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Despite cheap, readily available alternatives, most American sportsmen are still using lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Because of this, some of our most majestic birds, from eagles to loons to condors, pay a terrible price.
At the Tufts University wildlife Clinic in central Massachusetts, two veterinarians were holding down a bald eagle, while a third injected hydrating fluid under the skin at the top of her leg. A fourth vet pried open her beak while a fifth popped in a painkiller. The radius and ulna in her right wing had been fractured by a collision.
Crashing into things is something raptors other than accipiters rarely do, if they’re healthy. And this one wasn’t; a blood test had revealed that this eagle had been poisoned by lead, almost certainly from scavenging deer remains and ingesting part of a bullet.
When lead projectiles hit large mammals they shatter, impregnating swaths of soft tissue as wide as three feet with toxic fragments; just one the size of a BB can fatally poison an eagle. The clinic gets two or three animals a week, mostly dead or terminal, that have been poisoned by ingesting lead shotgun pellets or bullet fragments. This eagle had been getting chelation therapy with drugs that bind lead in a form that can be eliminated by the kidneys. An operation later that day, in which the bones were joined with multiple pins, rendered the clinic’s Mark Pokras “cautiously optimistic” about her chances. But infection set in, and three weeks later she had to be euthanized. Pokras is one of the world’s top authorities on plumbism (lead poisoning) in wildlife.
When lead is ingested the body mistakes it for beneficial metals, incorporating it into the brain, eyes, kidneys, liver, and other vital tissues, which it damages. Most humans survive plumbism, albeit with diminished mental and motor function, and victims are prone to violence and crime. Children are especially vulnerable because the growth process requires a heavy intake of metals.
In wildlife, plumbism is rarely survivable or diagnosed. To make it in the wild, all animals require full capacity. So plumbism causes mortality wrongly attributed to predation, starvation, roadkill, or collisions. So far 130 species have been known to ingest lead ammunition. There is no such thing as a “safe” or “normal” blood-lead level.
“God, what a depressing sight,” I declared when Pokras opened a freezer containing 10 bald eagles. Until these were necropsied it would be impossible to tell how many had died of plumbism. But Pokras pulled out a stiff male, head bent to wing in grotesque cockatiel pose and in whose gizzard an X-ray had revealed 12 fragments. Another bird had appeared fragment free, but she’d lived long enough to yield a blood sample that contained more lead than the machine could measure. Most lead-poisoned raptors the clinic necropsies contain no fragments because they’ve been ground up in the gizzard and dissolved by stomach acid, or, after delivering usually fatal doses, regurgitated with compacted pellets of skin and bone.
Fifteen more bald eagle carcasses would be arriving from Maine when the clinic finished with these, and for every one found, dozens probably die unseen. But Tufts sees few eagles compared with wildlife hospitals in the West and Midwest. The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center in St. Paul received 117 lead-poisoned bald eagles during the winter of 2009–2010. Director Julia Ponder explains that if you can observe symptoms, it’s usually too late to save the bird. Of the 46 that were visibly symptomatic, 38 died or were euthanized. In one Montana study, 85 percent of golden eagles and 97 percent of bald eagles sampled had elevated blood-lead levels.
“Lots of times eagles come in that can’t stand or have trouble seeing,” says wildlife rehabilitator Kay Neumann, who directs Saving Our Avian Resources, based in Dedham, Iowa. Of 46 recently checked Iowa eagles with elevated blood-lead levels, 38 have died, four remain in captivity because of secondary-trauma injuries, and four have been released.
“You think our freezer is depressing,” remarked Pokras, describing one in Washington State that contained 4,000 pounds of trumpeter and tundra swans, all victims of plumbism. “Swans pick up lead shotgun pellets when they forage in water, but they do a lot of foraging on land, too. And tens of thousands of tons of lead shot are piling up on land each year.”
Lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991. But in most areas it’s legal for other game birds and for small mammals. Some of the best hunting for pheasants, quail, grouse, woodcock, and rabbits is along the edges of rivers, lakes, and marshes, so waterfowl habitat still gets deluged with lead. It’s even worse in the uplands. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that as many as 400,000 lead shotgun pellets per acre rain annually on popular hunting fields, and that about 80,000 tons of lead accumulate each year on the nation’s trap, skeet, and target ranges, most of which would meet federal criteria for Superfund sites. This toxic hailstorm is preserved by the gun lobby—led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, a gun and ammo trade group), and Safari Club International (SCI).
Ducks, swans, and geese actually key in on lead shot because to their sensitive bills it feels like seeds. Some vultures, probably including condors, for which plumbism is the main cause of death, seek out lead in carrion because it feels like the bone they feed their chicks to maintain calcium levels. Mammalian scavengers are also at risk. In one study, 46 percent of blood samples from grizzly bears showed elevated lead.
