When lead rounds kill twice

by Trevor Russell
Bald eagle photo by Bruce Hallman/USFWS (CC BY 2.0).

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reporter Cody Nelson visited the University of Minnesota Raptor Center as workers euthanized a bald eagle (the second this season). Nelson's story on MPR News detailed the heartbreaking implications of lead poisoning in bald eagles.

About 90 percent of bald eagles received by the Raptor Center have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Of those birds, 20-25% have lead levels high enough to cause poisoning – most of which die or are euthanized.

The culprit: lead ammunition

The unintentional poisoning of eagles can occur when they scavenge carcasses of deer killed by lead ammunition. This is the predictable consequence of using lead rounds in hunting.

Lead rounds fragment on contact, and these fragments can penetrate up to 18 inches into the animal adjacent to the wound channel. These fragments can often be tiny; too small to be seen, felt or tasted.

According to the Raptor Center, data on location of origin and seasonal timing of lead poisoning events in eagles clearly indicate that spent lead ammunition is the source of lead exposure.

Once ingested, lead is a neurotoxin and interferes with the nervous system. Lead-poisoned birds are weak and struggle to breathe. Their gastrointestinal tracts begin to shut down, and the birds can be found twitching, with abnormal breathing and soft vocalizations.

Some eagles are even brought into the center seizing from lead toxicity. (Warning: video is not for the faint of heart.)

An easy fix?

We’ve known about the risks of lead rounds for decades. The state banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1987. The federal government followed suit shortly thereafter. In California, nonlead ammunition is required when taking any wildlife with a firearm.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has considered extending the ban to other small game for well over a decade, though those efforts have been largely stymied by opposition from hunters

Luckily, one effective alternative to lead ammunition is already available: non-lead bullets. Such ammunition is comparable in performance to lead rounds, though they often costs more than premium-grade lead ammunition.

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