Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Nov. 22, 2022

Getting the Lead Out: Making a Case for Copper Bullets

Getting the Lead Out: Making a Case for Copper Bullets

Whether you're a human who enjoys venison, or a bald eagle that scavenges a hunter's kill, lead = poison. And as it turns out, common lead bullets fragment on impact into hundreds of pepper-sized flakes that can be devastating to wildlife (and not so great for humans, either!). 

Michael DiBenedetto is a lifelong Catskiller, a longtime hunter, and a passionate advocate for copper bullets. If his experience rehabilitating lead-poisoned eagles isn't reason enough to make the switch, there are plenty of other motivating factors, as he explains in our interview; plus, a convincing experiment for any hunter who wants to see first-hand how lead and copper bullets "hold up" in the wild.

Bullet photo courtesy of Jeremy Roberts © Conservation Media, LLC

Check out these short videos produced by Conservation Media for huntingwithnonlead.org, and see what happens when lead and copper bullets are shot into ballistic gel. 

Thanks to our sponsors:

The Mountain Eagle
Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce
Briars & Brambles Books

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Unknown Speaker  0:03  
I mean they removed lead from gasoline they remove lead from paint. Because we know lead's really toxic lead's not good for you. It's one of the most toxic things we know of knowing what I know now. I wouldn't use lead at all for any hunting.

Brett Barry  0:20  
Michael Dibenedetto is a lifelong catskiller with a long history of deer hunting and venison eating. About a decade ago, he started volunteering at a Wildlife Rehab Center, where lead poisoned Eagles got him thinking about the connection between lead bullets and the wider Catskills ecosystem. On this week's Kaatscast, we'll hear all about Michael's firsthand experience with lead and copper bullets, and his advocacy for the latter. We first learned about Michael Dibenedetto through an article in our favorite local newspaper, the mountain Eagle, covering Delaware green and schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham weekly schoharie news and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email, mountainEaglenews@gmail.com.

Unknown Speaker  1:19  
I grew up in the Catskills just outside of Fleischmanns on brushridge Road, if you go up to Belleayre and you look out toward the north, there was a farm over there that has since been all developed. And that was my grandfather's farm. He came from Italy, bought the property up there and it was a dairy farm while actually it was a cauliflower farm to begin with. I'm Michel Dibenedetto, my wife and I left for about five years I went to school down in Texas. We both went to school in Texas and then we move back. And I started teaching teaching science in Margaretville where I went to school and taught there for almost 20 years. Growing up on a farm, back then everybody hunted the school bus drivers used to carry a gun in the bus when during deer season. I mean there were different times. So everybody hunted and I grew up hunting. For me. It was more of a subsistence kind of hunting. I mean, I hunted for the meat. I didn't care about putting a trophy on the wall or anything like that. It was more subsistence. And that was my hunting career. As our kids were growing up, I hunted all the time I picked up roadkill as a teacher, as you can imagine the salary back in the early 80s was, you know, $10,000 a year. And so you do other jobs and eat a lot of venison. So my kids grew up on venison. And it wasn't until later on that it became a hunter safety instructor for DC.

Brett Barry  3:07  
In addition to hunter safety, you're also a volunteer for wildlife rehabilitation center. Can you tell me about that? Yes,

Unknown Speaker  3:15  
friends of the feathered and furry is in Lexington, New York. And the way we got involved with Missy Runyan, who started that she and her husband Dave, I noticed that there was something in a ditch and ended up being an immature bald eagle. And I turned my truck around, I picked up the eagle. And I brought it to Dan Sullivan, who was a vet in Grand gorge at the time. And he said well, we need to call Missy Runyan And she's the eagle person here. She's the rehabber and called her and that's how that relationship started with Missy. And that eagle, by the way, was toxic for lead. And that eagle was released at a funeral for a service member that was killed in Afghanistan. So it did recover one of the few so it must have been in 2012 My wife peg had gone up to a hawkwatch up in Franklin mountain Oneonta and she met a gentleman there named Tom cielo of the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society. And he asked her if she would be interested in volunteering to do the study on Golden Eagles. overwintering in the Catskills and it's part of a large program to monitor the migration routes of golden eagles on the Eastern Seaboard. What that involved is, starting in December and running through middle of March. You'd go out and pick up roadkill deer or anykind of roadkill really,