Hunters shoot roughly 20 million mourning doves a year, but evidence suggests that nearly that many die from eating lead shot. A study at the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area in Missouri revealed that 728 dove hunters had deposited 348,037 lead pellets per acre. And in an area in Arizona that wasn’t even managed for dove hunting, 19.9 percent of doves sampled had lead shot in their digestive tracts. Even if doves haven’t ingested lead shot, when hunters shoot them full of it, scavengers find lost carcasses.
Nontoxic bullets and shot that perform as well or better than lead are readily available, but the gun lobby opposes them, claiming that they’re a crippling financial burden. Prices vary widely according to gauge of shotgun shell, size of shot, and weight and caliber of bullet. But I found 25-round boxes of 20-gauge No. 6 shotgun shells (used for pheasant and grouse) offered at $7.39 for lead and $7.49 for steel. And I found 30 caliber 168-grain bullets (often used for deer) offered per order of 50 at $13.50 for lead and $34.99 for copper. Ten shots at deer per season is a lot for any hunter.
Fish-eating waterbirds ingest lead shot, too. But more frequently they’re poisoned by lead fishing gear still attached to fish that have broken anglers’ lines. Last year Tufts received carcasses of at least 50 loons that had died of plumbism. Pokras showed me X-rays in which lead sinkers can be plainly seen in the birds’ digestive tracts. He then showed me a photo of a pile of lead sinkers a skin diver retrieved in 30 minutes from the bottom of a river in Washington State. If you threw them into a sack, a strong man would have trouble lifting it. You can buy nontoxic sinkers from countless Internet outlets and tackle stores; they work as well as lead, and for a year’s supply the additional investment might be three dollars.
“The hazard of ingested lead sinkers and fishing tackle is well-documented in swans and loons,” reports the Wildlife Society, which represents nearly 10,000 wildlife professionals. The American Sportfishing Association (an industry trade group) doesn’t disagree. It just argues that it’s okay to keeping killing birds with lead because there are worse sources of mortality. “In general, bird populations, including loons and other waterfowl species, are subject to much more substantial threats, such as habitat loss through shoreline development,” it submits.
At least the association (enlightened on virtually all other environmental issues) doesn’t suggest that talk about plumbism is a plot to end all blood sport. That’s the mantra from the gun lobby. In order to increase membership and funding the NRA, the SCI, and the NSSF are forever firing off alerts about imaginary threats to the Second Amendment, further inciting paranoid people who, while they’re by no means typical gun-rights activists, clearly should not be running around with firearms. For example, last August, in a “Take Action Now” release that called to mind old tobacco-industry denials that cigarettes cause cancer, the NSSF asserted that “there is no scientific evidence that the use of traditional ammunition is having an adverse impact on wildlife populations” and that lead couldn’t be a threat to eagles because there are more now than in 1981. Online reader comments included: “[A lead ban] will mean war....America's 2nd civil war.” And: “All traders [he was trying to spell ‘traitors’] should be shot with a lead bullet.” And: “You damn liberals and government control idiots, along with the illegal asian muslim.... WHEN YOU TRY TO COME GET ANY WEAPONS OR AMMO YOU BEST COME WITH A ARMY .... BEFORE I GO DOWN YOU AND MANY OTHERS WILL ALSO.”
I have never been able to explain the enormous political power wielded by the gun lobby, but the consensus from knowledgeable people I respect is that it has much to do with America’s frontier history, cowboy mythology, our 18th century solution to abusive authority via a constitutionally guaranteed citizen’s militia, and the fact that in America, unlike Europe, game belongs to everyone and any non-felon who buys a license can legally hunt it.
Thanks to the gun lobby, lead bullets are still legal in Arizona and most of California, where they continue to kill grievously endangered condors. Since 2000 there have been at least 276 documented cases of plumbism in condors. Birds are continually being trapped and, if chelation treatments work, re-released. That kind of management isn’t sustainable. Numbers of free- flying California condors in the wild vary almost daily, but as of March 1, there were 369 on the planet, including 177 captives.
A decade ago, when Audubon and other environmental groups tried to get California lawmakers to require nontoxic bullets in a large part of condor range, the NRA, the SCI, and their affiliates mounted fierce opposition. “We had a letter from 50 experts that established linkage between lead bullets and condor deaths,” says Garrison Frost, who directs marketing and communications for Audubon California. “But the gun lobby attacked the science. And they complained that non-lead was too expensive.”
