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A Review of the Problem of Lead Poisoning in Waterfowl


Although lead poisoning in waterfowl has generated controversy in recent years - primarily from the questioning of its extent by hunters opposed to steel shot - the problem has been recognized for more than 100 years. In 1874, two groups of ducks killed at Stephenson Lake, Galveston, Texas, were confiscated as unfit for human consumption, presumably as a result of lead poisoning. Lead-poisoned ducks were also reported on nearby Lake Surprise and in North Carolina at Currituck Sound (Grinnell 1894, 1901; Hough 1894; Phillips and Lincoln 1930).

Little or no controversy regarding Bellrose's (1959) definitive study on the incidence and effects of lead poisoning in wild waterfowl occurred at the time it was published. Much controversy, however, developed approximately 20 years later when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1974) proposed to require the use of steel shot for hunting waterfowl in selected areas. In his 1959 study, Bellrose stated, "At the present time, lead poisoning losses do not appear to be of sufficient magnitude to warrant such drastic regulations as, for example, prohibition of the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting. Should lead poisoning become a more serious menace to waterfowl populations, iron shot provides a possible means of overcoming it. Because of the increasing numbers of waterfowl hunters and the increasing incidence of lead poisoning, as well as because of the suffering that results among waterfowl seriously afflicted with the malady, the search for the best possible solution to the lead poisoning problem should be continued" (p. 286). Sixteen years later, however, Bellrose (1975: 167) commented on his earlier statements, "Why has my view on this problem changed? The principal reason is that our waterfowl populations have declined. Like all of our disappearing natural resources they are relatively more valuable today than they were then."

With the alarming decline in waterfowl nesting habitats in recent years, many biologists and wildlife managers believe that all reasonable steps that benefit waterfowl should be taken. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1974) proposed to require the use of steel shot for hunting waterfowl in certain areas of the United States. Most wildlife biologists and managers, the professional society representing them (The Wildlife Society 1984), and the National Wildlife Federation (1978), among other organizations, supported the use of steel shot for hunting waterfowl. Well organized and widespread opposition to steel shot surfaced immediately (e.g., National Rifle Association 1978; Arnett 1985). Recently, the National Wildlife Federation (1985b) has provided an excellent summary of the misunderstandings on which most of the opposition to steel shot has been based.

Because professionals and the general public have been inadequately informed about the problem of lead poisoning in waterfowl and because of misconceptions about the effectiveness of steel shot, we have undertaken a comprehensive review of these subjects. Our purposes here are three: (1) to provide an up-to-date summary of the effects of lead poisoning in waterfowl, (2) to summarize and briefly discuss the main issues that have led to differences of opinion regarding the magnitude of the problem, and (3) to review the differences to be found from the use of steel rather than lead shot. We have prepared this report with the expectation that biologists, wildlife managers and administrators, legislators, the general public, and especially waterfowl hunters will find the information helpful in understanding an extremely complex problem.

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