Getting the lead out

By Jim Ward for The Observer November 04, 2011 07:54 pm

Research at the Blue Mountain Wildlife Center in Pendleton is showing that nearly all raptors brought into the facility have lead in their systems. Many are suspected of picking up the lead when they feed on dead birds or squirrels, left by hunters, containing shot or bullet fragments. JIM WARD photo
Research at the Blue Mountain Wildlife Center in Pendleton is showing that nearly all raptors brought into the facility have lead in their systems. Many are suspected of picking up the lead when they feed on dead birds or squirrels, left by hunters, containing shot or bullet fragments. JIM WARD photo

Lead is bad stuff — if you’re talking about its affect on human health that is. People have been suffering from the ill effects of lead poisoning, likely, since it was first discovered. Historians/researchers even suggest lead may have played a key role in the downfall of the Roman Empire centuries ago. Lead pipes brought in water to the Roman palaces, subjecting the hierarchy to its awful side effects. With lead’s known effect on brain function, historians believe Rome’s financial and military shortfalls, in its later years, were brought about by incompetent (lead-poisoned) leaders.

Most certainly, lead has some useful applications. Batteries are a good example. Lead makes a great projectile — it melts and forms easily and it’s cheap. Poke it in a metal tube, stuff some gun powder behind it, ignite it and you have a bullet or cannonball that stays intact and hits hard.

Aside from its importance in military weaponry, lead has been a key component as ammunition for hunters — long before Dan’l Boone stuffed his first lead slug down the barrel of his musket. For decades, this nation’s ammunition manufacturers have used lead in their products. In all this time, literally millions of tons have been sprayed over the forests, uplands and marshes, in the form of bullets and shotgun pellets. Soon, all this lead in the environment began to show its ugly head. Waterfowl began dying in the millions as they ingested much of this metal sifting through marsh soils. Then raptors would pick up the lead when they fed on the dying birds. That’s an entire story in itself, but the end result was a ban on shotgun shells containing lead on federal and state wildlife areas. But, lead can still be used for other birds and animals off government lands.

Lynn Tompkins knows very well the terrible affects lead can have on wildlife. Tompkins is the director of Blue Mountain Wildlife, a rehabilitation center in Pendleton. The center takes in ill and injured critters and deals with their needs. The center has been running for 23 years. It took in more than 800 “patients” last year.

Many of the raptors that come onto BMW have lead poisoning in some form or another. Twelve eagles were brought in last summer and half were suffering from this malady. Some birds arrive in very sad shape. Lead affects the nervous system. Some birds will come in with a loss of coordination — their eyes drooping and their feet curled. Most are starving. It’s tough being a predator, as the only way to get breakfast is to hunt with sharp reflexes and “weaponry” in good working order.

After x-rays and blood samples, the lead-poisoned birds go into several months of chelation treatments and a long recuperation period. Chelate binds with the lead and is then secreted through the kidneys.

Recently, Tompkins and her team have been screening all the raptors brought in for lead-poisoning, even if they don’t show symptoms.  Surprisingly, nearly all have lead in their systems. With a good deal of research on her own part, and looking at studies from many others, Tompkins has a good idea of how most of these birds are picking up lead in their daily routines.

One, since lead shot isn’t banned in most areas, raptors are picking it up through other means of hunting. A chukar hunter, for example, drops a bird while hunting the breaks of the Snake River. The bird cripples away eluding the hunter. After the hunter leaves, a golden eagle sees the wounded bird and grabs it. Soon he’s eating fresh chukar along with a good dose of lead pellets. Researchers have concluded that as few as two ingested pellets can kill a bird as large as a trumpeter swan.

This writer has seen it first-hand. Many times while chukar hunting I’ve observed falcons, golden eagles and accipiter hawks following our group. It became obvious to me, that these birds had learned to expect a meal or two from our hunting forays. I switched to steel shot for all birds many years ago.

Another way raptors are picking up lead is through another form of hunting. Ground squirrels live almost everywhere. Ranchers shoot them to ease the damage they cause to their crops. Many hunters pursue them in the off-season as a means to keep their shooting skills sharp. Most use .22 caliber or .177 rifles loaded with lead ammo. It’s a common misconception that even though these hard-hitting rounds usually pierce completely through their targets, they do leave fragments behind. When researchers began putting squirrels killed by conventional bullets in to X-ray machines, it became obvious that fragments were still present in the carcasses. I don’t squirrel hunt anymore, but I remember putting dead squirrels on fence posts so the neighborhood hawks would find these and make use of them. I know other hunters that do the same. In truth, they should be buried so the birds can’t find them.

Fortunately, ammunition companies have come up with steel rounds for those who pursue squirrels or other small game. Nosler, Remington and Winchester, to name a few, all have small-caliber bullets made with non-toxic steel. Now, with the availability of steel shot for shotguns and steel bullets for your .22 or .177, there really is no reason to carry lead in your ammo belt. Hunters can still enjoy a good brace of delicious chukar partridge without tainting the environment and putting our beloved raptors through undue suffering. Lynn Tompkins needs a break.