In the months following Wyoming’s big and small game seasons, feathered patients start arriving at bird rescues and the state wildlife laboratory suffering from severe lead poisoning. Unfortunately, few will survive their fight.
In the months following Wyoming’s big and small game seasons, feathered patients start arriving at bird rescues and the state wildlife laboratory suffering from severe lead poisoning.
Unfortunately, few will survive their fight.
Scavenging raptors — including golden and bald eagles — are common victims. The cause of death for many eagles, hawks, ravens and even endangered condors is lead used in ammunition, according to multiple studies of the issue. Lethal fragments are left in gut piles and carcasses of big game animals, predatory species and pellets from shotguns found in lost small game animals.
While some seek to ban lead ammunition — which is an uphill battle — others rush to the aid of wildlife poisoned by the toxic metal.
The long lasting impact of lead
With a beautiful bald eagle splayed on its back atop a stainless steel table, vet tech Tessa Baker and raptor rehabilitator Susan Ahalt worked to control the massive raptor while drawing blood from its wing.
Ahalt was already bleeding. Preacher — given its name when Ahalt mistakenly thought she heard a game warden say the bird was found on “Jerry Falwell’s” ranch — bit her hand with its sharp, yellow beak. Ahalt, 76, barely flinched, only rubbing fresh snow on the wound after Preacher was secured in a travel case; the blood matched the color of her frayed and ripped coat.
Preacher was found southeast of Powell with lead poisoning that was literally off the charts. A level of 2 is considered too high; Preacher’s was above 65, the maximum level Ahalt’s $3,500 Lead Care blood analyzer can register.
She keeps the machinery at Lifetime Animal Hospital for convenience; she can’t do the task by herself anyway.
Baker, a vet tech at the facility, is a former Marine, serving in Iraq before coming home to get her education. She volunteers at Ahalt’s Ironside Bird Rescue during her lunch hour to help treat eagles.
Baker is extremely patriotic and for her, working with a bald eagle is a privilege.
“A bald eagle, I mean it’s a symbol of America right there,” she said. “I’ve got that pride going on. I mean to work on these. It’s awesome.”
However, the work can been grim.
Ahalt has been treating raptors for lead poisoning so often she bought the expensive blood analyzer to do immediate tests instead of waiting days for results. Raptors don’t do well with lead in their system and every minute without treatment is critical, Ahalt said.
When poisoned by lead, raptors have the appearance of starving, many losing a third of their weight or more before succumbing. Their talons contract and curl up; when forced to the ground, too weak to fly, the raptors can’t stand. Ahalt has developed “sandals” to open their talons, but it’s often the least of their problems. Lead-poisoned raptors die unless they’re found by a Good Samaritan, and even when treated, few survive.
Ahalt has been in the business of saving birds for 33 years. Yet, she says, you never get used to death.
Losing “Blue 308” was especially hard for Ahalt. The large female golden eagle got its name from its wing tags. Scientists tracked her for more than four years — much of it in Park County. It was found near Meeteetse and Ahalt spent days hand-feeding the bird and administering expensive medicine, a type of avian chemotherapy.
Tears welled in the bottom of Ahalt’s bright blue eyes simply talking about the young female golden eagle — now stiff and waiting to be shipped to a national repository for eagles in Denver.
“This one hit me hard,” she said choking back the tears. “I gave her a good death.”
Preacher came to her just an hour after she put Blue 308 in the shop freezer — a temporary tomb for birds before processing; Blue filled an entire shelf.
“I’d like to defrost [the freezer],” Ahalt said, “but it’s never empty.”
A persistent problem
Ahalt dreams of a day when eagles stop coming to her poisoned and with little hope. But according to state wildlife disease specialists, the amount of lead from the past more than 100 years of hunting will continue to be a problem here and across the country for many years — even if lead ammunition is banned.
“You can change to nontoxic shot and bullets, but there’s always going to be that lead deposited from the last century or more to contend with,” said Terry Creekmore, a disease specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife laboratory in Laramie.
In his research before coming to Wyoming, Creekmore has found lead shot from a muzzleloader used possibly 100 years earlier.
He has criss-crossed North America studying the issue while working for the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. He was living in Texas in 1984, when the Lone Star state was the first to ban lead shot in waterfowl hunting and has hiked the frozen tundra looking for evidence of lead poisoning.
During his work, “I carried a portable X-ray machine in the boat and could take a [Polaroid] picture of a loon or swan and know within a minute if the bird had ingested lead,” Creekmore said.
Lead from shotguns and fishing weights are often ingested by waterfowl, which are the most susceptible to the poisoning. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases reports lead poisoning has affected every major species of waterfowl in North America — and eagles love to eat waterfowl about as much as finding a carcass or gut pile.
Eagles are perceived as a more charismatic species, drawing more attention. Once on the brink of extinction from the use of DDT (a pesticide), many point to the return of healthy populations of bald eagles as one of the great wildlife conservation stories in the U.S. Few see lead poisoning from ammunition and fishing gear as the same level of threat.
When Creekmore worked in Wisconsin, the center in Madison was processing more than 200 eagles per year from across the country. Now in Laramie, he and the state lab process about a half-dozen eagles per year, most dead or nearly so.
Disease specialists at the lab perform diagnostics when they can, but more often do necropsies.
Wyoming is surrounded by states with higher occurrences of lead poisoning, according to the USGS Field Manual. Montana leads border states with an average of 20-24 eagles killed each year by ingesting lead. Nebraska has an occurence of 15-19 per year. Wisconsin leads the nation in occurrences of lead poisoning, with more than 50 eagles dying each year.
