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Apr 5, 2018

Full of lead: How bullets are poisoning eagles

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Lead – the toxic metal used for years in paint, plumbing, mining and more – still poisons people in all kinds of ways. Lead also kills wildlife when animals scavenge carcasses shot with lead bullets and left behind by hunters. Eagles and condors are not the hunters’ intended targets, but they’re dying from bullet dust.

The Obama administration tried to phase out all lead ammunition on certain federal lands right before leaving office. But President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, overturned that order his first day on the job.

Reveal follows a bullet’s journey in the wilds of Wyoming.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Egged on by industry lobbyists, Interior Dept. weakens bird protections

 

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. If you caught our last podcast you know that lead used for years in paint, plumbing, mining and more, and you also know that it is still poisoning people in all kinds of ways. New science shows it's not just about kids. More lead means more risk of heart disease for adults. Lead is also spread by bullets, and when that happens it hurts eagles. President Obama's administration said that's why they tried to phase out lead ammunition on certain federal lands in their last day in office. But President Trump's interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, overturned that order his first day on the job. Here's how bullets spread lead.
Animals who are not targets of hunters eat the carcasses of game animals. Protected species like eagles can die from this. Reveal's Emily Harris went to Wyoming to learn more.
Brian Bedrosian: And so the magazine goes in here.
Emily Harris: It's a below freezing December morning in Wyoming's Bridger Teton National Forest.
Brian Bedrosian: And then this the safety.
Emily Harris: Brian [Bedrosian 00:01:09] gets ready to shoot a deer. He loads just one bullet into the magazine even though it can hold four.
Brian Bedrosian: Get ready.
Emily Harris: You're going to kill this deer with one shot?
Brian Bedrosian: We're going to kill this deer with one shot.
Emily Harris: We were laughing because the whitetail deer was already dead before Brian shot it.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Guess we'll see if I'm a good shot or not, huh?

 

Emily Harris: A car hit it the day before. Brian got the corpse from the highway cleanup crew. We hauled it out here, we set it up on a log and shot it with a lead bullet all to understand the impact of lead bullets on wildlife.

 

Brian Bedrosian: The entry wound is always small.

 

Emily Harris: Brian's a hunter. He's also a bird biologist.

 

Wait. Is that the bullet hole?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yup.

 

Emily Harris: That big rip under the left leg?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yeah, so there's a bullet hole right there, and then in, out.

 

Emily Harris: The physics of bullets is good to understand here and it's fascinating. When a lead bullet hits a deer, or an elk, or any game, its shape immediately starts to change.

 

Brian Bedrosian: The bullet hits and when it hits the front of the bullets starts to mushroom.

 

Emily Harris: Collapse back sort of?

 

Brian Bedrosian: It either collapses back or kind of peels back. Just depending on the type of bullets you're using. Yeah, so the whole front half of the bullet will essentially ... If you pulled it out it would look like a mushroom.

 

Emily Harris: Studies using x-rays have found that lead fragments can travel through an animal's muscle and guts to more than a foot away from the bullet hole. That's because as a lead bullet releases its energy inside the animal it can break into fragments as small as dust.

 

Brian Bedrosian: You can see a little bit of the blood came out here.

 

Emily Harris: After shooting an animal, many hunters just take the meat they want with them, leaving piles of potentially lead-tainted guts for eagles and other wildlife to munch on.

 

Brian Bedrosian: The smaller the particle the more dangerous it is because the smaller it is the easier it is to pass through the digestive system. The acids eat it up quick and it gets fully assimilated into the bird's system.

 

Emily Harris: Our next stop is the raptor rehabilitation center that Brian runs just south of Grand Teton National Park.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Here on their left is the raptor center.

 

Emily Harris: The center is in a soaring old gothic style barn in a broad river valley with snow-capped mountains all around.

 

Brian Bedrosian: This is the raptor barn where we house all of our educational birds and then this is our rehab barn. This is Megan Warren, our rehabilitation director.

 

Emily Harris: She's snow shoveler?

 

Brian Bedrosian: She's snow shoveler.

 

Emily Harris: At least today. Hi, Megan.

 

Megan Warren: Hi. Just ...

 

Emily Harris: Megan takes us inside to a small lab space. She introduces me to a Eurasian eagle owl named K2. K2 spits out a pellet of bone bits and rodent fur from his last meal, as raptors do. In a dark room off this lab space, a golden eagle is resting. He was brought here with lead poisoning a couple of weeks ago.

 

Megan Warren: This bird, in addition to a blood lead level, he also collided with something and had some head and eye trauma.

 

Emily Harris: Lead poisoning can affect a bird's balance so it can't fly right. Lead can also shut down a bird's digestive system.

 

Megan Warren: Okay. We ready?

