This contributed submission was written by Ryan Robbins. Robbins is a freelance writer from Bangor.
An eagle officially known by researchers as “2U” was a familiar sight above Bangor’s skyline. Born in spring 2008 along the Kennebec River in Winslow and banded as a nestling before fledging, the eagle and her mate made their way to the Queen City in summer 2011. In September that year, they finally found a tree they liked for their nest, a towering eastern white pine.
Bald eagles prefer white pines for their nests. But the location of this particular one seemed a bit odd — it was on the edge of downtown Bangor, with all of its attendant noise from traffic, sirens, waterfront concerts, Fourth of July fireworks and LifeFlight flyovers.
The benefits were too much for 2U and her mate to ignore, though, as the tree was only a few hundred feet from the Kenduskeag Stream and less than a mile from the Penobscot River.
I remember the morning I first heard 2U squawking in the yard. I had never heard a bird squawk like that before, a loud squeaking that erupted into a staccato cackle. Before 2U showed up, I could count on one hand how many eagles I had seen in the wild.
Tragedy struck on Mother’s Day in 2014, though. With two eaglets to feed, 2U brought scavenged meat to the nest. It contained pentobarbital, a barbiturate used to euthanize pets and livestock. 2U wound up on the sidewalk below the nest, too weak to fly. She was taken to Avian Haven in Freedom. Her mate soon ate the tainted meat, and when he left early that evening to get food for the eaglets, he crashed into nearby power lines and died.
The eaglets were rescued the next day and reunited with 2U, but she couldn’t care for them. Not only had she been poisoned by pentobarbital, she had an elevated level of lead in her blood.
2U persevered, though. Three weeks later, she was released along the Penobscot River not far from her nest, to which she returned. She soon found a new mate. Together, they raised successful clutches in 2015 and 2016.
In some areas, eagles migrate to warmer climates in the winter when waterways freeze. But 2U made her home year-round in Bangor. When the Penobscot and Kenduskeag were frozen and fish weren’t available, she and her mate resorted to scavenging. For eagles, scavenging can mean feeding on roadkill. It can also mean feeding on gut piles left by hunters. The gut piles invariably contain minute amounts of lead from the ammunition used, as lead bullets and shot fragment upon impact with tissue and bone.
On Jan. 12, 2017, passers-by on the Kenduskeag Stream Trail found 2U on a tree stump, too weak to fly and in respiratory distress. The level of lead in her bloodstream was too high for Avian Haven to measure. She had ingested lead ammunition when scavenging.
She died that night.
She didn’t have to.
The science is clear: We are killing our bald eagles with our use of lead ammunition in hunting, forcing them to die slowly and inhumanely.
In the early 1970s, we as a society set out to stop using lead in gasoline, making unleaded gasoline available and banning leaded gasoline in 1996. We banned lead paint in 1978. We banned lead pipes in 1986. We banned lead ammunition in the hunting of waterfowl in 1991 to protect them from ingesting lead as they forage on the ground. Maine banned small lead sinkers in 2013 to protect loons.
It is past time to ban lead ammunition in all hunting, not only to protect bald eagles, but to protect ourselves. This is why I called upon my state representative, Amy Roeder, to introduce a bill to ban hunting with lead ammunition: LD 1015 — An Act To Ban Hunting with Ammunition That Contains Lead.
Nobody knows the true number of eagles that are poisoned by lead ammunition every year. This is because we only know of eagles that are found while still alive. Since 2016, Avian Haven has treated 82 eagles with elevated levels of lead in their system. Sixty of those have died — six of them this year.
Between 2001 and 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tested liver samples of 51 bald eagle carcasses found throughout Maine. Of the 51 livers tested, 16 percent had elevated levels of lead. Most carcasses had been found in March and April, when snow melts, revealing gut piles and mortally wounded game left over from the fall hunting season. Lead concentrations were highest in the eagles recovered in the winter and early spring.
In the upper Midwest, a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management examined 58 bald eagles whose bodies were recovered in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Thirty-five of the eagles had a detectable amount of lead in their liver. Twenty-two — or 38 percent — had a lethal level of lead.
Studies have been consistent across the board: Lead poisoning of bald eagles is greatest in the winter and early spring, coinciding with the immediate aftermath of hunting season and frozen waterways.
In 2007, researchers in Wyoming examined the carcasses of 30 deer shot and killed with lead ammunition from center-fire rifles. They sent the carcasses to 22 commercial butcher shops. They then X-rayed the resulting 234 packages of meat and 49 additional packages of loin steaks.
Radiographs showed metal fragments in the ground meat of 24 of the 30 carcasses. They showed at least one metal fragment in 32 percent of the 234 packages.
Pigs fed meat with the traces of lead showed higher levels of lead in their bloodstream compared to pigs that were fed meat that showed no traces of lead.
About the same time of the Wyoming study, researchers in North Dakota recruited 742 participants from six North Dakota cities to explore whether people who consumed game meat had higher levels of lead in their bloodstream than those who did not consume game meat. The researchers took into account hobbies and professions that involved exposure to lead. They found that participants who consumed game meat had higher levels of lead in their bloodstream than those who did not.
The takeaway from these studies is that it is virtually impossible to remove all remnants of a lead bullet from game. Lead ammunition no larger than a BB can kill a bald eagle, and death comes slowly. Amounts of lead that aren’t lethal within days accumulate in an eagle’s body until there’s a tipping point. In humans, lead accumulates over several years, leading to neurological disease.
Opposition to banning lead ammunition is largely based on the fear that a ban would be the first step toward outlawing hunting and that non-lead ammunition is more expensive. Other opponents simply deny that a conclusive link exists between lead ammunition and lead poisoning in eagles and other raptors, even though the science has been pretty clear. Their chief criticism of the North Dakota study’s conclusions is that even though those who reported eating game meat had higher levels of lead in their blood, the level was still below the threshold the CDC has set for beginning treatment for lead poisoning.
However, the CDC states that there is no known safe level of lead in the human body. Also, the subjects in the study did not have their blood tested for lead until four to five months after hunting season had ended. The half-life for lead in the bloodstream is 36 days, which means that blood-lead levels show only recent exposure. Long-term, the body stores lead in bone.
Lead ammunition has been banned in the hunting of waterfowl since 1991. The cost of non-lead ammunition is actually comparable to lead ammunition, and prices will only go down as the demand for non-lead ammunition increases because of legislation requiring non-lead ammunition. Performance of non-lead ammunition is a non-issue as well. Surveys of hunters who have used copper ammunition have reported high rates of satisfaction.
This is a conservation and a public health issue. We owe it to 2U and other bald eagles and ourselves to eliminate the last bastion of one of the most toxic and deadly substances. There is simply no sound reasoning for lead’s continued use.