Non-toxic shot requirements

To protect wildlife species, nontoxic shot is required for all upland bird hunting on all pheasant release sites statewide. Many US Fish and Wildlife Service refuges also require the use of nontoxic shot. See specific refuge rules.

It is unlawful to possess shot other than nontoxic shot when hunting for upland game birds (pheasant, quail, chukar, or gray partridge), mourning doves, or band-tailed pigeons in any area where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife releases pheasants. This restriction applies to both shotshells and to loose shot for muzzleloading.

Violations bring a mandatory $1,000 fine and loss of small game hunting privileges for two years.

Problems with lead shot

Problems with the use of lead shot were discovered by extensive testing during the 1970s and 1980s. This resulted in a phasing out of lead shot as an allowable waterfowl load from 1986 to 1991. Waterfowl and other birds can die if they eat even very small amounts of spent lead shot. Swans are the most visible evidence of lead poisoning, due to their habit of feeding deep within wetlands that have lead pellets still remaining from past hunting seasons.

Lead-poisoned ducks and other birds carrying embedded lead shot also are known to cause poisoning in other species. For example, bald eagles and other raptors can be poisoned by feeding on other wildlife carrying or containing lead shot. Problems in other wildlife species have also been recently documented (see research reports below).

Identifying problem areas

Through monitoring, problems with lead shot have been discovered in some western Washington pheasant-release sites that also are waterfowl feeding areas. For example, soil sampling at Skagit Wildlife Area yielded an estimated 6.8 tons of lead. Sampling lead pellet densities in soil and wildlife tissues is considered to be the best way to identify problem areas, but these methods are labor intensive, expensive and sometimes difficult to interpret. Not all sites present potential problems. However, all release sites were converted to nontoxic shot use based on a high potential for ingestion of lead by wildlife, due to the higher densities of hunters depositing lead shot on these areas.

Hunter concerns about nontoxic shot

Hunters have voiced concerns about cost, effectiveness and shotgun barrel damage in using nontoxic shot. This is what we know about these areas of concern:

  • Cost: Alternatives to lead shot are more expensive -- particularly newer alternatives. However, steel shot prices have declined and are approaching those of lead shot. Prices of newer alternatives are expected to decline as new types become more widely available.
  • Steel performance: In numerous shooting tests, wounding loss from the use of steel shot has been scientifically shown to be no different from that of lead. Poor performance of steel often is related to mismatched load/choke combinations and exceeding the effective range of loads. Several of the new alternatives have ballistics properties similar to lead, helping to reduce concerns about effectiveness.
  • Barrel damage: Fears about barrel damage from nontoxic shot have not been substantiated for the vast majority of shotguns. Hunters should check with shotgun manufacturers to be certain.

Additional findings: In 2001, the Commission directed staff to prepare a report assessing the effects of lead shot on wildlife and identify other situations where nontoxic shot restrictions may be necessary. View the report.

Research on lead poisoning in upland birds

A frequent question is, “Where is the data that identifies lead shot as a source of poisoning for upland birds?” Researchers from other states and countries have documented problems with lead poisoning in many species of wildlife. Below are links for four such studies.