Rescuers carried the once regal golden eagle, now a crippled figure, from Dubois to the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson on Nov. 8, 2018.
Something had slowed her rapid-fire reactions into lethargic, delayed responses. Her noble posture drooped. Once voracious, now she was barely eating. Her legs were weak, claws clenched, her survival full of doubt.
An X-ray scan revealed the cause of her hobbling malady: seven fragments of metal in her gastrointestinal tract.
Veterinarians believed she had eaten from the remains of a hunter-killed game animal, shot dead with a lead bullet that broke into small pieces upon impact. Now seven of those toxic fragments were attacking her brain, central nervous system and organs.
It’s a too-familiar scene at the Raptor Center. “We have patients that will so deeply pull on your heartstrings [because of] what they’re experiencing,” said Amy McCarthy, executive director of the center.
Bryan Bedrosian, research director at the Center, also has seen too many birds arrive in distress.
“Every time it’s saddening and frustrating,” he said. Sad because the birds are poisoned into seizures through no fault of their own. Frustrating, because “there’s such an easy effective solution.”
It’s been known for some time that lead bullets break apart on impact. And there’s increasing worry the fragments may also affect people. Recent X-rays of wild game burger and even some steaks have shown signs of lead bullet fragments in the butchered product, not just in a carcass or discarded bloodshot spoil — meat that has been ruined by bullets or bone fragments.
It’s widely reported that there’s no evidence of lead poisoning to people who consume wild game killed by lead shot or bullets. The toxin has the same effect on humans as it does on wildlife, however, leading some health experts to recommend certain vulnerable people like children avoid eating game killed with lead bullets.
Although the threat of lead in game meat has been topical for a while, the X-ray evidence of bullet fragments in butchered meat convinced shooters like longtime Jackson Hole sports columnist Paul Bruun there might be a problem.
Now, “I’m convinced,” he said. “I wasn’t until I saw those X-ray photos.”
From my cold, dead hands
The U.S. has taken the lead out of gasoline and paint. Hunters can’t use lead shot to shoot waterfowl and Yellowstone National Park banned the use of lead in most fishing tackle. The U.S. military has developed and adopted a lead-free round.
But Bedrosian’s “easy, effective solution” is in reality a complicated proposition. Getting shooters to switch from traditional to lead-free ammunition, venturing into the arsenal of America’s “well-regulated militia” or making rules about that which “shall not be infringed” could prove to be a Sisyphean task.
Traditions and rights aside, shooters complain that bullets lighter than lead, like copper and its alloys, perform differently. They fly a different trajectory, expand at a different rate on impact and create a different wound channel. Rifle barrels may not be designed to give them an appropriate twist, and they could foul finely tuned armaments faster and even damage them, critics say. Shooters question whether they carry as much energy as lead bullets and wonder how much of that is transferred into the target.
Lead-free bullets are also typically more expensive than traditional ammunition. But they don’t fragment as much as lead, and are much less toxic.
The National Rifle Association and its reported 5.5 million members take aim at some lead-free advocates. “The use of traditional (lead) ammunition is currently under attack by many anti-hunting groups whose ultimate goal is to ban hunting,” the group says on its website. (The organization did not respond to a WyoFile request for comment on this story.)
The group does refer to “occasional lead poisonings,” but writes that such poisonings in raptors are “falsely attributed to lead ammunition,” and says anti-hunting and -gun groups “reject science and misinform policy makers and the public.”
Safari Club International, a hunters’ group, and the National Sports Shooting Foundation, an ammunition manufacturing trade association, hold more nuanced positions.
“The bottom line is lead-based ammunition is much less expensive,” said Mark Oliva, NSSF’s director for public affairs. “Most of this [lead-free] ammunition is at least triple the price.
“When you’re talking one round at one animal, it might not seem like a lot,” he said. But for people who shoot regularly, “that price can add up.”
For Steve Comus, director of publications at Safari Club, “there are arguments in every direction.” Copper rounds penetrate “thick-skinned game in Africa,” well and are gaining favor in that theater, Comus said. Many shooting experts agree that the technical problems with lead-free bullets have been resolved. But for a long-range big-game shot in North America, Comus said, lead ammunition remains a favorite.
