Going Lead-Free is for the Birds

Written by: Reid Bryant, Senior Manager-Orvis Wingshooting Services

Brandon Boedecker and friends in search of sharp-tailed grouse.

At Orvis, we see guides as more than just providers of a good day on the water or in the field. Guides are the trusted authorities, the people who dedicate days, months, and years (in and out of the season) to developing a relationship with both the natural resource in which they work and the game and fish to which they introduce their clients. Over the arc of a career, a good guide recognizes that a transactional, extractive relationship to the resource is not sustainable: over-pressuring of a piece of water or a piece of ground or lacking care for the other structures within the greater ecosystem knock the give-and-take out of balance. In the absence of the guide’s intentional stewardship, the resource suffers right alongside the guide’s business. A good guide becomes intimate with the necessity of equilibrium between taking and replenishing, looking after the resource as a whole. In short, good guides are stewards of their workplace; sometimes this ethos becomes a central pillar of the guide’s business, evolving into a conservation ethic that becomes as valuable to the client as any bent rod or a full bag.

Brandon Bedecker of PRO Outfitters has maintained a lifelong connection to Montana’s central prairies. Over the last several decades, he has guided bird hunters each fall out of PRO’s Sharptail Lodge, pursuing sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, and pheasants on some of the most productive prairie bird habitat in the Lower 48. Boedecker has ample ground available and a relatively small number of hunters each season, so the full effect of his impact is minimal. Nonetheless, he sees this swath of land, and the swath of life encompassed by it, as necessary and fragile. It sustains him financially, sure, but it also sustains something more weighty but harder to articulate: the opportunity for wild living things, many of them endemic to the region, persisting as they have for millennia.

With a keen eye on the stewardship of this ecosystem, Boedecker noted several disconcerting realities over the years. First and foremost, hunting is an inexact science. Despite great dog work and diligence, hit birds are not always recovered. In and of itself, this fact of hunting should be minimized at all costs in deference to the birds themselves. Incidentally, however, Boedecker also recognized that the lead shot carried off by unrecovered birds was, in all likelihood, getting accumulated up the food chain, as carrion eaters and raptors made opportunistic meals of the shot game. Following his concerns to the literature, Boedecker found that indeed, bioaccumulation of lead specifically in raptors was proving to have a real and noticeable impact on their populations.

Non-toxic shot will benefit the ecosystem that PRO Outfitters shares with its clients.

For the 2023 Upland Season, Brandon has opted to make only lead-free cartridges available to his hunting clients. He has specifically invested in copper-plated bismuth loads, which while foremost being non-toxic, also perform better than lead due to the comparative density of bismuth. These loads simply work with greater efficiency to kill their intended game. The overarching goal is to minimize loss while attending to the reality that some game will invariably go unretrieved. Though clients with specific guns that require unique, lead-containing shells will be attended to on a case-by-case basis, Boedecker’s hope is to lead by example. He intends to show that his care for the ecosystem is such that a little bit of sacrifice, perhaps intention, is worthwhile. The cost of providing these shells to customers is significantly greater than that of traditional lead loads, but the privilege of living and working in productive country and ensuring that he and his clients can experience it and all its critters for years to come, is worth the extra bucks.

“I just looked at it, and it felt like the right thing to do,” says Boedecker, which is a bit of an understatement. And when a great guide points out a direction, it is safe to assume that he or she is doing so for a well-thought-out reason.

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