An eagle suffering from lead poisoning was found in Elko on February 12. Submitted

Sick eagle sparks call for lead bullet restriction

Wildlife advocates are calling for a restriction on lead hunting products after an eagle suffering from lead poisoning was found in Elko.

Nycki Wannamaker is a volunteer with Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (OWL) in Vancouver and was called into action on February 12 when a sick golden eagle was discovered close to a deer carcass.

The eagle had been found by an Elko resident earlier that day, feeding on the deer with several others eagles. When the local approached and the bird didn’t fly off, the resident thought it might have sustained an injury in the food scrum. She quickly called OWL, who directed Wannamaker to the scene.

The eagle was safely captured and a flight to Vancouver the following day was arranged for it. It stayed with Wannamaker overnight and she observed that it was very lethargic and easily handled, which she explained is out of the ordinary for any bird, let alone a bird of prey.

“This is alarming,” said Wannamaker. “… this is human caused. A non-kill shot to the deer during hunting season could have left the lead in the deer’s body.”

She explained that a lodged bullet fragment will not necessarily cause lead poisoning, however, an ingested fragment causes poisoning much faster.

Wannamaker further explained that shooting nuisance animals, such as rabbits, groundhogs and coyotes, can pose a risk of lead poisoning for scavenging animals like golden eagles. In addition, lead fishing lures ingested by a fish can cause lead poisoning in birds of prey.

Lead paint and contaminated soil also have but very rarely contributed to lead poisoning in raptors, according to Wannamaker.

After arriving with the OWL team in Vancouver, the eagle tested positive for lead. The bird’s blood rating was 44.7 ug/mL. According to OWL, a rating of 60 is considered high but any rating above 20 is usually fatal.

After several days of treatment, the lead levels in the bird dropped to 15.2 ug/mL. As lead levels continue to fall, the bird will be moved to a flight cage for the remainder of its recovery, if everything goes according to plan.

Returning an animal to full health after lead poisoning is a long and expensive journey, explained OWL Raptor Care Manager Rob Hope. The bird will be re-bled several times during its recovery, which could take up to several weeks. In the past, OWL has cared for animals anywhere from two days up to nine months.

“We want to make sure there are no long-term effects from lead because we have had eagles that basically their brains are fried, even by the time we get the lead down to zero,” said Hope. “There’s basically too much damage in the bird and it can’t fend for itself, so it has to be put down.”

When an eagle ingests food containing lead, it will sit in their crop (belly) before passing through the bird. While it is in the crop, the lead can leach into their bloodstream, where it will be stored in their bones as calcium.

Hope explained that lead can affect a bird in many different ways, from neurotic to respiratory issues.

“Basically time is of the essence with it,” said Hope. “If we get them in time, we can save them.”

OWL sees over 700 injured birds pass through their front doors every year. It is the go-to place in B.C. for injured birds of prey.

Today, it is easier to treat birds affected by lead poisoning than it was in the past, according to Hope.

Previously, the blood of a sick bird would have to be sent off to be tested for lead poisoning, which could take two to four weeks.

Now, OWL can test a bird in house and find out within 180 seconds whether it has lead poisoning. Hope added that transportation is also a lot easier thanks to a sponsorship agreement with Pacific Coastal Airlines.

He explained that there are alternatives to lead ammunition. In the past five years, copper, polymer-tipped bullets have broken into the hunting industry and are being used by more hunters as an alternative to copper-jacket lead-core bullets.

Fernie Rod and Gun Club president Kevin Marasco explained that hunters choose their bullets mainly based on personal preference and performance. He added that the cost of lead to non-lead are similar.

“I went to the Barnes (copper) bullets after seeing the effects of lead bullets years ago, breaking apart in the animal and fragmenting all through the meat,” said Marasco. “The 100 per cent copper bullet usually remains intact and retains the majority of its original weight.”

Hope hopes that regulations will eventually change to restrict the use of lead bullets.

“We’re not against hunting, we’re not against any outdoor activity, actually I myself hunt,” said Hope.

“It’s just a matter of changing the persona. The alternatives are out there now… Somebody could spend an extra 10 bucks on a box of bullets that could not only be healthier for them and their families, but also for any wildlife that may scavenge or take anything that’s been killed or left behind.”

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OWL volunteer Colin Iverson holds the eagle while it undergoes Chelation Treatment, a procedure which neutralizes the lead inside its body. Submitted

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