“Because of the way [copper bullets] expand, especially at longer distances, a mortally wounded animal might run off a lot farther,” he told WyoFile. “That’s a reason some hunters still prefer the traditional bullet.”
No real reason
Supporters of lead ammunition question studies that point to lead ammunition as an environmental problem. They also alight on consumers’ right to choose.
“There’s no real reason to limit what [hunters] can use, because there’s no real harm in using any of them,” Comus said. “Depending on whose study, there’s all kinds of conclusions. I haven’t seen anything that decisively tells me that [lead] bullets used by hunters have any bad effect at all.
“We promote the freedom to hunt and that includes the hunter’s choice of what they use,” he said.
Regulations like California’s statewide ban of lead bullets for hunting irk both Comus and NSSF’s Oliva. The law, which took effect this summer, is an example of creeping incrementalism, Oliva said. The prohibition began in several counties home to California condors — an endangered species that went extinct in the wild and was saved by reintroduction efforts — before spreading across the Golden State.
Anti-hunting groups use lead ammunition as a pretext to further their goals, Oliva said, even though hunters should be regarded as North American’s leading conservationists.
Hunters have contributed billions of dollars to conservation through taxes on firearms and ammunition imposed by the Pittman-Robertson Act, he said. A lead-ammo ban would have “serious negative impacts” to conservation, according to the NSSF. In 2019, Wyoming Game and Fish received $11.7 million as its annual share of the federal distribution.
Hunting critics should direct their energy toward wind farms, “a much greater threat” to golden eagles than lead ammunition, Oliva said.
What about my elk burger?
Claims that traces of lead ammunition endanger those who eat game meat also are bogus, Oliva said.
“Hunters have been eating wild game for well over 300 to 400 years,” he said. “We’ve never had a [lead poisoning] case.”
A 2008 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control of lead levels in North Dakota residents’ blood showed none had a level higher than the CDC recommends (see below). Further, the survey found hunters had amounts “lower than that of the general [U.S.] population,” Oliva said. But that’s comparing residents of a rural state to those across the country, the study states.
The survey can be interpreted another way, as it has been by the North Dakota Department of Health. That’s because while it shows rural residents in North Dakota who eat game meat have lower levels than the nationwide population, it also shows they have higher levels than fellow state residents who don’t eat game meat. “The study shows a link between eating wild game shot with lead bullets and higher blood lead levels,” the department wrote in a fact sheet.
Most lead fragments in venison are “too small to see, feel or sense when chewing,” the department wrote. Even careful butchering can leave lead pieces in whole cuts. Using North Dakota data and another study from Minnesota, the department recommended pregnant women and children younger than 6 not eat venison killed with lead bullets.
Older children and other adults should minimize their potential exposure by exercising caution and using their judgement, the department writes. The “most certain” way to avoid exposure is to use lead-free bullets.
“Wild game is not the only or most important risk factor for human lead exposure,” the health department wrote, “however, the study findings suggest that it is one important risk factor.”
A Wyoming study
Raptor Center researcher Bedrosian, who has hunted elk and antelope in Wyoming for 18 years, set out in 2005 to document the effect of lead bullets on eagles. With researchers Derek Craighead and Ross Crandall, he tested the blood of 81 bald eagles before, during and after hunting season in Jackson Hole for four years.
During the season, eagles had “significantly higher” lead levels. Twenty four percent of the birds had levels indicating at least clinical exposure — a level where deleterious effects can be recognized — to lead.
No birds had those levels outside hunting seasons, they found. Further, hunting season attracted birds from outside the study area, evidence showed.
“During the 2009 and 2010 hunting seasons we provided non-lead rifle ammunition to local hunters and recorded that 24% and 31% of successful hunters used non-lead ammunition, respectively,” the study’s abstract reads. “We found the use of non-lead ammunition significantly reduced lead exposure in eagles, suggesting this is a viable solution to reduce lead exposure in eagles.”
While bald eagles are no longer considered threatened, Bedrosian has turned his attention to golden eagles and estimates the number dying from lead poisoning each year amounts to 3.2% of the Wyoming population. Some caveats: the estimates span a wide range; the state’s actual golden eagle population is difficult to pinpoint and the calculation doesn’t include sub-lethal poisoning that may lead to death by collisions with vehicles, starvation and other causes.
