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Bald Eagles Dying Of Lead Poisoning

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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ST. PAUL (WCCO) — On a frozen Washington County field partially covered in snow, bald eagle number 11-694 was found motionless and barely breathing.

The landowner placed it in a box and brought it to Carlos Avery Wildlife Area where the mature eagle was quickly taken to the Gabbert Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

“This was an acute lead poisoning. This bird didn’t live more than a few days after it ingested this poison,” said Dr. Pat Redig, co-founder of the Raptor Center.

For the 29th time in 2011, Redig and veterinary staff at the Raptor Center would try in vain to save the sickened symbol of our nation’s freedom. In the more than 40 years that the specialty veterinary clinic has been tending to sick and injured raptors, roughly 25 percent of the bald eagles that enter are suffering from lead poisoning.

Showing up as little white dots in the X-ray images of the bird’s body, the tiny lead fragments ingested by 11-694 were simply too toxic for the eagle to recover. In fact, of the 29 bald eagles admitted last year, only one survived the lead poisoning to be released back into the wild.

It is a sobering and sad outcome for the birds that are unintentionally ingesting the lead contaminating the carcasses of waterfowl, varmints and wild game shot by hunters.

Since October 24, 2011, 13 bald eagles were taken to the Raptor Center, each one suffering the effects of lead poisoning. With little or no snow cover to conceal the gut piles of field dressed deer, eagles can feed freely on the remains. It’s within those remains where the tiny lead fragments contaminate the soon to be ingested food. Certainly unintended and without thought, a hunter’s spend bullet can cause a second death.

Carrol Henderson is the Department of Natural Resources’ non-game wildlife expert.

“This year, because of our ironically mild winter and late fall, the eagles are continuing to feed on a deer’s gut pile and getting poisoned by shards of lead,” said Henderson.

Henderson hopes that the DNR and Raptor Center can help educate hunters about a better choice of ammunition. He points out that just as lead was banned from paint and gasoline to protect human health, the same protection is due our nation’s symbol.

Bullet manufacturers including Federal Cartridge, Remington, Winchester and Hornady, already offer non-toxic alternatives to lead shells. The tradeoff is cost. Expect to pay half to twice as much for the non-toxic shells.

“It’s not a matter of anti-hunting, it’s a matter of smart hunting,” added Henderson.

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