Using copper bullets for deer hunting may be better for human, eagle health

Posted Nov. 30, 2011, at 4:48 p.m.

ALMA, Wis. — Hunting took a break at noon one Sunday on the Noll dairy farm east of Alma.

Like many deer hunters around Wisconsin, the Noll clan headed indoors to observe another leading Badger State attraction.

“We can have our hunting and Packers, too,” said Mark Noll, 59, of Alma.

Twenty-five hunters spanning four Noll generations gathered in the farm’s machine shed. Folding tables and chairs were assembled on the concrete floor.

Set high on a wall above work benches and tool racks, a television screen carried the live action from Lambeau Field.

The hunters already had been productive.

By the time the Green Bay Packers kicked off, the big ash tree by the white farmhouse held a heavy load of a dozen deer taken in the first day and a half of the Wisconsin gun deer season.

Hunting has occurred here in one form or another since Noll’s grandparents settled the farm in 1929.

But the 2011 deer hunting season started a new tradition on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River: Hunters on the farm used copper bullets.

Before the season, Noll sent an email to his siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and assorted others who annually assemble for the gun deer hunt at the farm.

Its message was simple.

“We decided all our crew would use copper bullets,” Noll said. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer.”

Noll and his family had reviewed comparative information on copper bullets and traditional lead-based ammunition.

Copper bullets mushroom but don’t shatter on impact. And copper is considered nontoxic to humans and wildlife.

Most lead and lead-bonded bullets break into dozens of pieces on impact. And lead is toxic.

Studies conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on deer and sheep carcasses illustrated how lead bullets shatter and often leave lead shards more than a foot from the primary wound channel.

Such pieces can then find their way onto the plates of hunters’ families.

Though there is no evidence human health has been adversely affected by consuming deer killed with traditional lead ammunition, the Food and Drug Administration has long advised against exposure to lead, especially for children.

That’s enough incentive to switch to copper for an increasing number of hunters.

“Who in their right mind would want to take the chance of feeding a toxin to their family?” Noll said.

In addition, lead bullet fragments are believed to poison bald eagles as the birds scavenge the remains of deer in the woods each fall.

The toxicity of lead and even the consideration of alternative bullets are subjects some in the hunting community would rather not discuss.

Noll has been among the most active conservationists in the state on deer hunting issues over the last couple of decades.

He has served as a Buffalo County delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for 27 years and is co-chair of the group’s Big Game Committee.

He also served on an Earn-A-Buck alternative committee in 2009.

“I know some people are resisting changes like going to copper bullets,” Noll said. “I’m as concerned about the future of hunting as anyone.

“And that’s why we switched to copper. The bullets work great, that we’ve already proven. And they also reduce risk from exposure to lead. It was an easy decision for us.”

Noll acknowledged that copper bullets are more expensive than lead. But since copper bullets “work great” and he expects to use just one or two a year, a “box should last the rest of my life.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources initiated a series of educational workshops this year to highlight the features of copper bullets.

The workshops were intended to share information and allow experience with different bullets, the DNR said at the time, and did not signal a policy shift within the department.

Four workshops were held around the state. The program was then put on hold. DNR officials are reconsidering the workshops and other aspects of its lead action plan.

The deer hunt has a rhythm on the 750-acre Noll farm.

“We pretty much live together for nine days,” Noll said.

After the opening days of hunting, it includes skinning deer on a Sunday night, butchering on Monday and sausage making on the following Tuesday.

“We love venison,” Noll said. “This year, for the first time, we all know we won’t be getting any lead in our meat and the eagles that fly along the river won’t be picking up lead on our farm, either.”

Like Carl Batha, a retired DNR wildlife supervisor, Noll thinks hunters should consider switching to copper bullets.

“I don’t think copper bullets should be required by law,” Noll said. “But as an option, it’s something hunters should definitely check out.”

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