“Within the typical home range of a golden eagle, there could be as many as 71 gut piles each year,” Bedrosian wrote in a summary of his work. “There are 146 visible fragments per gut pile. That’s 10,366 fragments that an eagle pair could eat, each year.”
Another Jackson Hole biologist wrote that the science is clear. “Hundreds of technical articles have been written describing in detail the toxic and deadly nature of lead,” Franz Camenzind wrote in an op-ed in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. For using lead bullets, “no reputable argument exists,” he wrote.
A golden eagle paradise
Wyoming is a special place for golden eagles, Bedrosian said, as it’s home to the largest population in the country. Precise numbers, again, are elusive, he said, as they are with greater sage grouse. It is not known how many grouse are in the Equality State, but experts reckon nevertheless that Wyoming holds about 37% of the world’s population of that bird.
Wyoming’s topography, climate, vegetation and wildlife make the sprawling landscape ideal for the golden eagle, a species that’s capable of killing deer and antelope fawns, and able to migrate from Alaska to Mexico.
The population here is “at best stable,” Bedrosian said, but “likely declining.”
He’s talked to many hunters about his worries, he said, and a lot have simple reasons for not converting from lead ammunition. “They’ve got 10 boxes [of lead ammo] at home and don’t really want to sight their gun in,” he said of a common reaction.
But people who have gotten over that hurdle, he said, “I’ve never known [them] to go back.”
Many gun owners bristle at restrictions like the California hunting law, scribe Bruun said. Center director McCarthy agreed with his observation.
“That’s why we want to take an educational approach — so people can understand what’s happening not only to raptors,” she said. “If you’re a hunter and bringing the same [lead-tainted] meat home, that’s impacting your health and your family’s.”
Teton Raptor Center is not just a non-profit defined by logo-inscribed coffee mugs and tote bags. Its effective Poo-Poo Project, which provides screens to keep cavity-nesting birds out of vault toilets, has spread across all U.S. states and has gone international.
TRC will make lead another campaign. “We are approaching the mitigation of lead in the ecosystem because it’s a wildlife hazard and a human hazard,” McCarthy said.
“No one’s trying to take anyone’s guns away,” she said. “It’s just transitioning to something that’s healthier to all.”
Gone in the wind
Rehabilitators gave the Dubois golden eagle a slim chance, but they dug into their box of tools nonetheless — medicines, braces, more X-rays and physical therapy.
They fashioned and strapped supportive shoes to her feet to help her perch upright — necessary for keeping an eagle’s internal systems running. They injected her with three rounds of chelation therapy, which binds lead elements to scrub them from the body. A month of treatment reduced her blood toxicity to below the poisoning level.
“Miraculously,” rescuers said, her GI tract never shut down. On Christmas Eve, about six weeks after being admitted to the center, an X-ray showed she had expelled the last piece of lead from her intestines.
Rescuers spent three more months conditioning her so she could make prolonged flights.
Rehabilitation assistant Jessica Schonegg helped train the eagle to fly again, tethering it carefully to 100 feet of cord and releasing it in a field at the center. Before rehabilitators deem it fit for release, an eagle must be able to make a 100-foot flight 20 times in a row without tiring.
Time and again Schonegg took the bird from its cage, cradled it like an infant, swung it back and forth and then tossed the 12-pound avian predator a few feet in the air.
“I felt like I was putting in all my effort,” Schonegg said of one launch. The eagle opened its six-plus foot wingspan, stroked 20 feet straight up, then lit out to the end of its cord.
“She looked huge and very powerful,” Schonegg said. “I felt very small, very weak.” The Dubois golden eagle was on her way back.
In the spring, rescuers took the Dubois golden back to her home territory. They sheltered her in a large dog kennel wrapped in blankets to keep the environment dark and the bird calm during the drive over the Continental Divide.
“The second they opened up that kennel,” Schonegg said, “she shot out and immediately was gone in the wind.”
The wind carries her today over the southern Absaroka Range, according to data from a transmitter. She lives largely in the Teton and Washakie wildernesses, arguably the most untamed place in the Lower 48.
She rides the updrafts above the flanks of 12,156-foot high Younts Peak at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. She dives at her prey at speeds up to 180 mph, Bedrosian says, “the true symbol of the wild.”
The Dubois golden eagle flies back into the wild. (Jeff Hogan/Hogan Films)