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Lead Killing Some Bald Eagles In South Dakota

John Gilman

Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown has cared for three eagles with lead poisoning this year. They may ingest a lead fishing weight, or eat contaminated meat…either another bird with lead poisoning, or fragmented bullets on deer carcasses.


Officials say it’s hard to say exactly how many eagles are affected by lead poisoning in South Dakota each year. The state’s office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service sent 42 golden and bald eagles in for testing last year, and about 40 percent had some level of lead poisoning. Matt Schwarz, an Environmental Contaminate Specialist says some of those samples may have been from the previous year.

“We’re trying to find out exactly what is the incidences of lead poisoning, and is that contributing to the cause of death,” Schwarz says. “Some of these eagles have been electrocuted; some of them have been hit by vehicles alongside the road. Those are the majority of the eagles that we’re getting are eagles that people are going to find. And so there’s a whole, probably other group of eagles out there that die that are not found. So our sampling is not encompassing of all eagles that are dying each year.”
When live eagles are found, they’re taken to raptor rehab centers, like the one at Bramble Park Zoo. Zookeper John Gilman says the lead makes eagles lethargic and gives them vision and balance issues. None of the eagles they’ve treated this year have survived.
“I think people should care about it because it’s just a good conservation thing,” Gilman says. “I think it’s just a good thing. I think a lot of people that hunt and fish, they care about their environment, they really do. And I think a lot of people just don’t realize that this lead is an issue.”

Gilman says there are alternatives to lead bullets and fishing tackle. He says they’re sometimes hard to find, and can be more expensive. Some hunters feel that lead shot does a better job of killing. Gilman says they may not realize it could kill other animals as well.