Have raptors met their match?

In Montana, eagles, hawks and other birds are hitting a lead wall.



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There are more arguments. Learning to hold a rifle steady and tracking a herd of elk across a mountain range is a rite of passage for many Montanans. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says the center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit threatens that way of life. "The guy who goes to the range with his kid would not be able to do that anymore," says Larry Keane, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association.

And lead is significantly cheaper then comparable metals such as copper. That's why Keane and other gun rights advocates worry that limiting or banning lead could price out low-income hunters. Besides, only 30 percent of ammunition sold in the United States is used in hunting, Keane says; law enforcement, the military, and target shooters account for the lion's share. Plus, if demand for ammunition wanes, he says, the whole $27.8 billion-a-year firearms industry would take a hit. "That would reduce jobs."

If the firearms industry takes a blow, then the conservation community, too, will feel the pain, Keane says. An 11-percent excise tax tacked onto ammunition sales by the federal government is a significant source of conservation funding in the U.S. According to the Shooting Sports Foundation, the tax generated more than $450 million last year. If ammunition becomes more expensive and hunters hang up their guns, conservationists will be shooting themselves in the foot, Keane says. "The conservation dollars that are generated from the sale of the ammunition some groups like the Center for Biological Diversity seek to demonize is what pays for conservation in the United States."

Sen. Jon Tester has proposed legislation to forbid the federal government from regulating the use of lead ammunition. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Sen. Jon Tester has proposed legislation to forbid the federal government from regulating the use of lead ammunition.

As for the health impacts, Keane maintains there's no evidence that humans are harmed by lead from ingesting ammunition fragments. Still, lead poisoning in humans can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, and cause high blood pressure and anemia. Children are especially susceptible to lead. According to the CDC, exposure adversely impacts their learning and behavioral development.

The Shooting Sports Foundation points to the fact that, according to the CDC, the mean lead level among U.S. adults above the age of 20 is 1.4 micrograms per deciliter—higher, that is, than the 1.27-microgram-per-deciliter average CDC found among people who ate game meat harvested with lead in the North Dakota study. "There's never been a single case of anybody in the United States having elevated lead levels as a result of eating game harvested with traditional ammunition," Keane says. "There's certainly no human health risk. That is a total lie."

Additionally, Keane points to the 2007 delisting of the bald eagle as proof that American raptor populations are sound. Don't forget that lead ammunition was used during the years leading up to bald eagle recovery, he says, yet "the eagle populations in the United States are soaring."

And even if lead did adversely impact a small percentage of animals, wildlife biologists are charged to manage populations, not to serve as nursemaids for individual animals, Keane says. "If wildlife biology becomes about managing individual animals, then you've just made the argument to ban hunting."

Bears get all the attention

As a child growing up in the shadow of the Swan Mountains, Ken Wolff watched hawks, falcons, and eagles make their way south during their annual migrations. Wolff's Vietnam War service instilled in him an unwavering appreciation for all life. When in 1983 he found a great horned owl that had been shot and was lying on the side of the highway, he took it home and patched it up. That rescue sparked what would become Wolff's passion. In the mid 1980s, he formed the Grounded Eagle Foundation, which grew to be the largest rehabilitation facility in the country. Wolff estimates the Foundation cared for roughly 20,000 birds from 130 species, including hundreds of eagles.

For Wolff, rehabbing was always a moral imperative. "Most injuries are human-related," he says. "I believe we've got an obligation to deal with that. Fair is fair, you know?"

As evidenced by DDT contamination, birds can be a bellwether for the health of the environment. They also maintain ecological balances. For example, hawks and owls keep rodent populations from exploding.

Too few people pay attention to avian life, Wolff says. Like Domenech, Wolff is a fan of the underdog. "Elk, grizzly bears, wolves—they get all the attention, research, money, photography, movies," he says. "How many movies have you seen focused on robins? Not many, right? And how many on grizzly bears? Libraries full of them. There's more to wildlife than grizzly bears."

Birds seem to be everywhere—which may be why it's easy for some to take them for granted, says Wolff, who since shuttering the Grounded Eagle Foundation in 2009 has moved to Darby. On a recent warm afternoon, he sits on his deck overlooking the Bitterroot Mountain Range, watching yellow-bellied western kingbirds, Lewis' woodpeckers, swallows and magpies.

Wolff, who is 63, doesn't do rehab work anymore. He misses saving animals, he says. He misses feeling like he's making a difference. But he doesn't miss the lows.

"I don't miss crying about it. You get to feel after a while like you're bipolar. You have such a great high when you cut one loose. Here comes a bird, say an eagle, that just got run over by a truck, got hit by a train, and half its bones are broken. You pour your guts into putting him back together. I remember picking a golden eagle out of a guy's pickup...and I could feel the bird's heartbeat, and it just stopped as I was carrying it."

Wolff is frustrated that birds are still dying from the same ailment that's plagued them for hundreds of years: lead poisoning. Spending decades working to heal the wounds humans inflict on the rest of nature has left him pessimistic, if not misanthropic.

"I have great faith that the human species is a short-lived species," he says. "Owls have been here in North America for 50 to 60 million years. Birds themselves have been here for about 100 million years. There's no way humans are going to be here that long. We've only been here for a million years, and how much have we trashed it?"

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