An American Bald Eagle on the verge of death after ingesting lead gunshot will soon be released back into the wild thanks to the helping hands of veterinarian Dr. Belinda Burwell and the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Clarke County, Virginia. But even though this eagle represents a success story in the fight against lead poisoning in wildlife, many lead poisoned birds of prey that aren’t discovered die each year.
Not only can the problem can be easily avoided, it also needlessly affects humans as well.
“Some birds of prey, such eagles and hawks, will scavenge on dead deer whenever they can find them,” explained Dr. Belinda Burwell, director of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center near Boyce, Virginia. “Deer shot with high velocity lead ammunition can have hundreds of small fragments of the shattered lead bullet in their flesh. When they eat this lead, the acid in their stomachs dissolves the lead which is absorbed into their bloodstream. From the bloodstream, the lead in absorbed into nerves and bone and other organs. Most of the symptoms we see are due to the damage that the lead does to the nervous system and digestive tract.”
Burwell said that although collateral damage to animals that consume the lead through the food chain, as well as from ingested lead fragments, can be easily avoided by substituting copper ammunition and non-fragmenting bullets, hunting lobbyists have resisted government regulation.
“I would like to spread the word about the danger to animals and people who eat meat from animals that have been shot with lead ammunition,” said Burwell.
Burwell said that there are no reliable estimates of how many animals or people are affected by ammunition-induced lead poisoning, but her clinic treats several lead poisoned animals each year. Unfortunately, not all of the animals can be saved.
“I don’t know if anyone has a credible estimate of how many birds are poisoned,” Burwell said. “Of course many die hidden in the wild and are never found. We have treated six birds so far this year. One died. This number is less than we used to see and we hope is due to the fact that many large land owners in this area no longer allow the use of ammunition containing lead on their land.”
The eagle currently under Burwell’s care was found by a resident of Hopewell, Virginia southeast of Richmond. Burwell said that after observing the eagle on the ground unable to fly, the Hopewell resident contacted the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who in turn contacted a local wildlife rehabilitation organization called Area Rehabbers Klub (ARK).
ARK Wildlife rehabilitators Lin Fox and Guy Raymer quickly responded to the eagle distress call. Since two other eagles had been recently shot in the same areas – a Federal crime – Fox and Raymer immediately transported the bird to Dr. A. J. Ereio at VetXpress in Colonial Heights, Virginia. After an initial examination, Ereio determined that although the bird had not been shot, it was very ill and referred the eagle to the BRWC.
Lin Fox and her son transported the eagle on the three hour trip from Hopewell to Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.
When the bird arrived at BRWC Burwell observed that it was in a weakened state and was demonstrating neurologic problems, telltale indicators of lead poisoning. Fortunately – or in a way unfortunately – BRWC sees so many lead poisoned animals that it has all of the necessary equipment on site to diagnose the condition.
Burwell immediately ordered blood work in to confirm her suspicions.
“We see so much lead poisoning in hawks and eagles that we have a lead testing machine at our center so we can get results within minutes rather than waiting three to four days for testing by an outside lab,” Burwell said. “Testing showed that this eagle had a high level of lead in her blood. She also had small metallic objects in her stomach which were most likely the source of the lead that been absorbed into her body.”
Once the lead poisoning was confirmed, Burwell ordered that the bird be treated with drugs known as “chelators”.
Chelators bind with the lead and help the body excrete it.
“Chelator treatment sometimes lasts for three to four weeks,” Burwell explained.
But lead poisoning treatment isn’t always limited to drugs. Sometimes animals also need to have lead fragments removed from their stomachs. Supportive care is almost always necessary because the sick birds usually cannot eat, drink, or walk without falling.
“The eagle that we are caring for right now needed two weeks of treatment with chelators, and five days of tube feeding,” Burwell said. “Once treatment has been completed, it then can take weeks for their nervous system to recover.”
Burwell said that the eagle currently under her care was finally able to fly to a perch after three weeks of intensive treatment. After a few more days of continued care and support Burwell said that she plans to release the bird back into the wild sometime next week.
But as tragic as it may be that such a majestic bird could be brought from the sky by simply eating a lead-infected meal, the greater tragedy may be how easily the problem could be eliminated, but isn’t, thanks to lobbying efforts in Washington.
