Sporting Lead-Free is leading the way in providing access to non-lead ammunition and fishing gear, as well as educational information to help make outdoor enthusiasts aware of the need for change.

“We all know hunters are the original conservationists. We should be proud of that. And we want to promote that as much as possible. We do that by building trust and leading by example,” Bedrosian said.

The organization partners with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and its fundraising arm, the WYldlife Fund, in providing lead-free tackle at kids’ fishing days across the state and demonstrations promoting the use of lead-free ammunition.

“If kids make that transition when they first enter the sporting and hunting world, it’s much easier for them to continue that journey — rather than trying to change folks’ minds later on in life,” he said.

Access to lead-free options is becoming easier, but for those having difficulties locating options, the organization has an ammunition finder on its website,