All birds of prey are at risk because this one law was overturned.
Not many Americans know this, but their regal national bird, the Bald Eagle, is frequently at risk of lead poisoning because of practices by hunters on their prey. Though the bald eagles are not the specific targets of hunters, their use of lead bullets inadvertently causes bald eagles to become paralyzed and die after eating the remains of animals shot with the bullets.
The panic that bald eagles must feel as they go through the process of dying must be horrible, which is described by Lynn Tompkins, executive director of Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center. Tompkins told The Dodo,
“Lead affects the nerves, so that’s your brain, your use of muscles, all parts of the body. The birds often cannot stand … They usually have difficulty breathing. They cannot even open their beaks.”
Bald eagles aren’t the only animals affected by lead poisoning; many birds of prey, such as owls, are poisoned as well because they scavenge the carcasses of animals shot with the lead bullets. Tompkins said that birds suffering from this poisoning frequently enter her wildlife center, and that it takes them months to treat even those with small traces of lead in their system.
“We had one eagle whose lead level was relatively low, but she was paralyzed, she couldn’t stand, she couldn’t unclench her feet,” Tompkins said. “It took several treatments to get the lead level down. It took several months for her to fly normally again. It took six months. That was a long time.”
One of the latest poisoned bald eagles brought into the center had 30 times the amount considered toxic in his system, and they decided to treat him aggressively because his chances of survival on normal treatments are low. The center had never successfully treated an eagle that had even half the levels this eagle showed, and this particular eagle wound up dying a few days after admission. Blue Mountain has taken in 3 bald eagles in 2017 already with toxic levels of lead in their system.
Though a law was enacted at the beginning of this year by Obama’s Interior Secretary Dan Ashe to ban the use of lead ammunition for hunting purposes, that law has since been overturned by the new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke. He has said that the ban did not represent hunters’ needs and limited them because non-lead ammunition is more expensive. While many advocates for hunting and gun rights were in support of Zinke’s move, others have expressed their concern for wildlife.
“Overturning the lead ammunition ban may win political points with a few special interests, but it could cost the lives of millions of birds and the health of families that rely on game to feed their families,” said Athan Manuel, Director of Land Protection for the Sierra Club.
As Tompkins has pointed out, those who eat the game that they hunt using lead ammunition could inadvertently be poisoning themselves as well.
It’s hard to keep track of just how many animals are affected by lead poisoning, but last year her center began testing more animals that come in and found the number to be shocking. Of the 160 birds they tested, 80% of eagles, 30% of hawks, and 25% of great-horned owls had lead in their blood. If you would like to help with Blue Mountain’s efforts, you can donate to their center here.
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