 

Emily Harris: It's time for treatment. Megan quietly opens the eagle's cage. Recorded forest sounds play to keep him calm. Megan and a volunteer cover the eagle's eyes with a little leather hood. They protect his tail with a plastic sleeve.

 

Megan Warren: Let me hold his head.

 

Emily Harris: The eagle gets antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory, a medicine to help his stomach problems. Also, eye drops. He's just finished his last round of medicine to take out the lead.

 

Megan Warren: You inject it under the skin and the lead binds with that molecule and then it puts it into a form that the body can then pass through the urinary tract.

 

Emily Harris: How does it compare to what a human goes through for lead treatment?

 

Brian Bedrosian: It's the same.

 

Megan Warren: Exact same.

 

Emily Harris: Exact same?

 

Like people, more exposure to lead makes birds sicker. How sick also depends on the species.

 

Brian Bedrosian: If you're an eagle that's 20 years and every year you get exposed to lead during the big game hunting season and then this year you have just even a little bit of exposure, maybe it's enough to tip you over the edge. Then on a species level, for example, ravens don't ... We never really see high levels of lead in ravens.

 

Emily Harris: Is it they're as exposed or not as exposed?

 

Brian Bedrosian: They're eating the same thing and probably as exposed, but there is a physiological mechanism that allows them to deal with it better than eagles, for example. In condors, on the other extreme are extremely sensitive to it at lower levels.

 

Emily Harris: To save the condor California has banned all lead bullets. It's the only state to have gone that far. Other states do have some restrictions on lead ammunition, and as we mentioned, the Trump Administration reversed an Obama decision to fully phase out lead on some federal lands.

 

Lead bullets are allowed on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It's our next stop.

 

Brian Bedrosian: How's it going?

 

Caleb Putt: Good. How are you?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Good.

 

Emily Harris: In a parking lot out on the refuge, we find Caleb Putt, a burly drywall guy. He's bagged at least one elk a year around here since he was a teenager. That's a couple decades worth of elk. He's tracking a herd on the hillside through his binoculars.

 

Caleb Putt: You want to look?

 

Emily Harris: Yeah. Thank you.

 

Caleb Putt: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Emily Harris: There are hundreds up there.

 

Caleb Putt: Thousands.

 

Emily Harris: That's thousands, you think?

 

Caleb Putt: I would think there's probably about 2,000.

 

Emily Harris: I ask him whether he uses lead or lead-free ammunition. He's been really friendly, but with this question, he looks hard at me and replies carefully.

 

Caleb Putt: It just depends on what I'm hunting with. You can use lead-free bullets, but they're not ... The trajectory for some reason isn't quite as good.

 

Emily Harris: Brian jumps into the conversation and the two of them chat guns and bullet specs in great detail for a couple of minutes. Then Brian points to the logo on his jacket.

 

Brian Bedrosian: I'm a raptor center guy.

 

Emily Harris: And shows his biologist side.

 

Brian Bedrosian: I would put a plug in for the eagles to use non-lead.

 

Caleb Putt: Oh, yeah?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yeah.

 

Caleb Putt: What happens to the eagles?

 

Brian Bedrosian: About two-thirds of the eagles we test out here on the refuge and in the park have elevated lead and about a third have poisoning levels from the fragmentation in the gut piles.

 

Caleb Putt: Hmm, interesting.

 

Emily Harris: Brian tells Caleb about an experiment he ran with hunters in the area.

 

Brian Bedrosian: It was 2000, I think, '12, '13 I handed out free ammo.

 

Caleb Putt: Oh, really?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Then sold it at cost for about two years. As the number of hunters using non-lead increased we saw a corresponding decrease of lead in the eagles.

 

Caleb Putt: Man, that's awesome.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yeah, so I was pretty psyched about it.

 

Caleb Putt: Oh, I thought you were just about to give me a box of bullets.

 

Emily Harris: Brian's research matches other studies. Caleb's back to feeling friendly. Brian takes the plunge.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Let me ask you this, why don't you use non-lead?

 

Caleb Putt: I guess just because I favor the trajectory and the way this shoots through my weapon.

 

Emily Harris: Hunters groups often say that non-lead bullets don't shoot as well. Texas and Arizona got hunters to try non-lead and then asked them what they thought. The vast majority said lead-free bullets worked just fine. Brian asked Caleb, "Well, what if ..."

 

Brian Bedrosian: Let's say you were taking out your neighbor's kids or something. Would you promote him using non-lead in his gun?

 

Caleb Putt: Oh. Well, that's a good question. I've got to tell you, I probably fall in that group of people that haven't given it enough consideration.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yeah.

 

Emily Harris: And Brian leaves it there. They talk elk recipes a little bit.

