Protecting Bald Eagles from Lead Poisoning: State-Level Policy Solutions

Reeve Jacobus, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although the bald eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007, it is nevertheless illegal to hunt the national bird of the United States. Bald eagles are protected under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which imposes a $5,000 fine or one-year prison sentence for killing one. However, these birds are still dying due to hunters’ bullets; scavenging bald eagles can be poisoned when they ingest fragments of lead bullets left behind in carcasses of legally hunted wildlife. In order to protect America’s national symbol, state governments can find creative ways to encourage hunters to switch from using lead bullets to using non-toxic ammunition.

Lead Contaminates Carrion, Putting Eagles at Risk

When a hunter kills an animal, she will sometimes leave the guts of the animal and only take the meat that is desired. Even if the hunter removes the bullet from the animal, lead can remain in what is known as the gut pile. Bullets mushroom when they come in contact with animals, causing extremely small fragments of lead to scatter past the wound and into other parts of the carcass. Scavengers, including bald eagles, will then feed on the remaining carcass and sometimes ingest toxic amounts of lead.

Alternative Ammunition is Available, but Not Widely Used

Ten of the 13 billion rounds of ammunition sold annually in America are made of lead. Non-toxic alternatives to lead bullets, such as ammunition made from tin, copper, or tungsten, are available on the market, but there are a variety of reasons why hunters might choose to continue using lead. Firstly, hunters have distinct ammunition preferences and non-toxic bullets may shoot differently than some hunters are accustomed to. However, a 2013 study found that non-toxic bullets are just as effective in killing animals as lead bullets. Additionally, many hunters may be unaware of the effects of lead bullets on eagles and other scavengers. Education campaigns are ongoing in many states, but need to be expanded to reach the more than 11.5 million hunters around the country. Finally, full-scale lead ammunition bans are also opposed by groups like the National Rifle Association and the California Fish and Game Wardens’ Association. These groups often organize to prevent policy that would explicitly regulate the use of lead ammunition.

State-Level Policy Responses: Carrots and Sticks

Policies such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act are not sufficient to protect eagles from lead poisoning, given that a large source of lead poisoning in eagles is a consequence of hunters killing other animals legally. In its final days, the Obama administration banned lead ammunition on most federal lands in an effort to protect wildlife from the effects of lead exposure. Less than two months later, however, the newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overturned the ban on his first day in office, citing concerns that the order might prohibit access to hunting around the country.

In the absence of the lead ban on federal lands rescinded by Secretary Zinke, states might choose to follow California’s example by instituting a state-level lead ammunition ban. California first attempted to regulate lead ammunition in 2007 when the legislature passed a bill prohibiting the use of lead bullets in areas where the critically endangered California condor lived. Assembly Bill 711 added on to this legislation in 2013, establishing a phase-out period with the ultimate goal of banning hunting with lead bullets in the state of California.

The ammunition ban had some success. A study conducted on the 2007 ban found that lead poisoning in scavenging birds was reduced when hunters switched to non-toxic ammunition at test sites. However, more studies are necessary in California to determine the efficacy of subsequent bans instituted by Assembly Bill 711.

Other states have opted for the ‘carrot’ approach. Arizona began advocating for a switch to non-toxic ammunition in 2015. Instead of banning lead bullets, the Arizona Game and Fish Department began selling copper bullets, educating hunters about the availability of these alternatives and encouraging purchases through discounts on non-toxic ammunition. Oregon created the Non-Lead Hunting Education Program, which teaches hunters about the dangers of using lead ammunition through educational workshops and shooting demonstrations around the state. Arizona and Utah offer prizes to hunters who remove the entire gut piles of the animals they hunt and use non-lead ammunition.

Most of these programs are relatively new, but they are examples of what can be done in states where lead ammunition bans are not politically realistic. Even if it is difficult to eradicate the damage of lead bullets statewide, policy-makers can focus on education and instruction efforts in areas frequented by vulnerable or endangered scavengers.

Balancing Human and Environmental Interests

The problem of lead-free ammunition is one of many issues in which protecting the environment and its inhabitants must be balanced with human interests. Policy-makers have the opportunity to find creative ways to protect America’s national symbol while making it easier for hunters to switch to safer ammunition. As discussed here, states have many options and tools with which to make the best decisions possible for humans and eagles in the context of their own political and policy-making realities.

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