Hunters as Conservationists: Get the Lead Out!

Posted on November 23, 2020 in General

Eagle eating a deer carcass
An eagle feeding on a deer carcass. Photo credit: Fred Frenzel/VDWR/

By Rebekah Smith, Science-Education Outreach Coordinator 

Hunting season is upon us, and this great American tradition draws people out into nature and serves as a crucial link in conservation and land management decisions throughout the United States. Hunting permits and hunting supply sales generate millions of dollars that directly fund conservation efforts and protect habitats throughout America, but as with all practices, it is important to think about what we leave behind. Many hunters are switching to copper bullets to reduce lead in the environment and their meat and finding ammunition performance remains high. Many hunters are switching to copper bullets to reduce lead in the environment and their meat with no noticeable performance impact.

Lead has long been a cheap effective material for munitions manufacturing, but what happens to this lead? Most of it will end up in the offal piles left behind during the field dressing process, these offal piles in turn are valuable nutrient sources to many species that rely on scavenging for at least part of the year. Lead has no beneficial outcome in a biological system as it is easily digestible and often replaces other elements within the body primarily in the bones and nervous system, which can have costly effects. For species, such as raptors, that rely on visual acuity and lightning fast reflexes to ensure survival, any amount of lead ingestion resulting in impaired vision and neurological decay could guarantee death unless afflicted individuals are found and treated for lead poisoning.

Bald eagle with lead poisoning
A bald eagle affected by lead poisoning, being treated by Red Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Two species that have high susceptibility to lead are the bald eagle and golden eagles. They routinely are admitted into rehab facilities in the mid-winter, post hunting season, due to lead poisoning. Golden and bald eagles are facultative scavengers which means they occasionally rely on carcasses and gut piles to meet their metabolic needs. Most raptors will opportunistically scavenge during the winter months. Eagles have been shown to expect hunter gut piles and will investigate an area when they hear a shot, or travel to a location where seasonal hunts provide them with an easy meal. During the late fall and winter period, many raptors will supplement their diets by scavenging carcasses of other animals, these valuable resources can come from a variety of sources winter die offs, vehicle collisions, or hunting events. Winter tends to be a biologically costly period that makes it a period where lead poisoning from scavenging hunter gut piles a high risk period.

To find out more, please follow the link below to watch a virtual program covering the research that has been done on lead uptake by a variety of raptor species, the sources of lead, and mitigation work to provide a data-driven solution for a healthier ecosystem. From the scavenger's winter meal to the hunter’s table, we recommend getting the lead out, and going copper!

Click here to watch the Lead Poisoning of Raptors webinar

At Hawk Mountain, we collaborate with the local hunting community to support healthy forest ecology and biodiversity by managing the increasing white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population. The most practical and effective means of supporting adequate forest regeneration through deer population regulation is by using a controlled hunting program. We require our hunters to use non-lead bullets while hunting on Hawk Mountain property. Learn more by checking out the flyer below.

For visitor safety, only the lookout trail is open during rifle season and ALL trails are closed on November 28th, 29th, December 5th, and 12th. 

Questions or concerns? Call us at 610-756-6961.

Hunters as Conservationists Flyer