There, grotesquely sprawled in the snow, lay our national symbol.
The adult bald eagle apparently had been dead for some time.
It had fallen near the Turkey River, hidden at the base of a bluff. A friend just happened to find it while exploring a remote valley.
How could it happen?
Surely no poacher or vandal would shoot it here, a mile or more from any road access. And there are no power lines for at least that far.
Could it be lead poisoning?
But we and our neighbors have used copper deer slugs for years, and have required other hunters on our land to do the same. But eagles can and do travel miles to feed, with plenty of opportunities to pick up lead elsewhere.
How to find out?
Enter Linette Bernard and Kay Neuman, with “Saving Our Avian Resources,” (SOAR), based in Dedham, Ia. With the necessary permits to handle eagles, they agreed to take the dead bird for necropsy. The necropsy included weighing and measuring the beak to determine gender; an x-ray to look for evidence of trauma, fractures, gunshot wounds, or ingested lead; and a sample of liver tissue. The Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames analyzed the tissue sample.
And the conclusions were NOT pretty, Linette conceded.
The eagle, a female, was very thin, weighing only seven pounds. Neuman could find no lead fragments in her system – but her liver lead indicated she was lead poisoned.
“A bald eagle’s digestive system is so efficient that food/stuff is metabolized/digested more completely (think owls and their pellets with bones and fur, versus an eagle, (which) may only pellet fur and things like rabbit toenails),” Bernard explained. “This efficient digestion is great for utilizing all that is eaten, but not good when what was eaten also contained lead fragments.”
The eagle apparently had eaten something (a deer carcass?), somewhere, that had been contaminated with lead. That meal or meals resulted in tragic consequences.
It doesn’t take that much lead to kill an eagle, Bernard said. A fragment only the size of a grain of rice can be lethal. And lead deer slugs may leave many such pieces of “shrapnel,” throughout the gut piles or even the meat of deer shot by hunters.
Sadly, poisoned eagles may suffer a lingering death. At first, lead in their system may make the birds lethargic, slow their reflexes, and make them weak and more prone to accidents, such as getting hit by cars. The birds lose control of their wings and legs and organs, have impaired vision, and may vomit, and have lime-green feces. What a horrific way to die!
The poisoning occurs because lead mimics calcium in the bodily systems, and replaces essential calcium with toxic lead. The only treatment – which is very expensive and usually succeeds only if the bird can be treated early – is chelation. This requires twice-daily injections of a medication that binds to the lead to form a compound that can be excreted by the kidneys.
SOAR annually sees up to a dozen or more bald eagles that have lead poisoning, Bernard said. They feel lucky to be able to save and release any of them. From December through February, SOAR received 14 eagles, 8 of which had high lead levels. Only one has survived, and it’s still uncertain whether she can be released.
In 2016, SOAR received 13 lead-poisoned eagles, one of which they were able to treat and release.
The answer? Phase out lead ammo – and lead fishing tackle, for that matter. We’ve known for decades that lead is a toxin. Time to stop spreading it around the environment.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has put a roadblock in front of that effort. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has rescinded an Obama administration rule that was intended to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on all lands, waters, and facilities managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The National Rifle Association described the January 19 Obama directive as “a last second attack on traditional ammunition and our hunting heritage.”
Calling Obama’s order “a hasty and thoughtless attack” on the hunting community, Safari Club International said “Secretary Zinke returned science and reason to federal decision-making about ammunition use.”
Science, however, tells us that lead is poison. The debate really is about whether we should continue using it for the sake of “tradition,” and whether it would cost hunters and fishermen/women too much to go nontoxic. AND, of course, what this could mean to the profits of the big sporting goods and ammunition manufacturers.
That political debate seems destined to rage on. But if you’re a hunter who cares about eagles, you can and should switch to copper slugs for deer, and to nontoxic shot for doves and other game birds. (The world did not end when we went nontoxic for waterfowl in 1991!) And if you like to fish, and you like to see loons and swans and ducks, start using non-lead jigs and weights.
Yes, I’m an old-timer who likes “tradition.” But this is the 21st century. Time to get the lead out!