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Eagles again in need of protection

Eagle in Flight
Wildlife Center of Virginia
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Eagles that feed on hunters' prey sometimes ingest poisonous bullet fragments.

Fifty years ago, the population of bald eagles in Virginia had fallen to fewer than a hundred pairs. Experts blamed overfishing and habitat lost to development, but the biggest problem was the pesticide DDT.

“One of the most ways that DDT affects birds of prey is that it makes their egg shells very thin," says Alex Waring at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. "When females or males sit on top of eggs to incubate them, just their body weight alone would crush the eggs.”

Once DDT was banned, the eagle population recovered, but Waring says there was another bug killer causing problems for eagles.

“Eagle patients coming into our wildlife center were being poisoned. By doing some detective work -- figuring out where the eagles were rescued from, what else is going on in that area, it became pretty clear that Furadan was the culprit.”

So the center led a fight to get the stuff banned by the federal government. It was, although some farmers and illegal growers of marijuana in California continued using it for years. Now, the founder of the Wildlife Center, Ed Clark, reports another threat to bald eagles in Virginia.

“The journal Science published a study that indicated that the extent of lead intoxication now is quite literally threatening population recoveries of the bald eagle, and we may again be faced with population declines.”

In a way, the eagle is a victim of its own success. It can live in many places and can eat many things, including animals killed by hunters or cars.

“Bald eagles were originally found near the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal rivers, but as the population rebounded the primary habitat got full, and they had to move. their natural food source is fish, but as they’ve been forced away from the tidal rivers and the bay, fish are just not available," Clark explains. "Out here in the western part of the state in a cold winter, these bodies of water literally freeze over, and so they are resorting to other types of food sources, and scavenging is a big part of that. We are getting a lot of them here at the Wildlife Center of Virginia that are brought in as a result of being hit by automobiles. We are also, unfortunately, seeing a lot of them scavenging the remains of animals killed by hunters, and that’s where they’re ingesting the lead.”

Clark with Eagle
Wildlife Center of Virginia
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Wildlife Center Founder Ed Clark prepares to release an eagle that was treated for lead poisoning.

When lead bullets hit an animal, they splinter into tiny pieces – some too small to see. Even a lead fragment the size of a grain of rice can kill an eagle. Clark has been asking hunters to stop using lead ammunition voluntarily, but he fears resistance is building.

“We’re seeing industry groups push back in just a gratuitous way, basically saying, ‘Hunters need to make the choice, not the government.’ We need to put the eagle back in the focus of this conversation and work together to be sure that our national bird is protected.”

On the last day of the Obama administration, the outgoing director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an order that would phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on service lands, but Donald Trump’s secretary of the interior promptly reversed that order. Ironically, scientists say birds are not the only animals suffering. A North Dakota study showed hunters who use lead ammunition have higher levels of the toxic metal in their bloodstreams, and the CDC has said no level of lead exposure is safe for humans.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.