Beth Siverhus has hunted deer since 1976. The Warroad, Minn., woman also spends time rehabilitating injured birds.
She'd never really connected those two activities until this year, when she saw several eagles die from lead poisoning. She believes they likely ingested the lead while eating piles of deer guts left in the woods by hunters.
"It's a pretty sick feeling to realize I could have been doing something to both contaminate the food we eat, and make wildlife sick that are feeding on the gut piles," said Siverhus. "It's heartbreaking to see these eagles reduced to nothing. They can't stand, they can't fly. It's no way to die."
Some Minnesota food shelves stopped accepting venison this year after lead fragments were found in the meat.
Despite that, Siverhus was skeptical of the danger posed to humans by lead fragments in venison. But dying eagles, added to potential danger to humans, changed her mind. Starting next year, she will use copper ammunition.
“This is within our environment, and we need to find a way to curtail it.”Rep. Sandy Masin
"From what I've read on the Internet, copper works quite well as a substitute but it's more expensive. However, I shoot one or two bullets a year so it's not much of a sacrifice for me," said Siverhus. "I understand that hunters find this difficult. I found it difficult. But I believe it's time to change."
But should lead bullets be banned?
State Rep. Sandy Masin, DFL-Eagan, says yes. Masin hasn't worked out the details of her legislation, but she thinks there should be a ban or significant restrictions on the use of lead bullets.
"We know that it's impacting the death of birds, and we also know we've been working really hard to keep lead from our children," said Masin. "Somehow there has to be a way. This is within our environment and we need to find a way to curtail it."
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, doesn't agree.
"I don't think there's a need for government regulation, and I don't think there's a traumatic influence here that is needing government regulation," Johnson said.
Johnson says there's no question that lead is a neurotoxin, but he says there's not enough research to show lead bullet fragments are poisoning people.
"Yeah, we have lead fragmentation in venison. It's in small amounts. The exposure is limited. So is it really a problem? The answer seems to be no at this point," said Johnson.
For the 2008 deer hunt, Johnson used a type of copper covered bullet. He says it worked well, but was less accurate than lead bullets he used in the past.
Some hunters Johnson has talked with are happy with the copper bullets, while others still have a strong preference for lead ammunition.
Until there's stronger evidence of the danger posed by lead fragments in venison, the choice should be up to hunters, not the state, in Johnson's opinion. He would like to see more research before there's talk of banning lead bullets.
Rep. Masin agrees there should be more research. But for her, there's already enough evidence that lead fragments are a danger to humans and to birds such as eagles.
Masin expects to have a bill restricting the use of lead bullets ready to be heard early in the upcoming legislative session.