November 15, 1976. Late that morning I would shoot my first deer, a buck. But
what I remember most about that day is a bird. Burned into my mind is the
image of a northern goshawk tail-chasing a ruffed grouse through branches in
the young forest.
Perhaps that’s not so strange. I’ve talked to hundreds of hunters about this
and they almost universally love to watch wildlife while they’re out in the woods.
Another thing I learned from talking to hunters: very few are aware of how lead
bullets inadvertently poison and kill some of the wild animals they love.
At the root of this problem is bullet fragmentation. Lead is cheap and easy
to work; it’s unusual in that it is both soft and fragile. It’s so fragile, in fact, that
the speeds achieved by modern rifles made pure lead bullets obsolete. But even
modern copper-jacketed lead rifle bullets still fragment on contact, sometimes
into hundreds of pieces. These fragments are highly toxic, and they travel: In
mortality simulation studies, lead contamination has been found as far as 18
inches from the wound channel.
This is not just a problem for the human hunters who will eat the deer meat.
The large raptors we see in the Northeast are hunters themselves, but they are
also seasonal scavengers. In New York, 200,000 deer are harvested by hunters
each fall. About 90 percent of these are shot with lead-core bullets, and much of
this lead remains in the gut pile that’s left out in the woods. Add to this the deer
that are wounded but not recovered and there’s a lot of toxic lead being left out
for scavengers to consume.
The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota received more than 2,000 bald
eagles for rehabilitation from 1974-2009. According to veterinarian Julia Ponder,
executive director of The Raptor Center, more than 90 percent of the eagles the
group received (including 183 in 2016) had measurable lead levels. Of these, 25-
30 percent had lead toxicity high enough to cause clinical lead poisoning ( 20 µg/dL
or 0.2 ppm). “These patterns of lead exposure have been consistent for decades,”
said Ponder. “The majority of birds with clinical lead poisoning die.”
While awareness of the problem is growing, mortality rates in some places
are, too. From 2000-2004, the New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation (NYSDEC) Wildlife Pathology Lab received on average one dead lead-
poisoned bald eagle each year. From 2011-2015, the average had risen to 4. 6. And
most dead eagles are never found. In eagles, classic symptoms of lead poisoning
include not moving, not feeding, drooping wings, and a dirty tail. During the winter
of 2016, a bald eagle being GPS-tracked by NYSDEC spent weeks feeding at a spot
in the Catskill Mountains. Then, it stopped moving. A biologist found the bird alive,
but severely lead-poisoned. It had been feeding on a commercial deer processor’s
pile of butchering waste. Another dead eagle was found nearby. The GPS-tracked
bird was treated and released. It appeared healthy, being able to remove fish from
a kiddie pool while being rehabilitated. Unfortunately, it starved three weeks later,
likely having suffered irreparable brain damage.
This is not just a problem in New York. Research shows that it is a problem
throughout the eastern US during the late fall and winter months, which is also during
and directly after hunting seasons. From 2010 to 2016, a number of wild bald and
golden eagles were captured in the eastern U.S. by scientists and rehabilitators.
Blood was drawn from these birds immediately and later tested for the presence
[ DOING THE RIGHT THING ]
Lead Ammo is Lethal
From top: an X-ray shows lead ammunition in the gizzards of a bald eagle; bullet fragments taken from the digestive track of a dead bald eagle; eagle suffering from lead
poisoning; deer harvested with non-lead bullets – safe for eagles and children.