HomeOutdoorsMore Deer Hunting Can Lead to Increase in Lead Poisoning in Eagles, Study Shows

More Deer Hunting Can Lead to Increase in Lead Poisoning in Eagles, Study Shows

by Jennifer Shea
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

More eagles in Minnesota are coming down with lead poisoning as a result of an uptick in hunting during the pandemic.

The Raptor Center in St. Paul says they’ve seen more cases of eagles suffering from lead poisoning lately, according to CBS Minnesota. As more locals go hunting, more deer remains are available to eagles to scavenge. And those remains are full of lead-based ammunition. 

“Eighty-five to 90% of the eagles that come in have some amount of lead in their system,” The Raptor Center’s Dr. Julia Ponder told CBS.

It’s a sad story for the eagles, who suffer brain damage as a result of eating lead. Ponder said between the start of hunting season until January, she sees at least 30 eagles afflicted with lead poisoning. And for the most part, they don’t survive.

“We had more young eagles, hatch-year or first or second-year eagles, come in with lead toxicity and they came in earlier in the season,” Ponder added. “It’s such a fixable problem. It’s something we don’t have to do to our national bird.”

The solution? Hunters can switch to using copper-based ammunition.

The problem gets worse in the spring, because gut piles abandoned during hunting season stay there for months. When the winter snows melt, the eagles go back to the gut piles.

Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife representative Lori Naumann said the lead remains in the gut piles and it doesn’t get any less toxic with time.

“And then in the spring, when all the snow melts, then these gut piles become fresh again,” she said. “And they are exposed because the snow has all melted and then the eagles start eating that and there is still lead there. It’s still toxic.”

It has even been a problem recently because parts of Minnesota don’t have enough snow to coat the gut piles of deer killed during hunting season. Hence Ponder’s recent experience.

So, wildlife officials are trying to get hunters to use copper-based ammunition instead now.

“The price has gone down significantly for copper shots,” said Naumann. “Eagles actually learn. They can hear that gunshot and they’ll follow that gunshot to where the hunters have left a gut pile.”

Tragically, the eagles may be smart, but they’re not smart enough to avoid the lead in those gut piles. 

Wildlife officials aren’t sure why more younger eagles are coming in with lead poisoning. They think it may be because the total eagle population is surging right now, which means there are more birds going after the increased number of gut piles.