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The Tainted Eagle
Sign in. Your password has been changed. Change password. The president credited the resurgence of the national symbol after a year fight to cooperation between private landowners and federal and state governments.
Once devastated by hunting and pesticide use, the eagle has made a triumphant comeback, from male-female pairs in the continental USA in to nearly 10, now. The U. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing guidelines on how that law will be implemented.
The Tainted Eagle
It also is developing a permitting system to allow landowners to develop their property and still protect the eagle population. Interior department spokesman Nicholas Throckmorton noted that the eagle has long since met the recovery goals that federal biologists laid out in the s. The bird was supposed to leave the endangered-species list when there were 3, breeding pairs in the lower 48 states — a target reached in In contrast, lead-core rifle bullets have traditionally been considered at most a minor conservation issue.
It seemed unlikely to most people, including researchers, that individual rifle bullets—which often pass completely through big-game animals—would pose much more than an isolated threat to wildlife or humans. The Peregrine Fund had begun releasing California Condors back to the wild in Arizona in , nine years after the last wild condors were captured to use in a captive-breeding program.
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Blood tests revealed that most of these birds had died of lead poisoning. At first, researchers searched for a single source of the contamination, such as a shooting range where the condors might be scavenging.
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It was difficult for the researchers to imagine how else the birds could be ingesting so much lead. Peregrine Fund researchers already had radio-tags attached to the condors, and they started recording their locations every two hours. Over the course of several years, the researchers gathered huge amounts of data detailing where the birds landed and what they ate. And what they ate, it turns out, were lots of gut piles and rifle-killed deer remains that hunters had not found. Biologists began trapping the birds every year, to test for lead in their blood and to detoxify those that had abnormally high lead levels.
Detoxification requires chelation therapy, a costly, complicated, and invasive procedure that involves injecting the birds with organic compounds that bind to the lead and are then removed from the blood. X-rays revealed small lead bullet fragments in the stomachs of condors that had toxic lead levels in their blood.
The issue, however, was about to become a lot more public—not due to the condors, but because of the potential effect of lead bullet fragments on human health. William Cornatzer, a physician in Bismarck, North Dakota, watched a presentation on the California Condor at his first meeting as a Peregrine Fund board member.
The Tainted Eagle: The Truth Behind the Tragedy
He felt shock when an x-ray of a deer carcass containing hundreds of pieces of lead shrapnel appeared on the screen. Cornatzer, an avid big-game hunter, had previously believed that proper butchering would remove all traces of lead from a game animal, but after seeing the x-ray, he had doubts. He decided to test random samples of rifle-killed venison and determine if any lead was present. He and two other researchers chose the Hunters for the Hungry Food Bank, where hunters donate venison.
The researchers enlisted the help of the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish, which randomly selected ground venison packets from different butchers and delivered them to the state health department for analysis.
Of one-pound packets, 59 contained small metal fragments in the meat—fragments that further analysis revealed to be pure lead. North Dakota recalled all the meat from the Hunters for the Hungry program, as did neighboring Minnesota. We did not believe we should treat hunter-killed venison differently. Cornatzer notes that any lead exposure in children is too much, and he has advocated that hunters immediately throw away lead-shot meat and begin using nonlead ammunition.
The study also showed that the more recent the consumption of wild game harvested with lead bullets, the higher the level of lead in the blood. Derek Craighead and Bryan Bedrosian of the Craighead Beringia South research institute in Wyoming investigated blood lead levels in ravens, eagles, and other wildlife around Grand Teton National Park, an area with one of the highest densities of elk hunters in the country. Fifty percent of ravens tested during the hunting season showed elevated blood lead levels.
The researchers also found that the annual median blood lead level of ravens during the hunt is correlated with the number of animals harvested that season.
If birds were picking up lead from a background source, you would see elevated levels all year long. Lead stays in the blood for only two weeks, making it easy to verify how recently it was ingested. After being mobilized in the blood, lead is deposited in soft tissue for three months.
Bedrosian and Craighead also found elevated blood lead levels in Bald and Golden eagles, with 75 percent of the 63 eagles tested exhibiting elevated lead levels, and 14 percent exhibiting levels indicating clinical poisoning. Some wonder, though, if lead ammunition really harms other species with populations that are increasing, such as the Bald Eagle.