According to Burwell, the consumption of lead shot by wildlife was first identified as a threat to wild waterfowl populations in the 1960’s and led to a US Fish and Wildlife Service ban on the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting in 1991.
The lead ban occurred despite many of years of heated debate by hunting groups who were strongly opposed to the ban.
But Burwell said that the impacts of lead shot for hunting other species – especially deer, elk, and other large mammals – was not identified as a significant threat to wildlife until lead poisoning was discovered as the major obstacle to the recovery of California condor population. The condor link prompted a ban on the use of all lead ammunition in southern California’s condor habitat.
Arizona has also instituted a voluntary ban on all lead ammunition.
“Lead ammo has been banned for use in hunting over water for years but no one has yet been able to ban the use of lead over land due to opposition by hunting groups and the NRA,” Burwell said. “The Center for Biological Diversity and over 100 other wildlife groups have petitioned the EPA to ban the use of lead as a component in ammunition because it is a toxic substance. The EPA is supposed to enforce the Toxic Substances Control Act which was designed to prevent the release of toxic substances into the environment.”
But even though low levels of lead has long been known to cause serious health impacts in humans, Burwell says Virginia continues to resist regulating lead shot.
“After research studies in 2008 proved that fragments of lead shot in game are also dangerous to people who eat this meat, many state hunting and fishing departments put warnings against using certain types of lead ammunition on their hunting websites,” Burwell said. “The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has not done this, but they should.”
“I’m shocked these legislators care so little about the health of Americans that they would want to allow toxic lead to be consumed by people who are unaware of the danger,” Burwell said.
Burwell said that even though banning the use of lead shot has been opposed by some hunting groups, there is now a renewed effort to again tackle the issue.
“This was first done in 2010, but the EPA declined the petition as soon as the NRA voiced their strong opposition to a ban,” Burwell said. “A new petition was just filed earlier this month.”
In response to petitioning of the EPA by wildlife and environmental groups, legislators in Washington have introduced the “Sportsman’s Heritage Act” (HR 1558) which would include lead in bullets under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Burwell pointed out that the birds that she treats show more severe symptoms of lead exposure than hunters do because the birds are much smaller than a human.
“Lead is dangerous not only to wildlife but also to anyone who eats meat shot with lead ammunition,” Burwell cautioned. “A study by the CDC found that people who eat hunter killed meat have a higher level of lead in their blood than the general population. Any amount of lead in the blood can be harmful. Hunters say they are not being sickened by using lead shot. But lead absorbed into the body can cause damage to the nervous system at levels below the toxic range where there are no noticeable symptoms. Children exposed to lead do not feel sick, but will develop learning disabilities. In this debate, you will sometimes read about “normal levels of lead”, or levels that are below the toxic range. There are no ‘normal levels of lead’ in an animal’s blood. It is a toxic metal that should not be in our blood stream at all. I feel this is a very important public health issue, in addition to the threat it poses to wildlife. Our society recognizes that lead is so toxic we removed it from paint, gasoline, and our water pipes. We recognize that even exposure to small amounts of lead is harmful.”
“A human can eat more of lead and will have a lower blood lead than a five to ten pound bird,” Burwell said. “Also, hunters know to cut away the meat from the gunshot wound. The bird eats this toxic meat.”
Burwell said that until such time that legislation bans lead bullets, there are steps that landowners and hunters can immediately take to combat the problem.
“Hunters should switch to non-lead, non-fragmenting ammunition, such as copper bullets or bullets encased in a copper jacket,” Burwell recommends. “Or use a muzzleloader and not a rifle because muzzleloader bullets do not fragment as much.”
Burwell also asks that hunters not use high velocity lead ammunition because the bullets leave hundreds of lead fragments behind in the meat.
“Another important thing land owners can do, is if they allow hunting on their land, make sure they are using only non-fragmenting, non-lead bullets,” Burwell recommends.
The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center can treat just about any animal found in our area. So if you see a large hawk or eagle on the ground that cannot fly, do not attempt to rescue the animal yourself. Instead, Burwell asks that you immediately call the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.
“Even when these birds are sick and weak, they can still bite and can injure a person,” Burwell said
Blue Ridge Wildlife Center can be reached at 540-837-9000
For additional information on the lead ammunition debate: