Teton Raptor Center Research Director Bryan Bedrosian with a golden eagle in Montana. (provided/Teton Raptor Center staff)

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.”

Lead-free ammunition.

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.

An x-ray showing lead fragments in the backstrap of a deer. (provided/Huntingwithnonlead.org)

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.

A golden eagle. (Tony Hisgitt/Flickr Creative Commons/https://tinyurl.com/y2565gns)

“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.

To save the golden eagle, rescuers made custom shoes to enable the bird to stand, an important posture that enabled it to recover from lead poisoning. (provided/Teton Raptor Center)

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.

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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 Dubois golden eagle takes off during a training flight at the Teton Raptor Center. (Provided/Teton Raptor Center)

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.

After being released, the eagle returned to its home in wilderness areas around Younts Peak as shown by a tracking transmitter. (Teton Raptor Center)

“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)

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. In regards to Amy McCarthy’s comment in the story:

    ‘We have patients that will so deeply pull on your heartstrings [because of] what they’re experiencing.’

    Heartstrings, indeed. Show people a sick bird or t-boned deer and they fall apart with emotions. Some of these folks have a more visceral response to the suffering of wildlife than the suffering of people, especially in Jackson.

    I have no doubt that lead is a poison to these birds. There is no good reason for hunters to intentionally or unintentionally harm birds that are not the target of a hunter’s permit. If affordable lead-free cartridges can successfully be used with their gear, most responsible hunters will probably choose to use them. At the same time, perhaps the bigger problem is one of human emotions. Human activities kill humans and all sorts of wildlife all the time. Our cars have killed and injured millions of ungulates, and millions of humans. The story quotes Bedrosian as saying that the population here is “at best stable,” but “likely declining.” I can find no evidence that any eagle populations are in decline. Only hunting is in decline which should bode well for birds exposed to lead from hunting. Personally, I would like to see more big birds and favor removing lead from cartridges when it makes sense.

    How many of these birds at the TRC facility are there because of lead poisoning? How many are killed each year due to lead poisoning? What percentage of birds are being harmed? How many birds are being killed by wind farms, pesticides, planes, cars, buildings, etc? Didn’t say in the story. No context is provided. IS there an acceptable number of deaths for these birds due to hunting, wind farms, cars, etc? If you answer no, then you are being irrational.

  2. As a reporter who has written about lead ammunition and its impacts on wildlife since the year 2000 here in California, I believe I have read every scientific paper on the subject. One of the most distressing things to me is the little-reported fact that California’s ban on lead hunting ammunition within the range of the California condor has had zero impact on the chronic, low-lead levels in the iconic birds’ blood. The lead ammunition ban, which has had nearly 100 percent compliance, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has NOT reduced the lead in condors. Yet, the scientific community refuses to discover and address other sources, continuing to blame hunter’s ammunition. Blood testing has shown the lead ban has done wonders for resident golden eagles in condor range, but the condors continue to get lead in their systems, sometimes at serious levels. Not so with eagles. Yet, the only drum the environmental community beats is more restrictions on lead ammunition. It is easy to see why hunters and sporting groups believe it is more about a political agenda than science.

    California’s statewide ban on all lead hunting ammunition (the final step in the phase-in process was for this year’s hunting seasons) is unnecessary for most game and in most areas, and there are no other species other than condors that have been negatively impacted on a population level. There is just not the scientific evidence that broad-based lead bans on hunters ammunition are needed. While some animals might die from an unusual occurrence where they pick up a lethal dose from a carcass or gutpile or graveling from a heavily shot over dove field, the impacts of these losses in minuscule. Far more eagles are killed by wind turbines. Far more quail are killed by house cats than lead poisoning. The toll on wildlife by vehicles is staggering in comparison. It is easy to see why hunters and sporting groups believe it is more about a political agenda than science.