Between five and nine eagles die each year in Wyoming from ingesting lead, the Field Manual says. However, the data in largely rural states can be deceptive; few raptors are found in time to be saved, if ever.
The University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Science Raptor Center reported 90% of the bald eagles it received had elevated lead residues in their blood, with about 25% having clinical lead poisoning.
In the last 24 years, more than 500 eagles at the clinic have either died or had to be euthanized due to lead poisoning, the Minneosta center reported. Data on the location and seasonal timing of lead poisoning events in eagles point to spent lead ammunition from shotguns and rifles as the source.
“Analysis of the seasonality of the major influxes of lead-poisoned eagles revealed notable spikes in admission beginning in mid-November and continuing through the winter,” the Minnesota center reported.
This pattern led to the hypothesis that wounded deer and deer gut piles were left in the field by hunters “is conclusive evidence that spent ammunition in deer remains is a significant if not primary source of toxicity.”
However, Creekmore said the results from the 13-year study gets controversial the minute you suggest replacing lead in ammunition with metals like steel and copper.
“People don’t like change,” he said. “If they have something that works that’s cheap, they don’t want to be told what to use.”
Advocating for a change
In Arizona, the fight to get lead out of the environment is being led by wildlife biologists working with the endangered California condor. About 54% of mortalities among the California condors in Arizona, where efforts to bring back the species are conducted, are due to lead poisoning, said Bryan Bedrosian, research director of the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson.
In 2018, a condor moved into an area near Casper, exciting wildlife enthusiasts. But the news of the first condor recorded in Wyoming in decades soon turned sad when condor T2 died of lead poisoning near its perch on Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range.
Bedrosian has been studying the issue for the past 16 years. When the Teton Raptor Center has sponsored non-toxic ammunition giveaways, he’s seen a corresponding decrease in the level of lead in eagles. As a big game hunter, Bedrosian said getting hunters to switch to nontoxic ammo comes down to education and availability of alternatives.
“Pretty much all ammunition manufacturers have a non-lead line now,” he said. “But you can’t always walk into the store and get it, especially in smaller communities around the state.”
Non-toxic ammunition is available in every caliber and the performance is amazing, Bedrosian said. And the price difference is between 25 and 50 cents a bullet.
“Pretty nominal for hunting,” he said.
Doug Brimeyer, the deputy chief of wildlife for Game and Fish, said he’s been using non-toxic ammunition for all his hunting for more than a decade. Brimeyer worked in Jackson when Bedrosian was doing his studies and was part of educational efforts to help hunters learn about non-toxic alternatives.
“We received a lot of positive feedback during the effort,” Brimeyer said. “Now, there are a lot more alternatives and prices have come down.”
In Wyoming, non-toxic shot is required in all waterfowl hunting. In addition, two Wildlife Habitat Management Areas in the southern part of the state require non-toxic shot for all bird hunting, “basically due to the large presence of waterfowl in the areas,” said Dan Smith, Cody Regional Wildlife Supervisor. Non-toxic bullets are also required in Teton County’s Hunt Area 75.
There are no requirements to use non-toxic bullets for big game hunting in the state.
Bedrosian feels the move to non-toxic ammo is a matter of caring for the environment and non-game species.
“You can walk away from your gut pile knowing you potentially harmed eagles or you can walk away knowing you didn’t,” he said. “For me, it’s a clear choice.”
Creekmore said he personally believes “the writing is on the wall.”
“Lead shot should be banned in most instances and bullets should follow suit,” he said.
Creekmore makes a clear distinction between his opinion and that of his employers, but said hunters should look at the big picture.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “Hunting is under assault. One thing hunters can do to reduce that pressure is to stop using lead ammunition.”
In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an order banning the use of lead ammunition on federal lands by 2022. However, the order was soon overturned, due in part to protests by hunting and fishing organizations.
Critics say ammunition and tackle made from non-lead metals can vary in size, shape and weight and that their performance differs from that of lead products. The higher cost of alternatives and availability is also an issue.
Don Frame, vice president of the Wyoming Outdoorsmen, said banning lead shot is “fine,” but he is “totally against” a ban on all lead ammunition. “There’s a lot of speculation out there,” he said. “I haven’t seen any hard facts and until I see some, I think a ban is going overboard.”
Frame, of Cody, said the outdoors organization as a whole opposes a ban on lead bullets.
“We’re not for it in any way,” he said.
In search of good news
Ahalt, of Ironside Bird Rescue, is also a hunter. She has a shoulder mount of her best buck hanging from a wall in her bedroom and a 20-year-old box of lead ammunition under her bed.
“I never gave it a thought,” she said. “It was what I grew up using.”
But her decades of caring for lead-poisoned raptors has changed her opinion.
On Sunday, Preacher succumbed — despite tests showing the level of lead in its system had dropped by nearly half. Ahalt put Preacher in the freezer with Blue 308.
And she now has another golden eagle in her care, suffering from lead poisoning. “Elsa” is a giant female found in the same area near Meeteetse as Blue. After the first three days of treatment, her levels dropped from 44 to 12. Elsa was moved to Ironside’s eagle flight pen Tuesday and has been gaining weight. Ahalt hopes the bird will be released back to the wild within days.
She needs some good news.
(Editor's note: This version corrects the Teton County hunt area where non-toxic ammunition is required.)