During a recent program at McMenamin's in Bend, U.S. Geological Survey biologist and researcher Garth Herring presented the work he's doing on the issue of lead in the tissue of wildlife, specifically big game, ground squirrels and raptors.
Herring pointed out that the USGS research, plus other federal government and state agencies and private conservation identities, is confirming that lead-based ammunition, when used to shoot big game and "varmints," is contributing to serious health hazards for a number of raptors, principally Swainson's hawks and eagles.
The research shows that in places like Christmas Valley—that abound in irrigated hay fields—raptors do not spend as much time foraging for prey as they do waiting for shooters to leave the fields so they can pick up the ground squirrel carcasses and take them to their nests to feed their young.
When the carcasses are radiographed (X-rayed) splinters of lead are found throughout the body. Because the electronic equipment does not provide an accurate measurement of how much lead these splinters represent, the carcasses are put into a pot and cooked all day to turn the tissue into a liquid.
Once the remains have reached a thin soup, they are run through a sieve that collects only lead. From this the researchers could obtain accurate data of how much Pb was in the carcass and (could be) transferred to raptors.
At each turn of the lead trail, Herring and his team played devil's advocate and challenged their own findings, and by doing so forced themselves to be even more accurate as to how much lead was being transferred from ammunition to wildlife.
The reality of what all this research means to raptors that have ingested lead-laced prey is seen daily by wildlife rehabbers. Dr. Jeff Cooney, of High Desert Wildlife and Rehabilitation in Bend, Gary Landers of Wild Wings Raptor Rehab in Sisters, and Lynn Thompkins of Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, plus veterinarians state-wide, have all treated raptors—especially eagles—for fatal doses of lead ingested via big game gut piles and shot ground squirrels left in hay fields.
At this moment, Dr. Cooney of Bend has two bald eagles in his care. Both were struck by motor vehicles and suffered considerable physical damages, one with both legs broken, and both were found to have minor amounts of lead in their systems.
These findings have left rehabbers with a qualified opinion that any amount of lead, once it begins to act on the movements and physiology of raptors, will affect their abilities to get out of harm's way.
The battle that went on to ban lead in waterfowl hunting was nothing compared to the howling that's going on today about banning lead in big game and varmint hunting.
Yet, ammunition manufacturers, such as Barnes Bullets of Mona, Utah, and Nossler in Bend, have already designed and are selling non-lead ammunition. They can see the lead-ban coming and are in on the ground floor.
Yes, non-lead ammunition is more expensive, probably about 25 percent, but when you look at that cost and compare it to the dollars spent in the purchase of large pickup trucks, campers, camp clothing, packs, food and all the other items hunters buy—ammunition is a small percentage of the total cost to hunt—and the more hunters purchase non-lead ammunition, the cheaper it will be.
Which gets us to the Oregon Outdoor Council (OOC), a National Rifle Association-supported organization. Recently, a spokesman for this organization stated in The Bulletin that banning lead ammunition would hurt the state's economy. He also stated there was no scientific evidence that lead was/is harmful to raptors.
Chris Stanton, a teacher/hunter from Madras, took exception to the OOC's statements and sent a letter stating his views to The Bulletin, but the paper didn't publish it.
This is some of what Stanton sees in banning lead ammunition: "I have hunted for decades and am well aware that the public's perception of hunters is not always good and is steadily eroding. As a hunter I feel it is important to be ethical in the way we hunt. Times change and as information becomes available practices need to change with them. A case in point is the banning of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Evidence was overwhelming that lead shot was contributing to huge numbers of waterfowl dying from ingested lead shot. Despite resistance from organizations like the NRA and some sportsman's groups, a nationwide ban was imposed and steel shot has become the legal choice for waterfowl hunters."
Stanton then goes on to repute what the NRA and some hunting groups are saying if lead is banned. "Waterfowl hunters have not thrown away their shotguns and stopped hunting as OOC suggests will be the case if all lead ammo is banned in Oregon. Waterfowl hunters continue to pursue their sport and the lead versus steel shot controversy is no longer a consideration. OOC's statement that the increased cost of non-lead ammunition, if it is even available (and it is), will cause hunters to give up hunting because of the economic impact is ridiculous."
He continues, "I love to hunt for a variety of reasons including the challenge of fairly stalking game, the comradeship of a few friends or my children around a campfire at night—and most of all—for the chance to obtain the best eating meat available. I also thrill at the sight of a soaring hawk or eagle, I am a scientist and birder. After considering the overwhelming evidence available on the negative impacts of leaded ammunition I am switching to nonleaded ammunition and encourage other outdoorsmen to follow suit, because, it's the right thing to do."