New Threat to Bald Eagles - Lead Bullets

Sep 17, 2017

Forty years ago, bald eagles were in danger of extinction, but they’ve made a rebound, and theirs is considered an “Endangered Species Act success story.” But as they spread across Virginia in search of new habitat, they are finding some free lunches that are actually quite costly. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

When Kurtis Blosser goes hunting, or just out to shoot on his family’s Rockingham County farm, he certainly doesn’t intend to kill bald eagles — even when his gun works.

[Sounds of clicks/misfires]

KURTIS BLOSSER [calling]: Alright, Dad. Your gun doesn’t work!

He said that hunters are conservationists who love the wild.

[Truck door closing]

BLOSSER: This one’s going to be loud!

But hunters may be partly responsible for a problem that is harming eagles: lead poisoning, not from being shot, but from bullet remains, lead fragments.

[Gun shot]

BLOSSER: I never heard of this before and so I started talking to my buddies that hunt, and we were like, “How can this happen?”

ED CLARK: The vast majority of the bald eagles we get — and that’s 35-40 birds a year — the vast majority have lead in their bloodstream.

Ed Clark is the president and founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a training hospital for wildlife near Waynesboro. He published a paper on lead toxicity in raptors, which include bald eagles.

CLARK: People just don’t get the connection. They have the idea that, okay, I’m going to go hunt deer, I shoot the deer, there’s an entry wound, there’s an exit wound, the bullet’s gone out, it’s in the ground someplace, no problem. I’m not responsible. What people don’t recognize is that the average rifle bullet, as an example, loses about 30% of its weight as it passes through the deer or the other game animal, and those little shards of lead, a piece the size of a grain of rice, is enough to kill a bald eagle, and it’s there. It’s definitely there.

A lot of hunters field dress their quarry, gut out the organs and leave them out in the woods to decompose or for scavengers, which can include bald eagles.

CLARK: Those remains left in the field carry little toxic time bombs. Lead is a toxic substance, and the trouble is, it builds up, so if they get a little bit this year, and don’t get any until next year, what they got this year is still in them when they get the next dose, and so eventually it will compromise or kill the bird.

At his dining room table, Kurtis Blosser comes to grips with Clark’s concerns.

BLOSSER: If they’re finding fragments, it’s definitely, I mean, you can’t make up a fragment.

Blosser works construction jobs for much of the year, but in the fall months and into January he travels a lot, to Wisconsin, New Jersey, Kentucky, even Mexico, and elsewhere, filming hunts for television hunting shows. He said that in professional hunting, deer aren’t gutted in the woods, for the sake of pictures and mess. That’s not how he was raised, though.

BLOSSER: That’s the ritual, You kill your first deer, and my dad’s looking over, hands you your knife, says, “Alright son, you killed a deer, this is part of it.”

Blosser’s guess is that the lead fragments that raptors consume aren’t coming solely from the remains of deer killed by bullets from high-powered rifles.

BLOSSER: Groundhogs, skunks, possums, anything that a farmer shoots is going, I mean, we shoot groundhogs all year long. We usually use .22s, and most of the times that will not go through the animal.

Clark said that .22 bullets, which are often pure lead, can be even worse than high powered rifle bullet remains, but he also said that when he maps out the data across a calendar, he sees a direct relationship between the incidence and frequency of lead toxicity and hunting season.

Blosser also suspects that some hunting methods — more than others — result in higher amounts of lead available to scavengers. 

BLOSSER: East of the Blue Ridge, a lot of counties allow the use of dogs for deer hunting. You run them like bear, and a lot of times you use shotguns with buckshot. That would be a lot more lead.

In 1991 the federal government banned lead bird shot for waterfowl hunting, but recent attempts — to ban lead bullets — have served only to polarize public debate about guns and hunting. The outgoing Obama administration issued a “last-minute” directive against using lead bullets on federal lands, which the Trump administration promptly overturned.

Given the polarization of that public debate, Clark thinks the lead toxicity problem in raptors can be dealt with more surgically, by hunters, voluntarily. They just need to use copper instead of lead bullets when they’re actually out hunting, or bury or carry away the dead animal remains, so birds can’t get them.

Getting hunters to do those things may be an uphill battle.

RON SHIFFLETT: As far as the all copper and all that, it hasn’t really caught on around here. 

Ron Shifflett is the sporting goods manager at the Rockingham Cooperative in Timberville.

SHIFFLETT: Like everybody else, it’s kind of not converting over unless somebody actually wants em, we’ll order ‘em. But as far as stocking em, we’re not doing that right now. Because of the clientele of people. It’s because it’s tradition, they’ve just been using this type of bullet all the time.

As for not leaving the field dressings from deer out in the field?

SHIFFLETT: They’d have to fight with me before I’d take a tub of guts home.

Ed Clark said that in hunter safety training, hunters are taught that they are responsible for each bullet they shoot, from the time they pull the trigger until it stops — but that’s not quite good enough.

CLARK: We simply need to amend that to say you’re responsible for your bullet from the instant you pull the trigger and it leaves the gun, even after it stops moving. That’s the nuance.

Nuanced or not, fall deer hunting seasons are just around the corner.