 

Caleb Putt: [Pokhoagie 00:09:03], gyros, and fajitas are three main ones. Seriously, Elk burgers, probably not much better than you're ever going to taste in your life, done the right way.

 

Emily Harris: Then we part ways with Caleb.

 

Caleb Putt: Next time you see me out here bring me a box of bullets.

 

Emily Harris: Brian wants to get rid of lead bullets but in a way that hunters will accept. He has some hope because duck hunters switched over to lead-free shot after a federal ban 20 years ago. As we hike up a short, steep hill on the elk refuge I asked Brian what he thought about Caleb.

 

Okay, when I first said lead bullets he totally looked me over like, "Who the hell are you and what do you want?"

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yup.

 

Emily Harris: You caught that look too?

 

Brian Bedrosian: Oh, absolutely. His whole body position shifted, which is not uncommon. This is a long-term play. It's going to take a generational shift. If somebody starts hunting with non-lead they'll hunt non-lead their whole life.

 

Emily Harris: He didn't know about the eagles though.

 

Brian Bedrosian: No, and it's good for me to hear that he didn't know about the eagles and he was open to it. He seemed like a very educated and ethical hunter.

 

Emily Harris: Caleb had suggested Brian work up a simple visual he could show elk hunters. Brian's already figured that out. He uses the elk guts that hunters leave behind.

 

Brian Bedrosian: I'm just looking. There's a gut pile. All right, so you see ...

 

Emily Harris: On this bright, clear winter day on the refuge piles of elk innards dot the frozen grass of the wide plan.

 

Brian Bedrosian: There's a lot of black specks out there.

 

Emily Harris: How high up?

 

Brian Bedrosian: On the ground. They're all on the ground.

 

Emily Harris: Oh. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I see them, yes.

 

Brian Bedrosian: That's a feeding frenzy. There's a bunch of eagles in there too. I can see some white heads.

 

Emily Harris: A half a dozen bald eagles feast on one pile.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Let's stop and take a look.

 

Emily Harris: As we approach they scatter.

 

That is a gut pile.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Oh, yeah.

 

Emily Harris: Brian slits the elk's stomach.

 

Brian Bedrosian: This can sometimes get a little ripe.

 

Emily Harris: And dumps out stinky, half-digested grasses.

 

Ew. It's pretty gross. He moves to the pile to a sled. We collect a couple more and then load all three gut piles onto his truck and then we head back to the raptor center to x-ray them.

 

That's elk gut pile number one.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Yeah, this is one of the ones that the birds were feeding on.

 

Emily Harris: We don't see much in the first two x-rays, but the third is different.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Up in this corner.

 

Emily Harris: Bright white dots grouped together. Brian says this is how metal shows up on x-rays.

 

Brian Bedrosian: They're pretty small little particles, but I do think it's lead. Not a ton, but still enough to make an eagle sick.

 

Emily Harris: Then we x-ray the deer we know was shot with a lead bullet because we did it.

 

Brian Bedrosian: All right, let's get the x-ray plate ready on the ground.

 

Megan Warren: Okay.

 

Emily Harris: He arranges the deer corpse on the x-ray plate.

 

Brian Bedrosian: Okay. Let's try that.

 

Emily Harris: Stands over it and pushes go. It takes a couple minutes to process and to get the image on the computer screen, but no time at all to find the bullet wound.

 

I think I can already see white flecks.

 

Brian Bedrosian: You sure can.

 

Emily Harris: A channel.

 

Bright spots are clearly grouped around the bullet hole. Brian zooms in. With just his eyeball and a ruler, he finds metal about four inches from the bullet wound. He tries to count the flecks, but there are too many.

 

Brian Bedrosian: One lead bullet. Hundreds of fragments.

 

Emily Harris: Studies have found enough particles of lead in game meat that several states caution young children and pregnant women about eating game shot with lead. Direct harm to humans isn't clear, but Brian knows that what we see on this x-ray is enough to hurt any wildlife that would've scavenged it. Killing eagles is a federal crime. Punishment is $100,000 fine or a year in jail, but there is no penalty for death by lead bullet dust.

 

Al Letson: By the way, no birds ate that deer corpse Brian shot. He took it to a dump where animal remains are buried, and no one knows for sure how that eagle that was getting treated at the raptor center got exposed to lead, but unfortunately, it's injuries were too much. The eagle did not survive.

 

Thanks to Emily Harris for bringing us this story. If you missed our previous podcast, check it out for more stories about how lead can harm people even decades after they were exposed.

 

Speaker 6: I just feel like that we were collateral damage to make money for the industry.

 

Al Letson: Just go to revealnews.org/podcast to subscribe. Thanks to the staff who worked on today's show including Production Manager Mwende Hinojosa. Our sounds design team is the dynamic duo J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, [Aruda 00:14:06]. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.