Lead-based ammunition leaves residues in carcasses that are toxic to golden eagles and other species. Hunters can make a difference by choosing alternatives without a lead.
The golden eagle tried to make a weak leap onto the snow-covered bank. In the shortest moment when it was in the air, I saw the clenched, pale yellow feet. It was then that I knew the type of poison that probably filled this bird’s bloodstream: lead.
In particular, it was the lead found in the carcasses and piles of intestines of animals left in the forest, many of which are the remains of a hunter’s successful harvest.
I am a Wyoming born and raised hunter and now live in Montana. I put a lot of lead in the environment, but not anymore.
A golden eagle found
At the beginning of January, my husband and I ventured into the Blackfoot Valley in western Montana to go cross-country skiing on some closed forest roads and to lead our two bird dogs. We had barely driven a mile off the tarmac when we ran into a small car that stopped in the middle of the road.
The driver pointed to the cart pit and a golden eagle. Then the bird made a small leap to escape our gaze and I saw its clenched claws. When it landed just a few feet away, it was on its ankles, huge wings spreading over the snow, and its head bowed.
A mangled call with poor cell service to a non-wildlife biologist from Montana FWP revealed what we’d found. He asked us to try to catch the bird while he got the area’s Raptor Recovery Center ready to receive it.
A golden eagle dead
The ruffled feet of the lead-poisoned eagle; Photo credit: Hannah Nikonow
We took off our jackets and slowly approached the bird. When it started to struggle, I put my hand on my back between the wings and pushed them down slightly. The weakened animal simply fell in the snow and did not fight. My husband folded the wings and picked it up. We drove straight to the Wild Skies Raptor Center in Potomac, Mont.
The bird was treated with IV fluids for dehydration, carefully fed because it was starving, received chelation therapy (which involves a preparation of drugs to bind metals in the blood), and began physiotherapy to try to regain its body to get up and running.
Once broken down in an acidic environment such as a bird of prey intestine, lead disrupts the central nervous system. This can lead to a variety of problems including starvation as the bird cannot function well enough to find food. And that’s exactly what happened. The Raptor Center also identified this golden eagle as an adult female, possibly 5 to 15 years old, making it a critical bird for future eagles to raise.
She died 9 days later.
How Lead Fragments Affect Wildlife
A copper ball retains almost 100% of its mass; Photo credit: Hannak Nikonow
Hunter, it’s up to us.
Upon impact Lead bullets fragment and disperse to varying degrees depending on the composition of the bullet and the placement of the shot. Even the best-placed lead bullet fired through vital organs will cause a bullet to lose some of its mass. These fragments become trapped in the bowels that we often leave behind in the form of piles of intestines and sometimes whole animals with varmints and lost game.
Alternatives without lead like copper retain almost 100% of their mass and often provide increased penetration, which is a good thing – especially when the bullet hits bone and skin first. This means that little to no metal remains in the meat or in the carcass.
A friend aptly described a picture of an X-rayed deer carcass that was harvested with a lead ball that looked like a constellation of stars because of the lead fragments scattered around the body. This is where the potential for all consumers to be exposed to lead begins. Golden eagle and other scavengers that feed on hunter-killed carcasses and remains consume the same fragments.
The history of lead bans and birds
In 1987 the federal government began a gradual ban on the use of lead for hunting migratory waterfowl. It happened when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sued by the National Wildlife Federation for spent lead shots left by hunters in swamps and wetlands.
The Federation claimed and won the case. Lead shot poisoned water birds, among other things. Ducks and geese feed on the bottom of lakes, streams, and wetlands. These Birds Pick up gravel that collects in your gizzard to aid digestion of food. Lead fragments were ingested, which damaged second-hand wildlife.
Lead bans exist in various forms across the country. Many state game reserves and national game reserves do not require a lead to hunt waterfowl and highland birds. A handful of tribal governments such as the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes of northwest Montana also require the use of unleaded shot on their lands. In 2019, the entire state of California completely banned lead hunting. This resulted from its association with the declining population of wild condors. that is now recovering.
In selected areas there are guidelines that dictate what hunters must shoot for environmental reasons, but many areas do not have these guidelines. Many hunters still shoot lead for a variety of reasons. Many people are simply not aware of the effects of lead. Others are aware but still choose not to change.
Personally, I made the change.
Make the switch
I hunted with lead ammunition for years because I was taught that. It was only over a decade after my hunting experience that I knew of the effects that lead fragments were causing on my intestinal heaps. After learning what my lead fragments could do with non-target animals, I knew I had to change something.
For 8 years I have been taking one or two large game animals with copper balls every season. Two months ago I filled a young buck with my deer trailer, and his intestinal heap is barely 8 km from where we found this eagle, a distance she could have covered in a few minutes. So the death of this golden eagle feels extremely personal, both in our practical experience and in the area in which it also hunted.
Maybe she was sitting on my deer’s bowels eating the lead-free protein. She likely sat on many other carcasses in the area that were shot by lead ammunition, and unwittingly ate enough fragments to kill them.
“The evidence is overwhelming”
A golden eagle flies through the air; Photo credit: Chris Hill
In a 2020 article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management entitled “Widespread lead exposure in golden eagles captured in MontanaThe researchers found that of all 91 golden eagles examined, almost all (94.5%) had elevated blood lead levels (which means more than 10 μg / dl).
When blood lead levels are above clinical exposure (above 60 μg / dL), eagles can lose coordination and experience a variety of other neurological and physiological disorders. The eagle I found had a blood lead content of at least 130 μg / dl.
Golden eagles are not alone in this. Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and other feeding wildlife are at risk of ingesting lead.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said Rob Domenech, lead author of this 2020 study. “Overall, we hunters are contaminating landscape-level ecosystems with lead-contaminated intestinal clusters, poisoned eagles and other opportunistic, feeding species. I urge hunters to make an educated, thoughtful, and ethical decision about using lead-free bullets for hunting. “
An appeal to unguided weapons
Dave Nikonow holds the eagle before bringing it to the rescue. Photo credit: Hannah Nikonow
We hunters work so hard to bring home the food that feeds our families. We train, we practice, we scout and we spend wonderful days and weeks outdoors to bring home the freest, most organic and healthiest protein in the world.
Why add lead to our food when we have incredibly accurate and deadly alternative ammunition options?
There are barriers to transition – cost, availability, obscurity, etc – but we’ve gone the extra mile for conservation in the past for decades.
We have to lead on a leash.
You are my people. I ask you to consider switching to unleaded bullets and shots. Do it for the health of the ecosystem, do it because we are at the core of conservation, and do it because these bullets are highly effective. And do this so that we can choose to switch instead of the government telling us to.
A friend visited the Raptor Center the day before the bird died and said, “Her eyes had a fight, but her body didn’t.”
We are the source for it. And we can prevent that by choosing unleaded ammunition.