“Sadly the NRA, SCI, and the California Rifle and Pistol Association were joined by our hunting conservation friends including the California Waterfowl Association and the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance,” adds Dan Taylor, Audubon California’s public policy director, explaining that these last two groups argued that the Fish and Game Commission, not the legislature, should be trusted to handle hunting regulations. The Fish and Game Commission, the Department of Fish and Game, and the Natural Resources Agency fought the ban for the same stated reason. All this despite the fact that the commission had essentially been AWOL on condor poisoning.
The gun lobby shouted down the bill twice. But the third time it squeaked through, landing on the desk of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Audubon expected a veto, but it turned out that Schwarzenegger was a big condor fan, and he signed the bill in October 2007. It wasn’t a solution, just a delay in the extinction process.
In 2010 Audubon California pushed legislation to require nontoxic shotgun pellets on areas managed for wildlife. The bill was hardly radical. It would have affected only 627,000 acres, and 26 other states had regulations that, to varying degrees, limited lead shot for upland game. “The bill passed in the assembly and had worked its way to the senate subcommittee on natural resources, where you’d think it would be a no-brainer,” says Frost. “We thought we had the votes, but the gun lobby did its dog-and-pony show, and we lost. We ban lead from paint, toys, gasoline, and food, but it’s okay to dump tons of it on our nicest natural areas.”
In Arizona’s condor range, lead is still legal, but the state game and fish department offers hunters free copper bullets. That, too, has delayed the ongoing extinction process.
Throughout the West, hawks, eagles, vultures, and all manner of mammalian scavengers, no doubt including endangered black-footed ferrets, are being poisoned by recreational “varmint shooters” who fill prairie dogs full of lead and leave them where they drop. In South Dakota, I accompanied one fellow who dispatched 452 in a single day, punching his dashboard-mounted kill counter and cackling each time one exploded in red mist or lost a body part. For five years Audubon of Kansas has been offering varmint shooters copper bullets at the same cost as lead. So far, no takers.
Anthony Prieto of Santa Barbara, California, hunts big game in California and Montana. I asked him what hunters shoot in Montana. “I’d say 75 percent still use lead,” he said. “And none I’ve talked to knew that it poisons carrion eaters. Those who shoot copper don’t do it to save scavengers; it’s all about performance.” Copper bullets were developed not as poison control but because they have superior ballistics and expand instead of shattering.
The gun lobby claims to speak for American hunters, but it doesn’t speak for anything close to a majority, and it certainly doesn’t speak for Prieto, who volunteers for the condor recovery team, trapping lead-poisoned birds, taking blood samples, and monitoring their movements with telemetry. When he began hunting 25 years ago, lead was the only thing available, so he buried the gutpiles of animals he field dressed, and he convinced other ethical hunters to do the same. It caught on, and soon he cofounded a group called Project Gutpile (Audubon, November-December 2002). But scavengers dig up gutpiles, and when copper came along he realized his group needed to do more.
So on August 3, 2010, Project Gutpile petitioned the EPA to ban the manufacture and sale of lead bullets, shot, and fishing tackle. Also signing the petition were the American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Center for Biological Diversity. As petition leader, the center provided low-hanging fruit for the NRA, which accurately called it an “extremist group.” While the center does lots of good, its modus operandi is to barrage federal agencies with lawsuits; then, when the agencies invariably can’t respond in 90 days, it collects attorney fees (far in excess of anything it spends) under the Equal Access to Justice Act. This ties up agency resources, preventing the management of species in desperate need of protection. For example, in January 2011 the center sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA for “failure” to sufficiently study “harmful” pesticides, including rotenone—arguably the most studied and safest of all pesticides and the only efficient tool for saving imperiled fish from aliens.
While most of the lead entering the environment comes from target shooting, most of the lead poisoning wildlife comes from hunting. The American Bird Conservancy understood this, and it understood that a total ban was politically impossible. “It was not helpful to have the center involved,” declares Michael Fry, who directs conservation advocacy for the conservancy. Fry was preparing his own petition, but when he learned of the center’s he felt the conservancy had no choice but to join the effort. He says he pled unsuccessfully with the center to limit the petition to hunting ammo. Audubon prepared a letter to the EPA supporting the proposed ban, but so quick was the agency’s denial of the petition that the letter didn’t make it to the mailbox in time.
Even a ban on just hunting ammo was a long shot—especially in an election year with 78 members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus following NRA instructions to sign a letter of opposition. On August 28, barely a week after receiving a screed from the NRA proclaiming that the Toxic Control Substances Act proscribed regulating bullets and shot, the EPA abruptly canceled its public-comment period and denied the ammo part of the petition, echoing the NRA’s claim, which clearly contradicted stated congressional intent. On November 4 the EPA denied the fishing-tackle part. The opportunity the petition afforded the gun lobby for stirring up conservative legislators has made even partial lead bans much less likely. For example, Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) has introduced H.R. 6284, a bill that would strip the EPA of authority to regulate ammunition and fishing tackle. At this writing it has 36 cosponsors.
