The first golden eagle in Yellowstone National Park to wear a tracking device is dead from lead poisoning.
Todd Katzner, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise, Idaho and a researcher on the Yellowstone Eagle study, said it’s almost certain the bird ingested the lead from scavenged prey.
“A lead bullet that hits an animal will fragment into as many as 450 pieces,” said Katzner, “and in theory that’s 450 different pieces of toxin that can be ingested.”
Katzner said birds of prey are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning this way because they have high acidity in their stomachs.
“That very high acidity very rapidly breaks down the lead,” he said, “and so as a consequence, a small piece of lead that might pass through the digestive tract of a mammal actually ends up getting fully digested in a bird.”
Katzner said bullets made of copper and other materials are less harmful than lead. The Obama administration banned lead bullets in wildlife refuges. However, under President Trump that ban was repealed.
Chris Parish, conservation director for the Peregrine Fund, a Boise-based nonprofit founded by hunters and anglers, said promoting education about the toxic impacts of lead is a better tactic anyway.
“If that info is shared,” Parish said, “hunters’ normal response is ‘I want to help, I have a strong conservation ethic and I want to help,’ but leading with the ban and not the information is the tough part.”
Another positive tactic Parish pointed to was the example of a Southern Colorado Audubon chapter that bought non-lead ammunition for local hunters.
“That’s the kind of stuff that’s far more effective,” said Parish, “and creates the change at the root of it that can really have a major impact.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.