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Study: Feds Say Lead Ammo Use Kills Bald Eagles

A new study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims bald eagles are dying from lead poisoning in the Upper Midwest due to bullet fragments left in the gut piles of harvested game.

Researchers examined the livers of 58 dead bald eagles from Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin with about 40 percent of those found to contain traces of lead that would be considered lethal. The USFWS claims the lead poisoning is likely from hunting activity, arguing the bald eagles feed on gut piles from field-dressed game during the winter.

“Studies conducted throughout the United States and internationally have shown spent hunting ammunition as a pathway for lead exposure in many wildlife species, including bald eagles,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. “The subject study was conducted to determine if the incidence of lead poisoning of eagles in the Upper Midwest was potentially related to spent lead ammunition.”

Some in the hunting and shooting community see the service’s findings as a first step in further bans on lead ammunition. California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a lead ammunition ban for hunting that will go into effect by 2019, and other states have contemplated similar restrictions.

Pro-hunting groups argue the science connecting lead poisoning from small fragments of fired ammo isn’t settled and that the goal of lead ammunition restrictions is really intended to ban firearms.

“The National Shooting Sports Foundation, hunters and target shooters have serious concerns about this USFWS study and other misleading reports about traditional ammunition because they can lead to unwarranted calls to ban the use of traditional ammunition, which we vehemently oppose,” the hunting and shooting advocacy group said in a June 13 statement. “Advocates of banning traditional ammunition also attempt to cite human health risks, but studies have shown that those who consume game taken with traditional ammunition do not have higher blood lead levels than the national average.”

The NSSF argues the Fish and Wildlife service ignored other potential sources of lead — including landfills, Army Depots and industrial sites — but focused exclusively on lead fragments from hunting.

“As a result of this study, hunters, who have used traditional ammunition for more than a century, are being demonized in media stories,” NSSF said. “Hunters are the "original conservationists" and do not deserve such treatment.”

The Fish and Wildlife scientists examined 25 gut piles, with nine containing lead fragments from shotgun or muzzleloader rounds.

“Our study demonstrates that a high percentage of the bald eagles found dead in our Upper Midwest study area were exposed to lead at lethal levels,” the study says. “We also found lead ammunition fragments in discarded offal piles from hunter-killed deer on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s UMR Refuge. Given the quantity of deer shot in the Upper Midwest, remains from deer shot with lead can be a pathway for lead exposure to bald eagles and other scavenging wildlife that forage on deer remains.”

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