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Bald eagle lead poisoning study stirs up controversy in hunting community

Bald eagle lead poisoning study stirs up controversy in hunting community


A mature bald eagle perches on a tree branch during the Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Survey at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

A 22-year study about lead poisoning in bald eagles is stirring up discussion in the hunting community after the study pointed to ammunition and fishing tackle as some of the main sources.

Conducted by the New York State Wildlife Health Program — a partnership between the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine's New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center — the study concluded that of 300 bald eagles tested, about 17 percent had potentially lethal levels of lead. 

In a letter to the editor, however, Lawrence G. Keane said eagle populations are rebounding and the success story includes hunters. Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, added that excise taxes that the firearms and ammunition industry imposed on themselves have helped to fund over $11 billion to conservation programs. 

"Calls to ban traditional ammunition aren't always about saving another eagle," Keane added. "Many times, they're really about banning hunting — a tradition and way of life for many in New York."

But Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist with Cornell's diagnostic center, said the study is not about banning hunting at all. A hunter herself, she said the study is more about educating the community on what's out there and its impacts on the environment.

Using isotopic fingerprinting of lead, Schuler said there is evidence that the lead found in eagles and other wildlife is mostly from ammunition. Eagles are well-known scavengers and Schuler said they could be eating organs and other discarded parts of hunted animals that could have lead shot in them. The DEC advocates for the use of non-lead ammunition, and Schuler said those alternatives are slowly becoming more available and of better quality.

"It's definitely, absolutely not any way to get rid of hunting or firearms or ammunition," she said. "It's pointing out that there is a problem, and we could do something about it."

In his letter, Keane also pointed out that eagles have been removed from the endangered species and threatened wildlife lists. The DEC reported that there are 323 nesting pairs of bald eagles, too, in the state. But between 2007 and 2013, the DEC found about 9 percent of recovered bald eagles suffered from lead poisoning. Those numbers have appeared to be on a slight uptick, though Schuler said that could just be because there are more eagles.

The DEC said any incidental loss of wildlife is a concern. 

Schuler couldn't recall where she'd heard the quote, "a good bullet only kills once," but, she said, "I think that definitely applies to the lead situation."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.


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