Brett Barry  5:01  
and that roadkill was stockpiled as bait to attract the golden eagles that are hunters, but also scavengers, and that bait attracted a lot of other wildlife to

Unknown Speaker  5:12  
coyotes, fishers, mink bears, we had a bear one time came in, it was the first time we had a bear. And we would have to stake the carcasses down because the coyotes would drag them off, so they could eat them in private. So we would stake them down, but you couldn't stake down a carcass to keep a bear from taking it. Or we would have some times 10 12 bald Eagles feeding at the site at the same time. 20 30 40 ravens, and usually when the golden eagles came in, everybody would leave. They were pretty much the top predator there. Then you'd set up a trap. It was a net launcher, catch the eagle, you banned the eagle and then you put a transmitter on the back of the seagulls solar powered transmitter so they can monitor its movements and whatever. The first site that we used was in near Andes in New York. And the Golden Eagle we caught. We named Maxine, and this particular female went down to southern Delaware County Down near Hancock. And she was down there for about two weeks in almost the same spot. And then the folks that were monitoring the transmitter got a hold of us and said something's wrong their solar powered and the batteries were going dead. So they thought that maybe she was on her back something was wrong. So Peg, and I initially went down to look for this eagle. The farmer who owned the property where we thought the eagle was he thought he had seen that golden eagle. And he said that just a week before there had been a bald eagle along the side of the road that he called DEC, and DEC came to pick up that eagle and the eagle ended up going over to Missy Runyan. In Lexington. Its lead levels were off the charts off the scale that they use. So it was over 70 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood. And the eagle ended up dying. And this eagle, our very first Golden Eagle ended up we're pretty sure dying of lead poisoning.

Unknown Speaker  7:36  
I went home I did a little research. And coincidentally, my daughter had asked me about this. during hunting season, she asked me about lead, they eat a lot of venison as she did growing up. And I said I just can't imagine how that could be possible. But you would get lead in the venison. I mean, you cut a wire around the wound channel, whatever. And well, as it turns out, the bullets are traveling 2500 to 3000 feet per second, you know three times the speed of sound. And these copper jacketed bullets, which I think 90% of hunters use, basically explode upon impact. And this lead just goes all the bits into hundreds of tiny pieces like pepper size, tiny pieces, and they travel up to 18 inches from the wound channel. So if you figure out how big a deer is, and you're going to cut out around the wound channel, unless you're going to throw half of the deer away, you're gonna miss a lot of that lead. So when you if you were to shoot a deer out in the woods, you're going to gut that deer out in the woods, and you leave a gut pile out there. And that gut pile may have hundreds of tiny pieces in it. And a lot of hunters these days, don't use the organs and be probably blown that apart when you shot it anyway. So you leave all that you might leave the heart, the lungs the liver all that out in the field for all these scavengers, and they found that some of these eagles actually listen for those gunshots, particularly out west, the golden eagles, they'll hear where people have shot and they know that that's going to be a food source. I mean they're very smart and so they go there and within hours they're on this gut pile or whatever it is consuming that lead lead mimics calcium and calcium is required for your all your electrical impulses through neurons. So when light gets in there and it impacts that now it affects you neurologically what which is what happens with these eagles, which is why even though they may not die of lead poisoning, per se they're vision's impaired, there flight impaired, all these sorts of things end up happening to him. So a lot of these eagles die of starvation. It starts out neurologically their. Their urates, their poop ends up being this sort of metallic green, they won't be able to hold their head up. They can't talk. They make these horrible little squeaks instead of talking like they usually do while they starve to death, basically, because they can't hunt. Unless they can live off carcasses, their final stages, they go into these seizures. Again, neurological problems seizures that end up killing the bird, but it might take hours, days weeks, for a bird to die of lead poisoning and it's a horrible death.

Brett Barry  10:52  
If a lead poisoned Eagle makes it to a wildlife rehabilitator, in time, a process called chelation is employed to help well get the lead out.

