WSU scientists save bald eagle

Mar 15, 2012

SPOKANE, Wash. — Scientists at Washington State University were able to save a bald eagle that was found in Idaho suffering from lead poisoning, and this week they released the majestic predator back into the wild.

The bald eagle was found in a ditch along a road near Orofino, Idaho, in late January, and was unable to stand,

The bird was given intravenous fluids and treatment which binds the lead so it can be eliminated through the kidneys. The eagle improved enough to be released on Monday near where he was found.

"He’s one of the lucky ones,” said Nickol Finch, head of the exotics and wildlife unit at WSU’s veterinary teaching hospital, who, a few days before, was unable to save a golden eagle brought in with lead poisoning. "Typically, eagles are exposed to lead through their food; bald eagles, in particular, are big scavengers, so they’re more likely to ingest it."

From WSU’s press release:

A bullet that keeps killing

While most people associate lead poisoning with old, chipped house paint, there is a newer, unexpected source: Spent bullets. Mounting scientific studies, including a large one done by WSU spanning 18 years, support the theory that lead shot and bullet fragments in animal carcasses are killing eagles and other scavenger birds that feed on the carrion.

Is lead as toxic in nature as it is in house paint? Yes, the U.S. Geological Survey concluded in a 2009 report on lead poisoning in wild birds. Fired bullets can shatter into "hundreds of pieces upon impact,” throughout a dead animal’s tissue, it says.

When birds such as eagles, California condors and loons feed on the remains, simply ingesting "one lead shot or bullet fragment” is enough to kill them. Fishing gear, such as lead sinkers and tackle, also are a source, according to the report.

Sickened symbol

Research also shows that lead exposure in wildlife can cause chronic symptoms of illness as well as acute poisonings.

So, as a veterinarian who specializes in treating raptors, Finch will see a much different bird than the majestic creature that became our nation’s emblem 230 years ago. Eagles like Sauder - symbolizing freedom and power - can grow thin, struggle to lift their wings, collide with cars and even become prey themselves, she said.

"We almost always get lead-poisoned birds between the months of November and late February,” she said. This reflects a seasonal trend in lead poisoning, as documented in the WSU study and others done in the Midwest, when eagles feed on the remains of large animals shot by hunters.

During those months, "in most cases, we’ll treat them for lead poisoning, regardless of the symptoms,” Finch said. "The lead may have made an eagle too weak to move out of the way of a moving car and so it gets hit. We try to cover all the bases.”

Get the lead out?

Bullet-caused lead poisoning is a topic of debate that moves in fits and starts, with a number of hunting groups disputing the scale of the problem. Recent actions suggest the issue is being taken seriously.

In 1991, the federal government banned the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting across the nation. In 2007, California’s government acted similarly when it prohibited lead bullets in parts of the state where its endangered California condor dwells.

The U.S. military has embraced non-lead "green” bullets, touting them as "tough on enemies but easy on mother earth.” And big-name bullet manufacturers, including Remington, Federal Cartridge, and Barnes, are offering non-lead alternatives.

Hope flies

Perhaps all Sauder understood on this cloudy Monday afternoon was that he was free. After a quick hop from his crate to the damp ground, he looked momentarily bewildered before raising his long, dark wings and flapping them.

Up he went to a nearby ponderosa pine tree, where, perched on a high branch, he occasionally gazed at the gawking humans who stood below – smitten by his grandeur.