HELENA — Rob Domenech and his research associates didn’t know what they were looking for when they started testing the blood of golden eagles along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front three years ago.
What they found was lead. In some cases, lots of it.
“This was kind of a shock to us,” he said in an interview from his Missoula office. “We never considered it.”
Domenech, executive director of Raptor View Research Institute, was one of hundreds of people to send comments to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in what has become a controversial proposal to ban lead shot on state-owned wildlife management areas.
The commission meets in Helena Thursday to consider on the idea.
Unlike the vast majority of the commentators, Domenech and his associates say they support such a ban, or at least, they say, there’s enough question about the effects of lead on wildlife — and people — that Montana ought to begin educating hunters about the benefits of lead alternative ammunition.
Gary Marbut, executive director of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said that the agency made no scientific case in favor of the ban and that hunters and gun owners have reason to be suspicious of such proposals.
Most who have written in agree with Marbut.
“There are people who would like to use a lead ban as a way to end hunting and as a way to end the right to bear arms,” he said.
Marbut added that he doesn’t think all lead concerns are a cloaked threat to the Second Amendment. But the concern is legitimate and common enough among Montana’s hunters that the state’s own hunting and wildlife agency should not have been surprised when its lead ban proposal was met with a mountain of negative comments.
“Anybody in Montana with a lick of sense should have been able to predict that,” he said.
Not just Marbut and his group are concerned.
“This is move straight out of the radical anti-hunting crowd’s playbook,” reads a release sent out by the National Rifle Association last month.
The NRA encouraged its members to tell Montana’s commissioners to quash the ban and made the connection between the U.S. Humane Society’s call to ban all lead ammunition and its president’s stated desire to end all sport hunting.
Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that there is no secret anti-hunting agenda behind the proposal and that questions about lead and hunting are not new.
At present, the biggest concerns come from of dove hunting in Texas.
Migrating doves will congregate there by the thousands. Hunters also congregate around the birds, and leftover shot is known to be relatively thick after a hunt.
Texas is studying the consequences of so much shot being left behind in the environment. Might birds ingest it?
Lead in the bloodstream is a known toxin. And it’s more toxic for the predator, or person, who eats an animal with lead in its flesh than it is for an animal shot with it, said Heiko Langner, a University of Montana chemist and hunter who is working with Domenech in his eagle studies.
The body encapsulates lead in flesh. But, if it’s eaten, he said, stomach acids break down lead, and the metal enters the bloodstream, where it can cause anything from lower IQ in children to death.
Lead shot is already illegal nationwide when hunting waterfowl such as geese and ducks, which were known to accidentally ingest lead shot collecting in the bottom of lakes and rivers.
At a recent wildlife conference, the director of Montana’s FWP heard about the concerns in Texas and came back wondering if there was any cause for worry at two of Montana’s more popular public hunting areas, Aasheim said: the Freezeout Lake and Canyon Ferry wildlife management areas.
“So the question was, are there potential impacts in those and other areas,” he said.
The department decided to throw the idea out to the public: Should Montana ban lead shot on all the wildlife management areas?
Langner said the problem goes beyond lead shot, particularly for eagles and people. The lead in slugs, like the kind used to hunt deer and elk, also leaves behind a trail of tiny lead particles in deer and elk shot with lead slugs.
Langner said he does not support an outright ban on lead ammunition. Rather, hunters should be made aware of lead’s potential risks.
The proposal the commission will take up this week does not deal with all lead ammunition.
And Steven Helgerson, the state’s medical officer, said no studies have shown a link between humans eating wild game taken with a lead bullet and elevated levels of lead in the blood.
“We’re keeping our powder dry with regard to public health recommendations,” he said.