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MailTribune.com
  • Exploding water jugs help push the copper bullet switch

  • Copper bullets in one hand and lead in another, Mike Palermo is looking to show hunters they can knock down their elk without knocking out scavengers such as vultures, ravens and perhaps one day California condors.
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  • Copper bullets in one hand and lead in another, Mike Palermo is looking to show hunters they can knock down their elk without knocking out scavengers such as vultures, ravens and perhaps one day California condors.
    First, Palermo fires traditional lead rounds through ballistics gelatin and into water jugs. The bullets penetrate and fragment throughout a chunk of what would be meat inedible to humans and gut piles toxic to critters that feed on them.
    Then he fires identical-caliber copper rounds, which double in diameter at impact and penetrate deeper without fragmenting.
    "The copper bullet looks beautiful, and they see that and they say, 'Wow, I get it,' " says Palermo, a wildlife biologist for the Yurok tribe in Northern California.
    "You can see the performance, and it makes it fun," Palermo says. "Who doesn't like seeing a bunch of water jugs explode."
    This ballistics version of "Myth Busters" comes to White City on Saturday, Aug. 17, as part of the Yuroks' attempt to convince hunters to switch voluntarily from lead bullets to copper as part of a long-term strategy to get condors back in the skies here.
    And like all good shows, this one is both hands-on and comes with door prizes.
    Hunters who show up with rifles at the Jackson County Sports Park between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Aug. 17 will be given 10 non-lead rounds of the appropriate caliber for target-shooting there. Also, Palermo will swap new copper rounds for lead ammo, with one box per caliber per person.
    He'll also have upland game shot and reloading components to swap out to take home and use either on the range or in the field during upcoming hunting seasons.
    "If it works for them from the samples we give them, the more inclined they will be to use it," Palermo says.
    Over time, the Yuroks hope enough hunters will make the switch so that the landscape will be conducive to reintroducing condors, whose endangered status is due, in part, to their susceptibility to lead poisoning from eating bullet fragments in gut piles left by hunters.
    "Once more people are informed, it will reach a point that there's such voluntary compliance the environment will be much more conducive to scavengers," he says. "But when that is, I don't know."
    Condors were native to most large basins in the Pacific Northwest and were documented in at least the Klamath, Umpqua and Columbia drainages.
    The last confirmed Oregon sighting was in 1904 near Drain, within the Umpqua basin southwest of Cottage Grove.
    Because the birds, with wingspans of up to 10 feet, are known to fly up to 300 miles a day in search of carrion, the Rogue River basin would be a logical place for the birds either to frequent or to establish themselves, experts say.
    But condors can't do it alone.
    Studies show the chief limiting factor to condor recovery is lead poisoning, and the most common source of lead is the ingestion of bullet fragments in the carcasses and gut piles left by hunters.
    California has banned the use of lead bullets in condor habitat since 2009. Arizona has a voluntary program that provides hunters in condor habitat with all-copper bullets, and upwards of 90 percent of hunters comply, according to the Arizona Department of Fish and Game.
    Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting on federal wildlife refuges since 1991, and several alternatives to lead already are marketed within the ballistics industry.
    But it's not just birds that benefit from getting the lead out. Studies show that kids with even low levels of lead in their blood have an average IQ that's 6.2 points lower than average, according to the tribe.
    Copper is being pushed as a good alternative for big-game hunters. Because it's harder than lead, it retains nearly 100 percent of its weight when penetrating an animal and generally does not fragment.
    It is, however, more expensive, and that's why only about 5 percent of ammunition sales are nonlead, according to the National Shooting Sports Federation. Of that 5 percent, four-fifths are shotgun shells and one-fifth are metallic bullets, such as copper, according to the NSSF.
    The NSSF has no issue with voluntary use of nontraditional ammunition.
    "If hunters want to use alternative ammunition because they feel better about it or they feel it's more environmentally friendly, that's their choice and should be their choice," says Lawrence Keane, the NSSF's senior vice president. "Manufacturers will respond to consumer demands."
    Palermo says the Yuroks have no interest in legislating out lead, instead relying on their Hunters as Stewards program to show hunters it's in their better interest to get the lead out of what they eat and what scavengers eat.
    Armed with $280,000 worth of federal grants, the program's main push is switching hunters to copper, Palermo says.
    So far, they've given out about 400 boxes of copper bullets, and they expect to expand that in White City and in similar events planned Saturday, Aug. 24, in Keno and Sept. 7 in Mt. Shasta, Calif.
    Palermo says he encourages hunters to target shoot and sight in their rifles with traditional ammunition and keep the copper for the field. That way, a 20-round box could last two or three seasons, he says.
    "That should be enough for them to really think about what we're talking about," he says.
    Over time, Palermo believes hunters will voluntarily put lead in their rearview mirrors.
    "It'll come to a point where a guy will show up with a box of lead ammunition, and everybody will say, 'What? You still using that? That's not cool.' "
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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