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Deer hunters stick with lead bullets

GRAND FORKS - Sporting goods stores in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and other parts of the Northland say deer hunters are sticking with lead bullets this fall, despite studies that show a correlation between the bullets and lead fragments in venison.

"I haven't even had anyone bring it up to me, personally," said Jamie Jack, supervisor of the hunting and gun departments at Scheels in Grand Forks. "I don't think it's a real big deal."

The issue first surfaced last spring, when a Bismarck physician published results of a study showing the presence of lead fragments in samples of ground venison from deer that hunters had donated to North Dakota food shelves.

In response, health officials in North Dakota and Minnesota ordered food shelves in the two states to throw away all of their venison. Lead is a toxin, and long-term exposure can cause neurological damage.

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources published findings from its own bullet research. The DNR study, in which researchers fired various kinds of bullets into sheep carcasses, found that rapid-expansion lead bullets sent high numbers of fragments as far as 11 inches from the wound channel.

Shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets produced fewer fragments, the DNR research showed, but the only way to eliminate the risk of lead exposure was through the use of bullets with no exposed lead, such as those with a copper case surrounding the lead core, or copper bullets.

And so far, at least, hunters don't seem to be buying into the idea of switching from lead to copper.

"I haven't had one person come in and ask for that," said Bob Jensen, a salesman in Home of Economy's sporting goods department.

Price could be one factor. Jack, the hunting and gun department supervisor at Scheels, said the store carries a Barnes-brand copper bullet, but it costs at least $10 to $15 more than other bullets.

Andy Fruetel, a sales associate in the hunting department at Cabela's in East Grand Forks, said the store carries a Federal Premium-brand lead-free bullet that sells for $49.99 a box, compared with about $25 a box for lead bullets.

He said he hasn't encountered a customer asking about the lead bullet research.

"Not a lot of people are too concerned with it," he said.

That appears to be the case in other parts of northern Minnesota, as well. Wade Boroos of Streiff Sporting Goods near Warroad, Minn., said the store doesn't carry nontoxic bullets because there's no demand.

"I haven't had one person ask for bullets that were non-lead," he said. "I know they have them out there, but we don't even have anyone ask about it. People have shot deer with lead for years."

Lead in venison hasn't been linked to any illnesses, but the DNR study still recommended that pregnant women and children younger than six not consume the meat from deer shot with lead bullets.

North Dakota and Minnesota again this fall are accepting venison donations. North Dakota is limiting its program to archery deer, and Minnesota has implemented stricter guidelines that include whole cuts only and special training for processors.