Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lead Ammunition Poisons Wildlife But Too Expensive To Change, Hunters Say

Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania, examines the eagle that died from lead poisoning.
Kevin Spotts
Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania, examines the eagle that died from lead poisoning.

On the day before President Trump's inauguration, the outgoing Obama administration passed a last-minute directive banning the use of lead ammunition and fishing sinkers on federal land.

Recently, the deteriorating health of a bald eagle showed the effects of lead poisoning. Obama's regulation is intended to protect wildlife from exactly that.

But hunters are hoping Trump will soon overturn it.

Last week, an officer from the Pennsylvania Game Commission brought a bald eagle to the Carbon County Environmental Education Center in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In large, wire enclosures behind the center are hawks, vultures and a bald eagle recovering from a run-in with a car.

But this newly arrived eagle didn't look quite so elegant.

"Sometimes you just get a gut feeling with these birds, and our gut said this was lead poisoning," says Chief Naturalist Susan Gallagher.

She says the bird was vomiting and had lime-green diarrhea, along with other classic symptoms.

"Bird comes in with its head down, its hackles up, the feathers on the back of its neck are up, it looks a little disoriented. ... The bird had all of those problems, and they just look like they don't feel well," Gallagher says.

It's hard to know exactly how lead fragments got into this eagle's gizzard, but the most common source is ammunition. Eagles and other birds scavenge remains left behind by hunters — ammo included.

This is what the Obama administration was trying to stop with the ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Environmental groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland, Calif., have been advocating for this kind of action for years.

"Waterfowl hunters have been successful using lead-free ammunition nationwide for decades, ever since lead shot was phased out in 1991," says Jonathan Evans, the environmental health legal director.

Evans says he thinks the Obama directive is a good start, but he wants to see the 1991 ban extended to all ammunition and fishing gear on all public lands.

But at the time of the ban, there was conclusive proof that lead was harming the population of waterfowl.

"Bald eagle populations are soaring in the U.S.," says Lawrence Keane, the senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "They are at record levels."

Keane says he opposes the ban because it will make hunting more expensive.

"There's no reason to ban traditional ammo unless there's evidence of a population impact, and that's the only solution to address that problem," Keane says.

Unlike eagles and most wildlife, the population level of condors, an endangered species living mostly in California and Arizona, is affected by lead.

Those two states, along with a handful of others, have instituted lead-reduction programs. California has the most wide-ranging ban on lead ammunition, while Arizona has tried a voluntary approach, offering free copper ammunition to hunters.

If it survives, the Obama directive would continue to complement these state-level programs.

Though Trump has promised to undo many of the Obama-era regulations, this specific issue hasn't been addressed yet.

Back at the education center, Gallagher says she is convinced hunters don't need laws or proof of population change to choose nonlead ammunition. They just need to spend a little time with a lead-poisoned eagle.

"Had you seen this bird suffer and go through what it went through and then walked into a sporting goods store, absolutely, you'd make that choice," Gallagher says. "Absolutely."

Despite round-the-clock rehydration and chelation treatments, the eagle died just a few days after he was brought to the center.

Copyright 2021 WPSU. To see more, visit WPSU.