Panel at wildlife conference debates how to get the lead out of eagles

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Deer hunters firing lead bullets may be killing more than their intended target. Members of a panel at this week's Minnesota Wildlife Society conference say bullet fragments are winding up in bald eagles that feed on carcasses, leading to the deaths of some birds, the Bemidji Pioneer reports.

The Pioneer says scientists at the conference report a significant percentage of eagles found dead have toxic levels of lead in their bodies or have bullets in their digestive system. The data are fueling calls for hunters to switch to copper ammunition.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff member also raised concerns about the effect of lead fragments on the people who eat venison, the newspaper says.

Concern about lead poisoning in birds is not unique to Minnesota. The Lewiston Sun Journal reported last month on the leader of a bird rehab center in Maine calling for a ban on lead ammunition. Maine Audubon tells the newspaper lead poisoning is the leading cause of death among adult loons in the state.

A representative of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine says fishing sinkers, not bullets, are the biggest source of the lead that winds up in birds, the Sun Journal reports.

A trade group representing the ammunition industry, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, opposes banning or restricting lead ammunition. The Pioneer reports a representative of the group was part of this week's panel discussion in Bemidji. Ryan Bronson said the economic impact of ammunition restrictions would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a fact sheet that's part of its Protect Traditional Ammunition effort, the Foundation says claims that lead ammunition poses a danger to raptors are false. Bronson called worries about lead in venison unsubstantiated, the Pioneer says.

According to a story in the DNR's Conservation Volunteer last fall, the University of Minnesota sees about 120 sick or injured bald eagles per year at its Raptor Center. The Center says one-third of them show lead poisoning symptoms so acute they are euthanized on the spot.

Center co-founder Pat Redig tells the Volunteer there's a seasonal pattern in lead poisoning cases: "Ten days after deer season opens, we start getting eagles in. It just happens that quickly."

The effort to convince Minnesota hunters to voluntarily switch to copper bullets seems to be meeting with mixed results. A pair of stories published on the eve of the 2012 firearms deer hunting opener took opposite takes on the issue.

The Pioneer Press reported copper is gaining in popularity, citing improved ballistics of copper bullets and wider availability.

The next day the Duluth News Tribune wrote that copper is not widely embraced by hunters, pointing out that the ammunition is more expensive and is not available in all cartridges.

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