Unknown Speaker  11:02  
So they go through a process called chelation and you give it a chemical that binds with the lead, and then they basically poop it out of their system. But that is really hard on the birds kidneys. So you have to be careful about your chelation process. And one of the things that Missy had learned through so many eagles that she treated for lead poisoning, is that you can't just chelate them and get them so that their blood levels are low and release them which I think almost all rehabbers do. And you could feel good about that because the Eagles in good shape when you release it, what Missy found out by one of the eagles that she had picked up, it was in Stamford, New York, and chelated it to get its lead levels down, eagle flew perfectly, its lead levels were down, they brought it back and released it. And that particular Eagle stayed in about the same place didn't move Missy wanted to go back and pick it up. It was there for two weeks, Eagle died. So what she learned from this eagle she felt horrible about this was that if you're a rehabber, and you have that eagle in captivity, you chelate it, you get its blood levels down. If you fed the bird, the bird might be fine forever, it might live a long life. When this bird gets stressed a little bit, it's not being fed. Being as lead mimics calcium, it's stored in the bones. As soon as the nutrition starts to go down, that leeches back out. And now all of a sudden, we have neurological impairment, because that's gone back in the bloodstream. So what she ended up doing with every bird after that, she would chelate it, fly the bird out, make sure it was okay. And then she would stress that bird, she would feed it less. And invariably, she might have to chelate these birds two or three times, all of a sudden the lead levels would go back up. And she would see this, that their vision would be impaired, their peripheral vision would be off, they didn't fly exactly right. She was amazing. She was just an amazing person. And this is really expensive. You're talking about $300 or something like that to chelate a bird. So she would do this numerous times, and then release the bird when she could stress it and the blood blood levels when we go back

Brett Barry  13:38  
up. Remember how roadkill was used to lower Eagles for tagging? Well, carcasses in the wild are just as attractive to Eagles, and many other animals. So back to the issue of lead ammo.

Unknown Speaker  13:50  
And it's not those big pieces that are the problem. It's those tiny pieces that this bullet explodes into. And it's all through that. So you remember from biology class, all birds have crops and gizzards. They don't have a digestive system like we do. So you get a little bit of lead in there. And that lead stays in there. And it keeps getting ground up smaller and smaller ends up being ingested. The other thing that Raptors have, the acidity is very high. I mean they have to break down all wet hair and feathers and scales, bones, whatever they're eating. So the acidity in their digestive system is higher than ours if you can imagine that. And lead breaks down with acids. That's why if you're going to eat your venison, don't cook it with wine or vinegar, because that acidity is going to break that down even more and it's gonna make it more soluble to be digested. In New York, the food pantries were giving out some 80,000 pounds of venison. they've tested venison In food pantries, typically 15 to 20% of that comes back with lead. Why would you feed that to your family?

Brett Barry  15:12  
After the break, we'll hear about Michael's own experimentation with lead and copper bullets and recommendations for hunters considering making the switch. Kaatscast is sponsored by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook, and sign up for a weekly email of local events at Centralcatskills.org. And by Briars and brambles books, the go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills located in Windham, New York, right next to the pharmacy just steps away from the Windham path open daily. For more information, visit Briarsandbramblesbooks.com, or call 518-750-8599.

Unknown Speaker  16:07  
After I got thinking about lead and bullets, I decided to shoot some bullets. Because as a science teacher, and particularly as a person that learns visually, I wanted to see what was going on, I couldn't come and talk to you if you were a hunter, and tell you not to use lead bullets if I wasn't shooting bullets and knowing what happened to them.

Brett Barry  16:29  
And so Michael and wife peg lined up a series of plastic jugs full of water, and shot into them with lead and copper bullets.

Unknown Speaker  16:38  
So at 100 yards, five, one gallon milk jugs with a 30 Odd six in the last jug, you will probably find your what remains of that bullet that you shot in there. And you'll be shocked at the tiny amount, the copper skeleton that's left a few big pieces. And there'll be literally hundreds of little pieces of lead. And you have to keep in mind that this is going through just water. If you're shooting a deer, you're going to more than likely be hitting a bone. And that bone is going to cause even more of these particles to go all over through your meat. So this particular round is a 270. It's a common round that hunters would use for shooting deer around here. And it was just shot into water. And if you look at that bullet, there's a copper skeleton that's left, all bullets are copper jacketed, you couldn't use just straight lead bullets. I mean, I guess if you were using a muzzle loader, you could but then you would have to clean the bore out of your gun, because it would leave pieces of lead in there when it was shot. So you'd have to clean that really. So they're all copper jacketed. And that copper jacket keeps that together. And when it hits something that just goes all to bits it explodes. And, you know, hunters talk about spitting out the pieces of lead when you shoot something, you know, there be the pellets. And I grew up doing that too. You couldn't do that with this. I mean, these are the size of flakes, of pepper or something like that. And there's literally hundreds in this one, one bullet that was shot,

Brett Barry  18:23  
Michael pulled out a small plastic container holding the many tiny fragments from one lead bullet.

