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When Animals Eat Bullets: The tragedy of lead ammunition 

An animal being shot by a lead projectile is one thing, and a creature eating lead is another, but usually the outcome is the same, the animal dies. That's what's facing our eagles all too often.

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An animal being shot by a lead projectile is one thing, and a creature eating lead is another, but usually the outcome is the same, the animal dies. That's what's facing our eagles all too often.

Recently, Jeff Cooney, a local raptor rehabilitation expert, and his sidekick, Jeannette Bonomo, were out near Millican driving on Highway 20, near the Fox Butte/Sand Springs junction when they saw two eagles perched on the cross-arms of power poles. Dr. Cooney, a noted expert on eagle physiology, was out in the area doing field research on eagle electrocution.

As they slowly approached the eagles, three ravens flew off ahead of them, and as Jeff and Jeannette drove closer, a juvenile golden eagle suddenly flew up. Then, he noticed the carcasses of six skinned coyotes lying by the side of the road, one of which scavengers had eaten to the bone.

Dead coyotes on the desert are not an uncommon sight. There are sport hunters who call in coyotes and shoot them, and trappers often skin their catch and leave the carcasses to be cleaned up by scavengers. In that frame of mind, Jeff and Jeannette drove on by - but in the back of their minds something was troubling them.

That afternoon, as they drove into the city of limits of Bend, Jeannette said, "Jeff, we have to go back and pick up those coyotes carcasses."

"Good thinking," Jeff said, looking for a safe place to make the 180-degree turn. The both of them had vivid images in their minds of eagles that died from lead poisoning.

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"I know what you're thinking," Jeannette said, as they headed back toward the Burns Highway, "Those coyotes may have been shot with those high-velocity ballistic lead bullets, if they were, there's lead particles all though those carcasses, and if those eagles feed on them, they will die of lead poisoning."

The "we" would have worked, but Jeff had a class to teach at COCC, so Jeannette was the one who went back, bagged up the bodies, and hauled them to Jeff's lab.

Dr. Cooney has all too many times treated eagles suffering from lead poisoning. He is "on call" with ODFW, USF&WL, Lynn Tompkins, operator of Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation in Pendleton, and Gary Landers' Wild Wings Raptor Rehab in Sisters. In a recent interview with him, he said, "It's got to the point now that I chelate every sick eagle I see, and later on find that the birds were suffering from either acute or chronic lead-poisoning." (Chelate means to treat an animal for lead poisoning.)

He has good reason to begin such treatments, given that Gary Landers had an adult bald eagle die recently with an acute case of lead poisoning. An autopsy revealed the eagle had 76 milligrams per DL in its internal organs, an impossible amount of lead to clear from the eagle's system.

"That's what was bothering us as we drove back to town," Jeff said, "The eagle that died just the other day. I couldn't leave those coyotes out there with those three eagles waiting to clean them up."

As it turned out, Jeff's hunch was right on the money. The bullet wounds that killed the coyotes were head and body trauma and at each location, X-rays showed lead scattered all throughout them.

"There was enough lead in those bodies to cause a great deal of trouble for the eagles and ravens eating them," Jeff said after looking at the X-rays.

There is an alternative to lead used in sport hunting. Nosler Bullets of Bend manufactures lead-free ammunition that sells for almost as much as lead ammunition.

Nosler's Trophy Grade VARMINT Ammunition consists of the Ballistic Tip VARMINT bullet or the frangible Ballistic Tip Lead Free, along with NoslerCustom Brass. Those looking for quality ammunition will find Nosler's brass is checked for correct length and chamfered and trued. In 2010, Nosler was praised in multiple publications, and also won Field and Stream's Best-of-the-Best award for NoslerCustom Trophy Grade Varmint Ammunition loaded with lead-free bullets.

Wildlife managers, veterinarians - and raptor rehabilitation experts especially - encourage sportsman to use lead-free ammunition. If those die-hard users of lead-based ammunition must continue to use those lethal loads, Jeff asks that they would just bury the bodies deep, it would help. The eagles they will (hopefully) never meet, will feel a lot better about it if they do.


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