Still, the administration has not entirely shirked its responsibilities. The EPA is proceeding with a ban on the lead weights used for balancing tires (a more politically expedient project, since there’s no National Tire Weight Association). And in March 2009 the National Park Service announced that by the end of 2010 it would prohibit lead ammunition everywhere it allows hunting. Still, in the face of an NRA lobbying blitz, the agency amended its ban to apply only to park personnel. The one display of genuine courage came in December 2010 from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which banned lead shot for nuisance blackbird control. The old “depredation order” needed to be rewritten anyway because it allowed lethal control of rusty blackbirds and Mexican crows, both in trouble. Now they can’t be killed without a special permit. And in most cases, other blackbirds can be killed only with nontoxic shot. The man responsible—George Allen, in charge of migratory-bird permits for the Fish and Wildlife Service and a life member of the NRA—appears unfazed by the flak he’s taking. “Given the increasing evidence about lead shot, I felt this was a good idea,” he told me. “I am dismayed that some organizations say you have to prove population effects before change is warranted. That position is about 70 years behind the times.”
But hunters aren’t just poisoning wildlife; they’re poisoning humans, including themselves. The gun lobby encourages them to donate venison to the poor, thereby polishing an image tarnished by the promotion of canned hunts and dangerous firearms. Venison distribution occurs in 50 states and four provinces, and while 26 percent of the programs didn’t respond to a recent survey, those that did annually provide a total of 2,655,730 pounds of meat to needy families.
In 2007 the North Dakota Department of Health and a medical professor at the University of North Dakota’s school of medicine—William Cornatzer, an SCI member who hunts all over the world—designed a study in which they X-rayed packages of ground venison donated to food pantries by SCI’s Hunters for the Hungry program. Fifty-eight of 100 packages contained lead fragments. Accordingly, North Dakota and Minnesota recalled and destroyed about 17,000 pounds of donated venison.
The NRA’s immediate response was to dismiss the recalls as “knee-jerk reactions” and to attack Cornatzer’s integrity by suggesting his data were bogus because he’d just been appointed to the board of the Peregrine Fund, which advocates nontoxic bullets in condor range. The NRA then assured the public that the Centers for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Health had conducted follow-up studies that “indicate nothing should restrict or eliminate the use of lead ammunition for hunting.”
The follow-up studies indicate no such thing. In fact, they reveal that blood-lead levels increase with wild-game consumption. And while North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s health departments are again allowing distribution of venison killed with lead, they warn that it should be avoided by pregnant women and young children, as if destitute families would pay attention.
I hadn’t realized the extent of the gun lobby’s reach and viciousness until I interviewed a scientist who has discovered some of the most alarming threats from lead ammo. He requested anonymity and wouldn’t even let me use the word lead in my emails to him because under free-access-to-information laws the gun lobby gets to rummage through government disk drives in order to intimidate researchers who disclose facts it doesn’t want the public to know. “I like my paycheck,” he said.
He ended our interview with this: “We know why condors are going extinct. We know why thousands of hawks and eagles are dying. What I have an even harder time with is that we take meat purposefully laced with lead fragments and give it to the poorest and most disenfranchised members of our society. These kids aren’t going to die, but they’re going to fill up our penal system. The people making decisions about ammunition are the same people hanging award placards on their walls for ‘helping’ the poor by feeding them poison.”
But anyone who complains about the poison we’re feeding people and wildlife gets both barrels from the gun lobby. This from the NRA: “Anti-gunners, attacking lead shot under the guise of environmentalism, have succeeded in gaining a beachhead in our continuing war. . . . Our enemies, after failing to restrict our right to bear arms, attacked our flanks.” I came across that statement 23 years ago when researching a piece for the March-April 1988 Audubon entitled “Let Them Eat Steel.” The NRA was fine with the fact that lead shot was annually poisoning to death 1.4 million ducks.
Even then the problem was ancient news. The federal government had known about it since at least 1894, when Audubon founder George Bird Grinnell first sounded the alarm in Forest & Stream magazine. But today—after the public has watched for 117 years as waterfowl and other wildlife die from swallowing lead shot and bullet fragments—the mantra from the gun lobby that plumbism publicity is a plot to disarm America remains unchanged. The question Americans need to be asking now is: Will that mantra, along with the toxic injections it has preserved, go unchanged for another century?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you hunt, switch to nontoxic ammunition. If you fish, switch to nontoxic sinkers and jigheads. If you know sportsmen, show them this article. Tell your legislators to oppose bills that would strip the EPA of authority to regulate ammunition and fishing tackle.
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