Unknown Speaker  18:29  
And like I said, just that one bullets enough to to be lethal too many eagles, copper on the other hand, it's actually called a monolithic bullet, because it's made just of copper. And copper was developed by barns. They didn't care about lead, but they wanted a bullet that was going to penetrate more. They wanted to develop a bullet to hunt big game in Africa. Think about the science of this. And the physics of this, as this loses its mass when it enters something, it's going to penetrate less. If you could keep it staying together, it's going to penetrate more. So that's what barns did. And their first bullets were not so good. And then they developed some that were they're, they're amazing. The copper bullets generally retained about 95 97% of their mass. And it might be just a little piece of copper that breaks off or something like that. The lead bullets that were using like that, a lot of times they were some of them are retained, you know 30 35% of their mass, and the rest was all lead in tiny, tiny pieces. And the irony of this whole thing with hunters is that not only is this safer in terms of health But even if you say I don't believe the health aspect, we've been doing this I grew up my grandpa was using lead bullets, I grew up on lead bullets. Even if you don't think about that, the copper kills more efficiently because it stays together. And it's more accurate.

Brett Barry  20:19  
Copper ammunition can be hard to find, though, supply chain disruptions being just one factor. And for hunters who grouse about the cost of copper, which can be significantly pricier than lead, Michael has this to say, just before

Unknown Speaker  20:33  
the pandemic, I could go into Walmart and buy non lead Winchester Ammunition for about $25 for a 20 round box. I could buy cheap core locks for about $19 A box, not a huge difference. And now I've paid as much as 60 $70 a box for 20 rounds. As a hunter, how many you're gonna go bullets, you're gonna go through two, three bullets each year, maybe, you know, not very many, if you're a good hunter. So you go through very few bullets. So even if the cost was $100, a box, somebody called me the other day they were looking for 3030 ammunition 3030 is very hard to find in non lead. And I finally found some ammunition. It was $80 a box. But even at $80 a box, a box will last you few years anyway. Now one of the things that we didn't talk about, and if there are any hunters listening to this copper shoots different than lead does. And the reason it does is because it's usually a lighter round. Or if it's going to be the same weight, they're going to have to make that much longer. And because of the rifling in your barrel, it's going to shoot a little bit different. So you're going to have to cite in your gun with copper rounds. So that's going to cost you a couple bullets on there two or three bullets, you want to make sure it groups well. But in terms of the cost, you're talking about license fees, you're talking about clothing, you're talking about gas to drive to where you're going hunting food, most hunters are setting out multiple game cameras, they go up there many times a year, a lot of them are using sense to draw bucks in I mean, there's so many things that are going to add to that cost of your total hunting experience, that the ammunition is not the huge thing out there. It's just a part of it. Even at three or four times, what lead would cost. It's just not that big a deal. So another thing that I heard a reason why hunters would be reluctant to switch point to the science that particularly with bald eagles, we see more bald eagles now than we've ever seen. And they say so it's not affecting the population. So what's the big deal? I personally have seen the deaths of these bald eagles holding some eagle that weighs 13 14 pounds with a wingspan of seven feet. This magnificent creature that you've poisoned for no reason. I mean, it's just a horrible, horrible death. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't use lead at all for any hunting.

Brett Barry  23:49  
According to a study published in the journal Science, nearly half of all bald and golden eagles in North America suffer from lead poisoning. And Eagles aren't alone. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center reports lead poisoning in California condors mourning doves, ringnecked pheasants and wild turkeys, among other birds and mammals. Kaatscast is a biweekly production of silver hollow audio production intern Alison Aaron. Be sure to follow us on the podcast app of your choice. And if you'd like to contribute to the show, there's a button for that at kaatscast.com. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening and keep in touch

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA