America’s Favorite Bird Is in Trouble
Hunters and conservationists are coming together to help save bald eagles from lead poisoning.
This article was originally published by High Country News.
The golden eagle did not fly, even when Hannah Nikonow pulled over, climbed out of her car, and approached the bird on a cold January day. As she closed the 10-foot gap between them, it drooped its head and clenched its talons, clearly distressed but incapable of moving. Nikonow threw a blanket over its head, placed it in her car, and called Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Then she drove to the Wild Skies Raptor Center in Potomac, Montana.
There, tests revealed that the bird had 130 micrograms per deciliter of lead in its blood. Even tiny amounts of lead may be harmful to eagles, but levels above 60 micrograms per deciliter are considered clinical poisoning. Biologists administered chemical flushes to wash the lead away, but the bird died nine days later.
Nikonow encountered the eagle in the Garnet Mountains of western Montana, a place teeming with wildlife year-round and, in the fall, hunters like herself. She grew up hunting in Worland, Wyoming, and switched from lead to copper ammunition in college after she learned about the dangers lead poses to wildlife. The eagle was likely poisoned while eating a carcass killed with lead. “I can change myself, but if everyone else is still using lead … these animals are going to die,” she says.
The debate over the use of lead bullets by hunters has been brewing for years in hunting and conservation communities. Some environmental groups have called for a ban on the use of lead bullets in hunting, and, in 2019, the California legislature approved one statewide. Still, many hunting groups say lead-bullet bans are just one more attack on Second Amendment rights and yet another obstacle to hunting, a pastime whose decline threatens state wildlife agencies that are funded in large part by hunting-license fees. Unlike many of today’s political battles, however, the lead-bullet debate has a growing middle ground.
“Lead is a toxicant that affects almost every system in an eagle’s body. It takes the place of essential nutrients,” says Todd Katzner, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “It takes the place of calcium, so the lead is shunted to the bones, and then bones aren’t as strong and don’t do what they should do.” It also affects nerve function and interrupts neurotransmission, causing eagles to lose coordination and become paralyzed and convulsive as their muscles waste away.
When a lead bullet hits an animal, it doesn’t just lodge in place or pass through; in lots of cases, it fragments into as many as 450 pieces. And some of those pieces can travel as far as about 15 inches from the bullet’s original path, says Chris Parish, the CEO of the global nonprofit The Peregrine Fund and a co-founder of the North American Non-Lead Partnership. The lead not only stays in carcasses, where birds might consume it, but ends up in the carefully packaged meat in hunters’ freezers.
The acid in the stomachs of eagles, vultures, and condors easily break the metal down, allowing the poison to enter their bloodstream. And unlike some raptors, eagles switch to a steady diet of dead animals at the start of each winter, exactly when hunting seasons end.
Parish has studied the effects of lead on raptors for decades. In the early 2000s, when he was the coordinator of Arizona’s condor-reintroduction program, he and his colleagues noticed that a disproportionate number of condors were dying in the late fall and early winter. In the mid-2000s, they published research establishing a connection between the deaths and lead ammunition, and further studies have confirmed the broader effects of lead poisoning on eagles and condors. In 2016, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported that poisoning was one of the leading causes of bald- and golden-eagle mortality, lead being the likely primary cause of it. In February, Katzner and more than a dozen other researchers co-authored a paper showing that lead is also limiting golden-eagle-population growth.
Parish is a scientist, but he knows science doesn’t automatically lead to change: He grew up as a ranch kid in rural Southern California, where he hunted, fished, and lived with people who distrusted government mandates, even those backed by science. “We commonly say that our scientific and conservation endeavors are based on a firm foundation of science,” Parish says. “Well, that’s fine. But all of that is for naught, unless you are working with the community members within the communities.”
Some hunters have criticized the push for non-lead ammunition. They wonder if lead really does cause the problems scientists describe, and worry that other ammunition, such as copper, is less lethal than lead and not really worth the higher cost. (The cost is dropping, but at one point it was double that of lead.) And non-lead ammo may be harder to find, especially given the current ammunition shortage, which has been caused largely by pandemic hoarding and fears of restrictions under a Democratic president.
Even if hunters and state legislators could be persuaded to support new restrictions, Parish says, bans alone are unlikely to change hunting practices. A copper round looks almost identical to a lead one, rendering enforcement difficult at best. But more important, Parish says, “folks have to first believe there is a problem worth solving, then believe their action can help, and then, finally, be willing to make the change. Like, a diet or exercise regime sounds good to most folks, (but) turning an idea into action takes a bit more than an infomercial or reprimand.”
So he and others are working to change the narrative about non-lead ammunition by talking with hunters, offering educational programs, and otherwise building relationships. Incentives have been helpful, such as giveaways of non-lead ammunition and cash drawings for hunters who make the switch or remove gut piles from the field. Sporting Lead Free, part of the Teton Raptor Center in Wyoming, leads educational ballistics workshops designed to demonstrate the efficacy of non-lead ammunition. Many states, including Wyoming, are incorporating information about non-lead ammunition in their hunter-education classes.
These efforts add up, says Parish, who attends formal functions wearing a belt-buckle-sized bolo tie that’s embedded with a half-dozen ivory teeth surrounding a spent copper round. The teeth come from elk he’s killed with non-lead bullets.
“This is my life; it isn’t just a job,” he says. “And it depends on trust.”
