As the water crisis in Flint, Mich. demonstrated, lead is really bad for people. Lead is also really bad for eagles, and scientists fear the U.S. national bird is at risk due to ingestion of hunting ammunition.
Eagles face danger from lead bullets found in in other wildlife, like squirrels, coyotes and game animals like deer and elk. Eagles eat things that have been shot, ingesting lead that can cause organ failure, brain damage and blindness. Spent ammunition also litters the landscape in wildlife refuges, which can then be eaten by birds that mistake it for birdseed.
“The science is overwhelming,” Dr. Myra Finkelstein, a toxicologist, told the Guardian. “The answer is so clear that I wish we could just make the switch and protect human and wildlife health.”
The Obama administration had attempted to do just that, by issuing an order to phase out lead ammunition on its last day in office. But President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, overturned the Obama regulation on his first day in office at the beginning of this month.
“Outdoor recreation is about both our heritage and our economy. Between hunting, fishing, motorized recreation, camping and more, the industry generates thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity,” Zinke said. “Over the past eight years however, hunting, and recreation enthusiasts have seen trails closed and dramatic decreases in access to public lands across the board. It worries me to think about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite.”
Approximately 10 to 15 percent of bald eagles die in their first year because the majority of them eat the decaying flesh of dead animals, who have sometimes been shot with ammunition. Other raptors, game birds and doves are also susceptible to lead poisoning.
Humans too are at risk from ingesting lead found in game: The Peregrine Foundation, a bird conservation organization, found that there are bullet fragments in 26 to 60 percent of ground venison that has been commercially processed, and people who eat game had 50 percent higher lead levels than those who don’t.
The National Rifle Association, which opposed the Obama regulation, applauded Zinke’s move to reverse it. The NRA has long been against banning lead ammunition, arguing it is an attempt to reduce hunting because lead-free bullets are more expensive than those that contain the substance. The gun rights group also says that alternative ammunition, made of material like copper, also has environmental consequences.
“Steel shot does not perform as well as lead on game, leading to higher numbers of crippled game left to bleed-out and die in the field,” the NRA said in 2014 in response to discussion in Minnesota regarding banning lead ammunition. “Even copper is toxic under certain circumstances. Consequently, traditional ammunition containing lead is still the best, most economical and safest ammunition available.”
The Peregrine Foundation said that costs could be reduced if the market demanded more lead-free bullets, and argues that lead-free ammunition performs as well or better than lead ammunition.
“This has nothing to do with people’s right to hunt,” Finkelstein said. “We took lead out of gas and out of house paint. That doesn’t mean you don’t drive a car or paint your house. It’s about using something that’s safe for you and your family as well as an animal that comes upon it.”