Here in Minnesota the deer hunting season is almost over. It runs for three weeks before Thanksgiving and during that time, we curtail our walks in the woods near our home. Even wearing blaze orange vests or hats does not necessarily make us feel completely safe. I have no problem with hunting or hunters who are ethical and responsible, but there are some who are not so careful. I know that we have an overabundance of white-tail deer in our state and I would rather have people take them humanely for food, than to have them killed on our highways.
Most hunters will dress out their deer right where they find it in the field or woods. The resulting gut pile is a magnet for scavengers and that includes birds. Nothing is wasted in nature and this is as it should be, however there is a unseen danger in those leftover organs. The most commonly used rifle bullets for deer hunting have a lead core encased in a copper jacket. When these bullets hit the deer they compress and explode, sending a spray of miniscule lead fragments through the animal. These can end up in those gut piles and when predators or scavengers, whether
birds or mammals consume the organs they ingest the lead. The same is true for a deer that has been shot with a lead slug, but not found by the hunter. There are many birds that will feed at these kill sites, including crows, ravens, jays, vultures, and both Golden and Bald eagles. The results have been especially bad for Eagles, because a piece of lead as small as a grain of rice can kill a bald eagle in 72 hours.
When an eagle eats lead contaminated meat, the lead stays in the blood for two weeks. After that, it is deposited in soft tissue and from there it moves into bone, marrow, and brain, where it remains for the rest of the bird’s life. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin even at very low levels, not only for birds, but for people as well, especially children. This was made apparent in the 1970s when efforts were made to get lead out of gasoline and in the 1980s out of paint. Places like playground equipment and toys made in China were also found to have too much lead exposure for kids. So we have made changes in our environment to protect the youngest of us from this poison, but what about other living beings?
In 1991 Federal legislation banned lead shot for all waterfowl hunting, since it was known that various types of waterfowl were getting lead poisoning from the lead shotgun pellets that settled to the bottom of lakes, ponds or wetlands where they were hunted. Deer hunters and their associations have resisted calls to switch from lead based ammunition to copper or other non-toxic metals. It is not an issue of too much ammunition ending up in concentrated locations as it does for waterfowl hunters, but the problem of wildlife consuming that lead continues.
Elevated lead levels in a bird like an Eagle can cause blindness, partial or full paralysis of the wings or legs, lack of appetite, impaired vision, seizures and other serious neurological problems, which can cause the birds to fly into buildings or vehicles if they don’t die of lead poisoning first. Birds that are found suffering from lead poisoning can sometimes be saved by detoxification. This costly, complicated process requires chelation therapy, which is an invasive procedure whereby the birds are injected with organic compounds that bind to the lead and are then
removed from the blood.
The Bald Eagle has been a success story for the Endangered Species Act. Banning DDT from the environment caused our national symbol to return from the brink and now they can be found in greater numbers each year. It is a sad and shameful thing that they some are now dying because of human caused indifference or ignorance. All-copper bullets are readily available and have been praised by many gun magazines for their superior ballistic properties. Unfortunately others in the gun associations fear any efforts to control their choice of ammunition will lead to further restrictions on their freedoms.
For a brief time there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon for significant change in this ongoing debated. On former President Barack Obama’s last day in office, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe signed an order calling for phase-out of lead ammunition on federal lands by 2022. As soon as the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, took office, he reversed Ashe’s order.
We have friends who are deer hunters and we have been given venison in the past, but until I know they have switched to non-lead ammunition I will decline offers of meat. I will do this in solidarity with the birds, but also for our own health. Even if the risks are small, why take the chance? This website can give you more insights into the problem. http://soarraptors.org/2017/11/eagle-admits-update/