“You are controlling each element of yourself; you’re hearing your breath. You can hear a mouse rustle in the leaves. You can hear all the woodpeckers – the small ones, not just the Pileated. You hear the wind – is there a new sound inside it? You pay attention to all the different little things.”
To an environmentalist, psychologist or therapist, this may sound like forest bathing, the preventative health measure and act of nature healing born in Japan. Nature therapy has been incorporated into countless health practices and wellness groups across the world. Yet Sommer Morgenstern, West Virginia resident and vibrant mother of two, is actually describing what it is like to be a hunter.
“Hunting is like sitting down and talking to your grandmother,” Morgenstern offered. “You pay attention to what your grandmother is saying.” When you are hunting, she says, “You pay attention to what the woods are saying.”
Yet for all the connections with nature and careful motion of hunting, recent findings are uncovering an unintended consequence of how we hunt: lead poisoning.
Of all the bald eagles the Minnesota Raptor Center sees each year for rehabilitation, 90 percent have elevated lead levels in their blood. Of those birds, 25 percent had lead levels sufficiently high enough that they could not recover, and either succumbed to the toxic metal or were euthanized. Wildlife clinics in multiple states are seeing similar numbers.
The end is not pretty. “A lead poisoning death,” admits Jessica Conley, Maryland State Park ranger at Tuckahoe State Park’s aviary, “is slow, painful and takes weeks. Lead is a neurotoxin;” she continues uncomfortably, “an eagle with lead poisoning gets lethargic, loses muscle control, has neurological issues and eventually can’t fly. You will see an eagle walking almost drunkenly, with a lolling head or going in circles. Most end up starving to death.”
How is lead entering the system?
In 2009, the Minnesota Raptor Center completed a study which found a connection to deer hunting. Lead bullets were fragmenting into pieces too small for the naked eye to see and traveling much farther than previously supposed—up to 14 inches past the bullet entry site.
Scott VanArsdale, a lifelong eagle specialist formerly of the New York Department of Conservation, explains further. “Field dressing,” he instructs, referring to the initial removal of organs that a hunter performs in the field, “is necessary to keep the quality of the venison. A hunter will think, ‘the deer came from the wild’,” continues VanArsdale, speaking from experience. “’I don’t want it to go to a landfill, so I will dump it back in the wild.’” The bullet fragments, too small for a hunter to notice during their customary bullet recovery, pepper the gut piles. Eagles, as opportunistic scavengers, belly up to these feasts like a buffet, where their stomach acids will then leech the lead into the birds’ blood. A piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill an eagle.
Morgenstern has been hunting since she was a child and is preparing her boys – too young yet to join – to be responsible in the field. When she says the phrase “the first rule of gun safety,” her two-year-old immediately pipes up, “treat every gun as if it is loaded.” Morgenstern understands hunting and her responsibility to the future, and appreciates the wonder of the natural world. She lights up when recounting the occasions she has seen the secretive and elusive golden eagles out in the wild. Outside of rangers, few individuals have the privileged access to wildlife on par with a hunter. When asked about the findings on lead fragmentation or the impact of lead poisoning on raptors, however, her answer highlights a gap in the research communication: “Goodness!” she exclaims, “I have not heard about that at all, no.”
The raptor data and lead studies are just barely a decade old, and there is a long way to go before the news spreads where it needs. Hunters are not hearing the lead fragmentation news, yet as Morgenstern puts it, “hunters are probably the most concerned with conservation because they are the ones out using it and want to keep the land and animals healthy.”
What you can do
There are some measures that hunters can take in the field to minimize damage. “When field dressing,” says VanArsdale, “what you can do is backpack the guts out, or bury and cover [the gut pile]. Or, put the pile into very thick brush and cover, as eagles don’t like going into the deep brush or inaccessible areas. Do the same things with the discards.”
Minimizing eagle access to gut piles will help to lessen the exposure of our national birds to the dangers of lead poisoning, but it will not address the lead fragments which remain in the pieces used for venison burger, or which occasionally even make their way into venison steaks. Though the CDC has set thresholds for when to take action, there is no safe limit for lead exposure.
Lower income communities, long plagued by the dangers of lead exposure from lead paint or subpar water pipes, can be doubly hit by the altruism of the hunter population. Hunters the country over supply much of the meat for food pantries through donation programs. As a result of the recent data, we now know that hunter families, the poor in our communities and our eagles are being exposed to lead consumption and potential poisoning.
Hunters take great care to kill quickly and with as little pain to the animal as possible. Copper bullets, originally intended for big game hunts due to their accuracy and deadly force, are excellent alternatives to lead shot. Though slightly more expensive than lead, copper bullets do not fragment in the same manner and offer a highly efficient kill. As concern over lead poisoning has become more pronounced, more manufacturers are beginning to offer nonlead ammunition for use in the field.
Would you like to make a difference for eagles and patrons of food pantries? Consider gifting a hunter with copper bullets. If you would like to do more, however – spread the word about the risks of lead and, in turn, gain valuable insight on nature from an incredible conservationist – have a conversation with a hunter.