Bald Eagles Are Being Poisoned to Death by Lead From Hunting Ammo

Bald eagles in Canada and the U.S. are being poisoned to death by the lead found in hunting ammunition and fishing weights.

Both the BC Wildlife Park in British Columbia, Canada, and the Alaska Raptor Center said bald eagles had recently died in their care as a result of lead poisoning.

On February 7, the Alaska Raptor Center said a bald eagle died at the center from a case of lead poisoning .

Three days earlier, the BC Wildlife Park said that a bald eagle had died in their care with organ failure the cause of death. The animal succumbed after it was brought in suffering lead poisoning two weeks before it died.

Lead poisoning presents a direct risk to birds of prey in North America such as bald and golden eagles, which sometimes scavenge for food. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said that while lead poisoning can occur naturally, scientific evidence has pointed to lead ammunition as the leading cause of lead poisoning in scavenging birds like eagles and vultures in the United States.

Lead ammunition is banned for the hunting of waterfowl in the U.S. but still permitted when hunting other game. Lead bullets can fragment into hundreds of pieces on impact, meaning it is easily dispersed in the bodies of targeted animals. The lead can then be eaten unwittingly by scavengers like bald or golden eagles.

"Once eaten, the lead leaches into the bird's bloodstream and devastates the nervous and gastrointestinal system," the Alaska Raptor Center said in a Facebook post. "How much lead is too much? It takes a piece of lead that is only the size of a grain of rice to fatally poison a bald eagle.

"We can attempt to treat cases of lead poisoning, but it requires an intense amount of work. In some of our patients the amount of lead in the blood is so high that medication will not help and they pass away. Tragically, last week, an eagle being treated here at the Alaska Raptor Center passed away from lead poisoning."

BC Wildlife Park said that death from lead poisoning is slow. "It instead affects the red blood cells which can ultimately lead to kidney impairment, liver dysfunction, and neurological damage over the course of days, weeks, or months," it said in a Facebook post.

Bald eagles are only found in North America. The animals were at risk of extinction throughout much of their range in the U.S. by the mid 1960s amid widespread use of harmful pesticides like DDT. However conservation efforts have seen their numbers rebound dramatically. The FWs estimated there were around 316,700 of the birds in the lower 48 states. There are approximately 30,000 bald eagles in Alaska.

Both the Alaska Raptor Center and the BC Wildlife Park urged the use of alternative metals instead of lead as they described the recent deaths of the eagles in their care.

"It is important to remember that the direct actions of humans play an integral role in the life cycles and lives of wildlife, eco systems, and biodiversity," BC Wildlife Park said. "We urge you to move toward using lead-free fishing tackle, and remind you that lead shots for the purpose of hunting migratory game birds is prohibited in Canada."

Bald eagle at Washington DC zoo
Bald eagle at the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington DC. The animals are vulnerable to lead poisoning and can die from an amount as small as a grain of rice. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Staff/Getty Images