    The recent scientific studies are valuable from a human health standpoint because it can illustrate how hunters can protect themselves and family from lead poisoning, even at low levels. It has been valuable for the conservation of endangered California condors. It has been valuable to show that further study is needed so we might need to apply restrictions in limited areas on a case-by-case basis rather than blanket bans that affect millions of hunters needlessly. Hunters would support this because it is science-based, not based on speculation and emotion. Like this story, tugging at heart strings about a single eagle. Again, it is easy to see why hunters and sporting groups believe it is more about a political agenda than science.

    Jim Matthews
    San Bernardino, CA

    1. Hello Jim,

      Your comment sent me on the googling trip to verify the accuracy of your post. I found an article you wrote in 2008 concerning the Lead ban and a 2011 study that used the Turkey Vultures and Golden Eagles and indicator species, but I could find no data on the currently mortality causes of the Condor. So I am lacking the data to make a good judgment of your riposte, but it appears that Condors will have less Lead if the Golden Eagles and the Turkey Vultures do? If you read my comment I gave a link to some data, so I look forward to you linking to recent data about Condors and the mortality causes; otherwise I will have to conclude you have an agenda and it is not about conserving wildlife?

      I will also back your idea of getting rid of outdoor cats and having less or better windmills, especially California, as there is nothing more ugly than the derelicts around Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. I would rather have nuclear than all those ugly things.

      I have heard hunting is in decline but I would suspect it has more to do with loss of access and lack of mentoring a new generation than the current costs. Now I will not discount an agenda, but I am pretty certain that Democrats have a tendency to not understand public lands, while Republicans seem to support guns, not hunting, as a ruse to exploit public lands, so the hunting interests are not served by either party.

  3. The article contains quote about how hunters contribute excise taxes to conservation but fails to note that there has been a HUGE DECLINE in these revenues so much so that entire funding model based on hunting is dying as hunting declines. Moreover, many hunters refuse to support alternative sources of revenue for state wildlife management agencies. For details, see https://www.wildlifepolitics.org/uploads/9/2/1/7/92174584/rocheleau.politics_of_state_wildlife_management_medium_numbered_.pdf

  4. Great article that is well researched and all encompassing, but could use a little more punch about Lead and its terrible toll on humans and wildlife. Certainly city dwellers have always had higher lead levels due to one of the worst environmental decisions of the past century when the government wrongly allowed tetra-ethyl lead to be placed in gasoline. The amount of Lead put in the atmosphere to be absorbed by humans slowly rose over the decades, especially in large urban areas and that resulted in significant lead levels impacting the youth of this nation and resulted in increased crime and poor decision making. In fact when one looks back at the 40s through the mid 1980s crime in large cities continue to increase and it was reflected in American society as we went from a communal society to an agitated one.

    Currently we are reviewing the history of the late 1980s when the Crime Bill was being discussed and ultimately passed in 1993 with one funny twist, crime had already begun to recede as the peak of violent crime in America occurred in 1990. Yes Crime was already receding because the EPA had banned the use of tetra-ethyl lead from gasoline under Ronald Reagan in 1986. Yep but it was a close thing, as his terrible EPA Administrator Anne Buford almost reversed the rules, but never fear her son Neil may do more damage on the Supreme Court. Ever since Lead was removed from the world, it has gotten better at least for humans as evidenced by this article.

    Rural people have less Lead in their system due to less exposure from Lead dust that coats our large urban areas, while hunters in rural areas have MORE Lead in their bodies. Here is a little tip, the majority of the Lead exposure to hunters does NOT come from eating the meat, but from practicing at the Rifle Range. Lead arsenate is exhausted from the end of the barrel and is the most likely source of Lead exposure in the hunting population. Those exposed to Lead have less impulse control and if exposed consistently through their lives have a lower IQ, which may lead to irrational beliefs on the topic of Lead in bullets and our environment.

    Lead and Mercury (from that glorious “clean” coal) are detrimental neurotoxins that should be minimized in the environment at all possible entry points including Lead in bullets. While Lead bullets appear cheaper in the short run the true costs of Lead in our world have been astronomical and California has made the right decision -Again.

    If you would like some additional reading on Lead and its nefarious history a good primer is the Wired Article on its production. https://www.wired.com/2013/01/looney-gas-and-lead-poisoning-a-short-sad-history/