It’s Okay to Poison Bald Eagles, Really?!

Kay Neumann, Executive Director of SOAR

I read with dismay the April 17, 2016 letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register from a hunter entitled “Sick bald eagles don’t indicate population-level impacts.”  [This submitted letter was in response to a Des Moines Register editorial on April 2, 2016 – read here.] My family successfully hunts deer, turkey, pheasants, ducks, and doves using only non-toxic/non-lead ammunition. My father took me hunting when I was a kid. He taught me to respect wildlife, be responsible for wild places, and to never be wasteful. I have been hunting all my life. As hunters we need to remember we are a minority. Only about six percent of the population hunts. Wildlife belongs to everyone. Our natural resource agencies are charged with being stewards of wildlife and wild places for everyone to enjoy. In Iowa, where over 90% of the land is privately owned, federal taxpayers foot a large part of the bill for soil conservation and for providing wildlife habitat. Public opinion will determine the future of hunting, not whether or not there are rules made to prevent poisoning wildlife with lead ammunition. Many public surveys show the majority of people support phasing out lead ammunition and its negative impacts on wildlife health.

The writer suggests that eagles getting sick and dying from ingesting spent lead ammunition is acceptable because we have a lot of eagles. Poisoned wildlife is very different from wild animals dying from a disease or random accidental injuries. I certainly understand eagles die in the wild, but when a poison is the cause, it is not acceptable. Wildlife rehabilitation data is a sample of what is causing death in wildlife species, just as emergency room data measures what is causing problems for humans. It is alarming that half of all the bald eagles admitted to Iowa wildlife rehabilitators have been poisoned. Lead shot and lead shrapnel from bullets or slugs have been found in eagle digestive tracts, indicating that they are scavenging on deer or other game animal carcasses, ingesting lead, and dying. These eagle poisoning deaths are being documented across the country. Think about how doctors would react if half of all their emergency room patients came in, not with a broken arm or a poke in the eye, but with a bio-accumulative poison in their systems. Thank goodness, after seeing an increase in the number of children with elevated lead levels, the doctors in Flint, MI were able to alert people to a toxin in their environment and help prevent further harm.

Eagle numbers have been much higher than they are now. When doing the math on eagle numbers, a quick check of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s web page shows that historically, approximately 100,000 bald eagle pairs nested in the U.S. Before 1918, there were no laws protecting migratory birds. Eagles were shot and nest trees were chopped down. The use of DDT, a bio-accumulative insecticide/poison, negatively impacted eagle reproduction.  By the 1960s, only around 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained. Poisoning and disrespect had a significant population impact.

After spending more than 30 years on the endangered species list, yes our national symbol and an animal sacred to many Native Americans, is finally returning and is now off that list. It is estimated there are now 10,000 nesting pair – a mere 10% of the eagles we once had. Bald eagles are still listed as a species of special concern in Iowa. To get back to the current numbers, there were a combination of state and federal laws put in place to protect eagles from shooting and nest disturbance. DDT was banned in the U.S. Waterfowl hunters have been required to use non-toxic shot since 1991. This elimination of lead from the landscape is considered cost-effective conservation, saving millions of ducks and geese from dying of lead poisoning and many eagles too, who would scavenge on waterfowl carcasses. A huge amount of effort and resources were poured into bringing eagle numbers back from the brink. The eagle poisoning deaths researchers are seeing now could be preventing their full recovery. We need to get the lead out of all of our hunting activities, as eagles will scavenge on a variety of animal carcasses, not just waterfowl. Poisoning wildlife is wasteful; history and math clearly tell us that.

It’s not just eagles. Hundreds of scientific research publications document more than 130 species of wildlife (mourning doves, swans, peregrine falcons, and more) that are poisoned by ingesting lead ammunition. This poisoning is preventable.

Hunters have always been known for their conservation ethic. Conservation is defined as the wise use of a resource. Poisoning wildlife is not ethical and it is not conservation. As a hunter, I want hunters to keep their reputation as ethical stewards of our natural resources and do not want eagles and other wildlife to be collateral damage. Thinking that poisoning eagles is acceptable behavior will only fuel anti-hunting fires. We need to step up and embrace common-sense rules to prevent poisoning wildlife, as waterfowl hunters have done. Hunting with non-lead/non-toxic ammunition is a win-win for hunters and wildlife. My father, a World War II veteran, would most certainly expect us to be respectful, responsible, and never wasteful with our national symbol.