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Bald eagle on deer carcass. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

Pb IS THE SYMBOL FOR LEAD and is a dense, toxic metal in the same group as mercury. John Wayne, a cowboy hero of my childhood movies, talked about eating lead as a euphemism for getting shot. Growing up on our farms, shooting was a way of life, and no one thought about the lead in bullets. When we butchered a deer, we always cut out the areas damaged by bullets and dumped the discarded parts out in a field for the scavengers to eat.

Hunting seasons around our state have begun and smart walkers and joggers are wearing bright orange to be visible and safer. I attended a program at a bird conference a few years ago and heard a presentation on lead shot in ammunition and the harm it does to eagles and us. A “new study is the first to show population-level consequences from lead poisoning to these majestic species at such a wide scale,” Anne Kinsinger, associate director for ecosystems at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a statement. Of the live birds sampled, 9% of golden eagles and 28% of bald eagles had concentrations of lead in their blood high enough to cause death.

Lead accumulates over time in bones, so more frequent chronic lead poisoning was found in older eagles. Because eagles aren’t the only ones eating these remnants, scientists suspect lead poisoning is more widespread among animals than we may know.

We may get lead poisoning too. When we shot pheasants or rabbits on the farm my grandmother taught us how to remove the lead shot from the meat. I always thought it was to avoid breaking a tooth. For venison, it was for that and aesthetics. Shot meat looks “yucky.” Now we know that deer rifles shoot bullets faster and harder and break apart on impact making a quick kill. These lead bullets may also spread fragments into the meat as seen from X-ray studies of deer carcasses.

According to Jim Heffelfinger in a National Rifle Association article, “Studies show that those of us who butcher our own meat have less lead in our venison and that most of the problem is with burger and not whole cuts.” Obviously the more often you eat game the higher the risk of poisoning.

Less toxic types of bullets are being studied and copper bullets show promise. The problem is the increased costs for hunters and many people have stocks of lead bullets. Target practicing in an environmentally safe way is a good use for them. Giving copper ammunition or money toward it to hunters for birthdays and Christmas gifts is an idea. It would help everyone including the birds.

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