MORGANTOWN, W.VA. – Jesse Fallon, director of veterinary medicine for the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, spoke to local media about the effects lead poisoning has on avian predators, such as bald eagles. Fallon has been rehabilitating a 4-year-old bald eagle over the last two weeks after it was found by hunters in Pocahontas County, W.Va., exhibiting signs of lead intoxication.
The bird was transported to Cheat Lake Animal Hospital where it was admitted, and has since been receiving care. Fallon noted this was the second bird he’s treated recently that has been poisoned by lead. While he didn’t speak on why the first bird was sick, he believes the current eagle was poisoned after eating a gut pile left behind by a hunter that had lead in it.
Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown the connection between lead and the death of avian species, including birds of prey who consume wounded or lost game that was shot with lead ammunition, as well as gut piles left by hunters. There is currently momentum within the hunting community to switch to non-lead ammunition, and some organizations, like the North American Non-lead Partnership, believe a grassroots effort is the best way to switch ammunitions and drive manufacturers to produce cost-effective alternatives.
What are the alternatives?
Steel ammunition, which is currently the most cost-effective alternative, has been the choice of many hunters after the U.S. government banned lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting in 1991. According to a 2000 release the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service citing a study conducted in the Mississippi Flyway by researchers William L. Anderson of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Stephen P. Havera and Bradley W. Zercher of the Illinois Natural History Survey, the ban had shown “remarkable success” in “preventing the premature deaths of millions of waterfowl from lead poisoning.”
The report stated: “In order to gauge the effect of the ban on lead shot, researchers examined thousands of ducks harvested in the Mississippi Flyway during the 1996 and 1997 waterfowl seasons, the fifth and sixth seasons after the 1991 ban on lead shot. Based on the surveys findings, researchers … estimate that the ban on lead shot reduced lead poisoning deaths of Mississippi Flyway mallards by 64 percent, while overall ingestion of toxic pellets declined by 78 percent over previous levels. The report concludes that by significantly reducing lead shot ingestion in waterfowl, the ban prevented the lead poisoning deaths of approximately 1.4 million ducks in the 1997 fall flight of 90 million ducks. In addition, the researchers state that approximately 462,000 to 615,000 acres of breeding habitat would have been required to produce the same number of birds that potentially were saved by nontoxic shot regulations that year. With the ban now entering its ninth year, ingestion of lead shot has probably continued to decline from the levels documented in the study, preventing an increasing number of lead poisoning deaths.”
As for the current push to phase out lead ammunition, those opposed cite, among other things, cost and the increase in wounded animals with non-lead ammunition as reasons to not switch. As noted, steel is the most cost effective choice for upland and waterfowl hunting, however, because it is lighter than steel, it loses velocity faster and may not cleanly kill a bird at the same distance lead-shot shooters are used to. There are ways to mitigate this, such as limiting long shots and using a larger-sized steel load than a lead load – such as using No. 6 or 7 steel for quail rather than No. 8 lead. Practicing with non-lead ammunition is also a way to mitigate less shells spent on a hunt.
Other shot options include bismuth and tungsten, which are more similar to lead shot than steel is. These options are going to be pricier, but will be more effective, in essence rendering less shots taken depending on the shooter. As time goes on and more hunters turn to non-lead ammunition, it’s likely that these options will become more cost-effective than relying on being a great shot.
This is the first in a two-part series about the effects lead ammunition has on non-game birds.