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THE GREAT AIR: A “new” threat to eagles has appeared | Lifestyles

We nearly lost bald eagles to human neglect. By the early 1960s, the birds were near extinction with just over 400 pairs of eagles breeding in the lower 48 states. A nationwide ban on the use of DDT in 1972, the placement of the eagle on the endangered species list in 1973, and subsequent restoration projects have brought the eagle back in large numbers. It is now possible for those who would like to see an eagle in the wild to do so. The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that bald eagle populations have soared to more than 71,000 breeding pairs and 317,000 individual birds.

However, there is a new threat.

Well, that’s nothing new. We’ve known about the effects of lead on eagles and other wildlife for some time but, like DDT, we didn’t think it was serious. Now a study has found it’s a bigger problem for eagles than we thought.

The study, which was published recently, evaluated eagles in 38 states, testing their bones, feathers, liver and blood for lead. Researchers found that 46% of bald eagles and 47% of golden eagles had chronic lead poisoning. This leads to death and lower reproductive rates.

How do eagles introduce lead into their bodies? Not from being shot, although that happens, but from eating it. The remains of animals and birds that were slaughtered and the parts left after dressing in the field are the sources. When a lead bullet hits an animal, it shatters and these small fragments are scattered throughout the animal’s body. Now consider what happens in deer hunting. A hunter shoots a deer and removes the guts before carrying the deer off the field. An eagle arrives to feed on the remains, which often contain these lead fragments.

If a large fragment is eaten, it can cause acute lead poisoning, which affects motor skills, digestion, and the ability to fly quickly. The eagle’s digestive juices dissolve small fragments and the lead eventually enters the eagle’s blood and bones. The gizzards of some birds (ducks are a good example) grind up these fragments and this is how the lead enters their bloodstream. If only small amounts are consumed, the immediate effects may be less dramatic, but over time reproduction will diminish and the lead will eventually kill them or cause the disease that leads to their death. Because eagles are a long-lived species, it can take several years for the effects of this slow poisoning to show.

(By the way, the same lethal accumulation is possible in humans who eat meat containing lead fragments.)

In 1991, the federal government banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. This was a big step because the shot pellets at the bottom of the swamps were eaten by waterfowl and they suffered; then came the eagle which found a duck dead or easy to catch because of the first effects of poisoning, ate this duck and absorbed the lead from it.

Eagles aren’t the only wildlife affected by lead. Vultures, hawks, loons, ravens, crows and a host of other carrion-eating wildlife are at risk.

Lead also enters the food chain through fishing gear. Small sinkers or lead jigs can be eaten by fish, then they are eaten by eagles, herons, ospreys and loons, further spreading lead poisoning.

The logical answer to this problem is to ban lead bullets altogether. Although slightly more expensive, Cooper bullets have been developed which are just as effective. California now bans lead bullets to protect the endangered condor. Many states are now moving to the lead-free bullet and some have banned small lead pellets and jigs.

Going back to my columns about local shooting ranges in the State Wildlife Management Area, the huge lead buildup in that area was a big concern for many of us. Thank goodness the state Department of Environmental Conservation finally shut them down and hopefully they’ll clean up that massive lead buildup.

So we restored the eagle to good condition, but recent studies have shown that there are “hidden” problems that we still need to solve. The bald eagle is the symbol of freedom and our country and a sight we all cherish. Hopefully we won’t fail in attempts to fix the lead problem and put the eagle back on the endangered species list.

If you are a hunter or fisherman, you can help by switching to lead-free bullets and alternatives to small sinkers and jigs until the government decides to ban lead. I know good sportsmen will do this because they care about wildlife and its future.

Also, we may need to put back predator guards on the eagles’ nesting trees, to give them some extra protection from climbing predators like the raccoon, now that we know eagles know other problems that could reduce their population.

Outdoor enthusiast and nature photographer Doug Domedion resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or [email protected]