DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would set up a pilot program to try to incentivize hunters to exchange their lead-based bullets for nontoxic ammunition.
House Bill 23-1936 would set up a two-year pilot program run through Colorado Parks and Wildlife, directing the agency to work with nongovernmental entities to educate hunters on the dangers of lead-based bullets.
“Lead is known to be very lethal. So, it just seemed like a good way to do it — that it's not a mandatory bill but we would like to see if hunters would exchange their lead bullets for other types,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango.
The bill would also allow individuals to receive vouchers to offset the cost of purchasing non-lead bullets. The program would run through July 1, 2026.
What’s the deal with lead-based bullets?
For decades, hunters and shooting sportsmen have relied on lead ammunition because of the availability and cost.
However, over the years, the more research that has been done on the topic, the more medical experts have discovered the dangers of exposure to even low levels of lead.
“The more we've studied it, the more we realize that there's no level of lead in the diet or in intake that's without deleterious effects,” said Dr. Michael Kosnett, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He is also an associate professor of environmental and occupational health with the Colorado School of Public Health.
It is also particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women, affecting IQ levels and cognitive function if ingested even in low amounts.
In 2013, Kosnett was part of a team of researchers who wrote a letter that was published in the Environmental Health Perspectives Magazine talking about the health risks of this type of ammunition and imploring for cessation of its use nationwide.
In his research, he has found two prevailing risks associated with the lead. First, the ammunition poses a risk to human health.
“Research has shown that small, very small pieces of lead, which can't be seen by the naked eye, are present in the meat around the site where the bullet went in. So even when people think that they've removed the visible lead pellets, there's the risk that lead... can occur in the meat that they eat,” Kosnett said.
Even the simple act of shooting lead-based bullets at target ranges, particularly indoor ranges, can pose a risk from the fine fumes and dust emitted by the bullets.
The second major risk associated with the ammunition is the dangers posed to the environment and wildlife.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, an estimated 16 million birds are poisoned by lead each year.
“It's been well-known that bald eagles throughout the United States have been seriously poisoned by lead because of this process of them consuming game meat,” Kosnett said.
The lead can come from carcass remains left behind from hunters or even from bullets that miss their target. They can then leech into the environment and other animals, sickening and even killing them.
The dangers are so prominent that federal law has banned the use of lead bullets in hunting waterfowl since 1991 to keep the metal out of waterways.
A hunter’s perspective
For hunters like Gabriela Zaldumbide, the switch to lead-free ammunition was as much about conservation as it was about her own health.
“That lead is still in your wild game meat when you take it home, when you serve it to your family, when you feed it to your friends,” Zaldumbide said.
Zaldumbide is a hunting and fishing guide with Uncharted Outdoors Women and the editor of Project Upland Magazine. She earned her hunting safety certification while earning her wildlife ecology degree in college and says she’s been hunting ever since.
Overall, she said she has not noticed any difference in the accuracy of her shot with the nontoxic ammunition.
The biggest drawbacks she has noticed so far in making the switch to lead-free bullets are the availability and cost.
"A lot of times, there's smaller quantities of non-lead ammo available, and they sell out faster, and they're more expensive," she said. "When you see, like, non-lead ammo boxes that are $15 or $20 or even $30 more than a lead ammo, it's hard to make that switch, especially if you're on a limited budget."
Still, she said the cost is worth it for the sake of health and safety while Kosnett said hunting is an expensive sport overall and the ammunition is just a small portion of that.
“There are effective and affordable substitutes. Why would you want to use a toxic substance when you could have a have an effective and affordable substitute that's not toxic,” he said.
The bill does not have any declared opposition in the Colorado legislature and yet in its first committee test in February, Republicans voted against it, mainly over concerns about the cost to the state.
In the end, McLachlan insists this bill is not intended to hurt the hunting community but to protect the environment and people.
“All over Colorado hunting is a huge industry and I don't want to hurt the industry at all. In my southwest Colorado, it's very big,” McLachlan said. “I'm hoping that hunters can keep hunting but that the meat that they are eating from their hunting will not kill them or make their family sick.”
The bill is set to be debated on the House floor this week.