MISSOULA, Mont. - Raptor rescue centers want hunters to consider buying copper ammunition instead of lead.
The Wild Skies Raptor Center in Potomac said 30 percent of the birds they’ve taken in this year had lead poisoning, but the hunting season is just getting started, and that’s when they’ll see a spike in birds they bring in.
When winter begins the birds’ prey is harder to get, so they’ll go for the easier food. Lead gets in their system when the birds eat gut piles or carcasses with lead bullet fragments.
“A lot of the research is done by testing ravens and bald eagles year-round, and they are seeing spikes in these levels from the day hunting season starts and then in spring thaw, once like carcasses or anything like that gets exposed, once the snow melts, they can start seeing levels spike again at that point,” explained Brooke Tanner, the executive director at the Wild Skies Raptor Center.
Tanner said some effects of lead toxicity could be minimal, like weakness -- maybe a dropped wing or head, sometimes they’re unable to stand or unclench their feet. A more severe sign is emaciation, when their digestion slows or shuts down completely so the birds don’t want to eat anymore. They can have tremors or convulsions.
“It can affect every system of the body, and it just varies from bird to bird, depending on how much they ingest or that kind of thing,” said Tanner.
She said they work with the Raptor View Research Institute, which will do all the tests to confirm if there is lead in the bird’s system. Then they’ll do chelation therapy to treat the affected birds.
Tanner said contaminants like mercury and other metals can also get in the birds’ systems from other sources, but they are pretty sure that, when it’s lead, it’s coming from ammunition.
“We’ve taken it out of gasoline, out of paint, but ammunition is one thing that it’s still in and is being used daily,” said Tanner.
It does cost more to get lead-free ammunition. NBC Montana did a price check using 270 Winchester 130 grain rifle shells as an example. A box with lead bullets is $25.99, while a box with pure copper is $39.99.