This golden eagle lives in a popular hunting area where gut piles and unused animal parts are left behind by successful hunters. Those leftovers are subsequently fed upon by dozens of species, including birds such as magpies, ravens, bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, Clark’s nutcrackers and other jays, and even some songbirds. The unique digestive system of birds means that even tiny lead fragments can result in high lead levels in the blood. High lead levels can lead to physiological impairment at best and a slow and painful death at worst.
A recent study in the Bitterroot Valley found close to 95% of wintering golden eagles had blood lead levels above what would normally be expected for wild animals. In 8 of those golden eagles, the lead levels were severely elevated. That is just one of many studies all pointing towards the same thing, and as internet arguments play out over muzzle velocities, shot placement, and other minute details, lead-poisoned eagles continue to be frequent patients at raptor rehab facilities across the West.
When we shoot animals with lead bullets, even if we are doing everything right, there is always the potential for lead fragments to be left behind. Hunters and anglers have been on the front lines of conservation efforts since the beginning, and we should be on this one too. For now, myself (and my colleagues) extend a heart-felt “thank you” to those hunters who have stepped up and made the switch to copper ammunition when hunting.