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Pennsylvania hunters urged to protect bald eagles from lead poisoning

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, 11:40 p.m.
A bald eagle family seems to pose for a portrait in Lawrence County earlier this year. State game commission officials say lead poisoning has killed six of the state's bald eagles this year and sickened as many more.
Courtesy of Annette Devinney
A bald eagle family seems to pose for a portrait in Lawrence County earlier this year. State game commission officials say lead poisoning has killed six of the state's bald eagles this year and sickened as many more.
A bald eagle takes flight in Erie County last month. State game commission officials are asking hunters to cover the gut piles from animals they kill to prevent lead poisoning in bald eagles, which often feast on what hunters leave behind.
Courtesy of Annette Devinney
A bald eagle takes flight in Erie County last month. State game commission officials are asking hunters to cover the gut piles from animals they kill to prevent lead poisoning in bald eagles, which often feast on what hunters leave behind.
A bald eagle peers out of its nest near Clarion earlier this year. State officials say lead poisoning from bullet fragments in gut piles left by hunters or even lead sinkers ingested by fish are becoming a lethal problem for the state's eagles.
Courtesy of Annette Devinney
A bald eagle peers out of its nest near Clarion earlier this year. State officials say lead poisoning from bullet fragments in gut piles left by hunters or even lead sinkers ingested by fish are becoming a lethal problem for the state's eagles.

A spate of recent eagle deaths from lead poisoning has prompted the Pennsylvania Game Commission to ask hunters to voluntarily cover their game remains and dial back use of lead ammunition.

It's ironic that a bald eagle plucked from a Canadian nest 30 years ago to rebuild the state's eagle population decimated by a pesticide was killed this summer by another toxin: lead, likely from bullet fragments, according to animal rehabilitators who provided treatment.

That bird, dubbed Kiski the Bald Eagle because it was found dazed along the Kiski River in Kiski Township, was one of six eagles that died this year from lead toxicity at Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Saegertown. The six come from a dozen rescued testing positive for lead toxicity throughout the state recently.

“We knew there was an issue emerging,” said Jim Daley of Cranberry Township, Butler County, a game commission board member, who represents the northwest corner of the state where bald eagles are abundant.

But he and others at the game commission are quick to point out that incidents of lead poisonings are not impacting the state's flourishing eagle population, which includes at least 240 pairs.

When Daley got reports from Tamarack and elsewhere on the growing numbers of eagles deaths from lead, he asked the agency's veterinarian, Dr. Justin Brown, as well as animal rehabilitators during the commissioners' Sept. 25 meeting.

The commission decided to ask hunters to take voluntary measures and plan to launch a hunter education campaign, Daley said.

In commission necropsies on bald eagles from 2006 to 2016, a third of those deaths involved exposure to toxins, with lead being the most common, according to Brown.

Lead is found in ammunition, fishing lures and other materials.

Eagles and other raptors are easily poisoned by lead because they rapidly absorb the metal through their stomach, Brown said.

Animal rehabilitators try to flush the birds' bodies, but it is often too late.

Extreme lead toxicity causes an ugly, slow death characterized by loss of appetite, muscle coordination and blindness.

“You have this powerful bird and you find it in the field — limp and weak,” said Brown.

“You can pick it up, and it doesn't even know you are there.”

That's how Kiski the Bald Eagle was found this summer as people walking a recreational trail were thrilled to be able to approach the eagle so closely not knowing why the bird was so tame.

Effort backed

Hunters and environmentalists agree it would be too severe of a measure to ban the use of lead ammunition for hunting in Pennsylvania.

The National Rifle Association and other hunting and gun rights organizations often oppose restrictions on ammunition.

There are some bans, including the 1991 federal ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting. California is the first state to ban hunting with lead bullets, phasing out such ammunition by 2019 in favor of less-toxic copper or steel.

Pennsylvania is tackling the issue now only because there are simply more eagles these days, according to Daley.

John Klein, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, whose membership includes more than 200 clubs, said the lead poisoning of bald eagles is alarming.

“Every Pennsylvania hunter is proud of the bald eagle comeback,” he said.

Klein expects a positive reaction from hunters to voluntarily change up their hunting practices, whether it is covering gut piles or changing ammunition.

But the game commission will have a responsibility to train and educate the hunting community, he added.

“We support the continued development of better ammunition and recognize that eventually lead shot may very well go away,” he said.

Environmentalists are also expecting hunter cooperation.

“Nobody wants to poison a bald eagle,” said Carol Holmgren, executive director at Tamarack wildlife rehabilitation.

Jim Bonner, from the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, also looks for voluntary efforts to limit lead in the environment, period.

“Look at what our health departments are doing to minimize lead in our drinking water,” he said.

Lead sources studied

Game commission is still studying the lead issue in eagles. It says that the main source of ingested lead has not been clearly identified.

But such lack of clarity has not stopped the agency from taking action.

“Hunters can help to reduce the potential that bald eagles ingest lead fragments from the remains of harvested game animals by burying the carcasses and gut piles, or by covering them with branches,” game commission says.

Gut piles and carcasses are attractive to bald eagles, who in addition to catching and eating fish, are scavengers. When they are hit by cars, it's often because they're trying to reach roadkill.

“If there's a carcass, eagles and other raptors will see the strange shape in the landscape,” said Patti Barber, endangered species biologist for the game commission.

Many hunters don't know how much lead can remain in an animal after it's shot, according to Daley.

“I didn't realize that if you shoot a deer, 30 to 40 percent of the fragments stay behind,” he said.

All it takes is a lead sliver the size of a grain of rice to kill a bald eagle in 72 hours, according to Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Holmgren tells a story about a farmer with good intentions who left out a woodchuck he shot for the birds to eat.

“He did it not realizing it was a poison meal for the eagle he loved,” she said.

Some of the compelling research connecting lead poisoning in eagles and lead ammunition is that the birds are brought to rehabilitators in late summer when woodchucks are shot for eating crops and later in the year during deer hunting season.

The Associated Press contributed. Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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