Hunters, like most people, seldom like being told what to do. But many pride themselves on their predecessors’ role in conservation history. More than a century ago, sportsmen concerned about game populations lobbied for restrictions on their own pastime.
As European settlers spread across North America, they devastated the continent’s wildlife. During the 1800s, the bison population plunged from more than 30 million animals to about 1,000; elk from 10 million to about 1 million; and bighorn sheep from 1.5 million to about 70,000. The passenger pigeon went extinct, and duck populations in some places dropped dramatically. The causes included market hunting, overharvesting, habitat devastation, and, especially in the case of bison, deliberate elimination of Indigenous food sources.
“Somehow, a group of hunters saw the destruction that was going on, and then, in the true American spirit, wanted to do something about it,” says Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, one of the country’s fastest-growing hunting-and-fishing organizations. “It was kind of self-serving in some ways. It’s like, ‘Let’s save the things so we can shoot more things.’” But it worked. In the early 1900s, market hunting largely ended. Habitat began to be protected, and much of the wildlife that remained rebounded. The conservation movement was born.
And that singular movement grew and became broader. In the 1960s and ’70s, lawmakers passed the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act, and established the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency. But as more politicians took up the cause, conservation became more explicitly political. “Instead of conservation and the environment being universal, all of a sudden that became something only being represented by one party,” says Tawney. Over time, the right generally threw its support to gun rights while the left more often backed the environment. “And it used to be both represented both,” he says.
Brian Nesvik, the director of Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says that a philosophical divide also developed between groups that strongly supported preservation and those who favored sustainable use. Nesvik doesn’t see those camps ever fully reuniting—the fringes will never agree—but in recent years, environmental and hunting groups have found ways to collaborate on issues such as wildlife-migration corridors and habitat conservation. Non-lead ammunition, he believes, could prove to be another common cause.
About five years ago, on a stretch of Wyoming’s high prairie where wind turbines blink their eerie red lights at night and their blades pulse in every season, the raptor researchers Vincent Slabe and Ross Crandall came up with an idea. With enough funding, they could offer hunters free boxes of non-lead ammunition and study whether the switch could help offset the number of raptors killed by wind-turbine blades.
Lead poisoning isn’t the only way that humans kill eagles: The birds are also shot, either accidentally or intentionally; electrocuted by power lines; hit by cars; and killed by wind farms. When wind-energy companies pay fines for killing eagles under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as Duke Energy Renewables Inc. did in 2013, the money is used, in part, to offset future eagle deaths, largely by retrofitting powerlines. But even if all of the power lines are retrofitted, Slabe says, eagles will still die. He and Crandall hoped to show that hunters switching to non-lead ammunition could be a valid source of mitigation.
The two-year study, which the researchers paused during the major ammunition shortage in the U.S., restarted again this fall. And early results show promise: 434 hunters signed on, used $35,000 in ammunition, and left behind 240 lead-free gut piles. Slabe can’t say exactly how many eagles were saved by the use of non-lead ammunition, but preliminary numbers, he says, “are positive.”
Efforts at persuasion are showing results across the West. From 2008 to 2018 in Arizona, thanks in part to a consistent hunter-education campaign, 88 percent of hunters in a major deer-hunting area located in key condor habitat either switched to non-lead ammunition or removed their gut piles from the field. In 2019, that meant that condors were protected from an estimated four tons of contaminated flesh. Another study showed that the switch to non-lead ammunition in Teton County, Wyoming, has decreased lead exposure in bald eagles.
Erik Kramer, a hunter in Wyoming, picked up his first box of non-lead bullets after drawing a tag for a special hunt in Grand Teton National Park, which required non-lead ammo. Fortunately for Kramer, a nonprofit group in Jackson Hole was giving away free copper ammo to hunters willing to try it, so he took home a box. About a month later, he shot an elk, butchered it, and froze individual packages of hamburger, steaks, and roasts—the same way he’d learned from his dad.
“I hadn’t really considered switching to non-lead,” he says. “But I thought, ‘I have a box of non-lead ammo. I will hunt with it until I run out and then go back to my normal cheap Remington Core-Lokts.’” Then he noticed that the shoulders of the elk he shot with non-lead bullets weren’t as chewed up as those of elk shot with lead. The copper didn’t fragment quite as badly, and the new bullets killed just as quickly. The free ammo also came with information about how lead fragments poison birds, and Kramer soon decided to make the switch permanent.
Parish and others may get some help for their anti-lead campaigns from the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, or RAWA, which would establish new funding sources for state wildlife agencies, many of which support education and incentive programs that encourage the use of non-lead bullets. (RAWA passed the House in June and awaits a vote in the Senate.) Federal prohibitions on lead ammunition have struggled against changing political winds: Under President Barack Obama, the Department of the Interior banned the use of lead ammunition on fish and wildlife refuges, but the rule was overturned just a few days into the Trump administration. In June, the Interior Department proposed a new rule that would open 19 additional wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing but ban the use of lead on those lands.
Meanwhile, Parish and others plan to continue their efforts, which Parish emphasizes “can’t be an ‘us against them.’”
“The old paradigm was, ‘Here’s the science; it’s obvious, so do the right thing,’ and shaming people if they did not,” he says. “Well, that’s not working anymore. We have to fix it, and when I say we, I mean we in conservation and we in hunting. They’re the same. It’s the same vat of people.”