Reducing Lead Exposure

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Bald eagle populations may have rebounded from historical bounties, habitat loss, and exposure to DDT, but they now face a newly recognized challenge: lead poisoning from ingestion of contaminated carcasses and gut piles left in the field by hunters. The effects of lead poisoning are not limited to bald eagles but also extend to golden eagles, vultures, ravens, and other species.

Why is there lead in carcasses and gut piles?

Bullets, especially those fired from high-powered rifles, leave fragments throughout a carcass anywhere from 2 to 18 inches away from the wound tract. Up to 55% of the fragments are found embedded in the internal organs and are thus available for consumption by scavengers feeding on gut piles; 90% of deer gut piles examined in Wyoming and California between 2002 and 2004 were found to be contaminated with lead fragments.

What happens to scavenging birds that ingest lead from a carcass or gut pile?

Eagles and other birds that consume enough lead to become clinically ill may exhibit weight loss, seizures, paralysis, inability to fly, weakness (droopy head and wing), impaired reproduction, and/or death. Once lead reaches toxic levels, clinical signs will not resolve without medical intervention, which is not practical in wild birds.

What can hunters do to minimize lead exposure in wildlife and humans?

As dedicated conservationists, hunters can reduce lead exposure in the environment by using non-toxic, non-lead ammunition alternatives, such as copper or copper alloys. Other practices such as burying or removing gut piles from the field can reduce lead intake by scavengers. Gut piles should be buried and then covered with rocks or brush to prevent animals from digging them up. Leftover carcass parts should also be either buried, or double-bagged and taken to a landfill, or covered with rocks or brush to prevent access by scavengers. Human exposure to lead at the dinner table can be reduced by liberally trimming meat from both the entrance and exit wounds and avoiding consumption of internal organs.