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Lead blamed for latest bald eagle deaths in Utah

OGDEN — Three bald eagles have died in Utah in recent weeks, this time from lead poisoning, not the West Nile virus that killed nearly 30 of the majestic birds this winter.

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah says hunters can fix the problem by simply changing ammunition type.

Looking at video of an ill bald eagle, Buz Marthaler says it's tough to see the nation's official bird suffer. The bird had tremors and signs of neurological problems.

“It’s frustrating and it’s scary,” Marthaler said. “Typically, we get eagles in this time of year for fractures."

But Marthaler said he and other volunteers at the center have determined that three of the birds have died in as many weeks as a result of lead poisoning. They came to this conclusion through blood tests and X-rays.

“By the time (the bald eagles) come in, they’re so down and so weak that to get them to hold on more than a few days is extremely hard,” he said. "We don't know if what we're doing to them is helpful, or if it's better just to end it."

One eagle that had swallowed a piece of buckshot had to undergo surgery. Marthaler says it didn't survive long afterward.

“Anytime you leave something out there with a bullet in it, something’s going to come out of the wild and eat it,” he said. “And when they do, they’re ingesting that lead, and so it affects any carnivore out there. If it’s where it can dissolve in the digestive juices, it then goes into the bloodstream.”

The center has lost eight bald eagles to lead poisoning since December, which is much higher than normal, Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah officials said. The center averages maybe three deaths from lead poisoning a year.

"It seems like it's increasing year after year," Marthaler said," and it's not just eagles."

He's asking hunters to switch to a more "green" alternative by using brass or copper rounds.

"For 35 years, we've decided it needs to be removed from our paint, our gasoline, things like that to get it out of a human environment," Marthaler said. "We have not yet decided it's necessary to take it out of our natural environment."

He's also encouraging voters to write their representatives and ask that lead-free rounds be required by law, following other states, including California.

"We're poisoning those animals, and it's a slow, painful death," Marthaler said.

Many hunters, however, disagree.

Charles Hardy, public policy director for Gun Owners of Utah, said lead is heavy and soft. Other alternatives, he said, are more expensive and could raise the cost of ammunition by as much as 500 percent.

"There's simply no other substance that really meets the needs," Hardy said.

He said he also believes the tests on eagles that found signs of lead poisoning are not conclusive.

"I have yet to see an independent scientific study that says we have a problem with lead building up and killing animals," Hardy said.

In addition, lead in its solid form does not spread and contaminate very easily, he said, adding that most hunters make efforts to ensure that rounds are not left in the wild.

"I think what we have are some concerns that are probably well-intentioned but overstated," Hardy said.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc