Flourishing or floundering? Bald eagle population recovery celebrated, but another threat remains

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The United States fought hard to save its bald eagle population, and Steamboat Springs wildlife rehabilitator Tracy Bye was alarmed after seven of the birds were brought to her in a three-month period poisoned by a substance that humans shot into the environment.

Two of the eagles Bye received came in on the same day, both with symptoms of lead poisoning from ammunition.

“Normally, I have two or three cases in a year,” said Bye, who started Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation in 1993. “To get two in one night, that was an eye-opening thing for me. This is a problem.”

After three months of treatment and rehabilitation, one of the eagles Bye took in this year was well enough to be set free. Bye opened the door on the eagle’s crate, and a small group of local ranchers watched the event from the top of a hill overlooking the Yampa Valley.

“Just the way they hold themselves,” said Amber Elliott, who will attend Colorado State University next year to study veterinary medicine. “They act different than other birds. They’re more regal than other birds.”

The eagle stepped out of its cage, paused for a second and took off to the north up the Elk River toward Wyoming. Everyone just watched in silence.

Bye has witnessed the bald eagle population grow, but with that has come more sick birds. She knows she will not be able to save them all.

“We’re finally getting them to where they should be,” said Bye, who rehabbed her first bald eagle in 2002. The first one with lead poisoning was in 2015. “It’s so sad. We just gotta figure out this lead thing.”

A complex issue

Policies were put in place to save the American symbol from extinction, but many conservationists remain frustrated because they believe the bald eagles and dozens of other scavenger species needlessly suffer and die after they eat gut piles and animal carcasses laced with lead pellets and bullet fragments.

“It’s craziness is the best way for me to sum it up,” said Kay Neumann, who has been researching lead poisoning for Saving Our Avian Resources in Iowa. “Of all the environmental issues going on, this one seems so straight forward.”

Neumann’s organization began doing lead poisoning research in 2004.

“We had sick, dead and dying eagles coming in all over the place,” Neumann said.

Neumann and others collected data from Iowa’s four rehabilitation centers and published their findings in the December issue of Fish and Wildlife Management.

Of the 273 bald eagles tested for lead over an 11-year period, 136 had elevated levels.

Some efforts to ban lead ammunition have been made at state and federal levels.

Lead ammunition was banned nationwide for waterfowl hunting in 1991.

X-ray image showing lead shot in the digestive tract of a bald eagle admitted to Saving Our Avian Resources in Iowa.

In an effort to save their condor population, California implemented a ban that will phase out lead ammunition by 2019.

A day before President Barack Obama left office, his administration issued an order that would phase out lead ammunition on federal wildlife refuges by 2022.

Under President Donald Trump’s administration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed the order during his first day in office.

“Outdoor recreation is about both our heritage and our economy,” Zinke said in a statement explaining his decision. “Between hunting, fishing, motorized recreation, camping and more, the industry generates thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity.”

Success story

The population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states dropped to fewer than 500 mating pairs during the mid-1960s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It was five or fewer nests in Colorado in the mid-1970s,” said David Klute, who monitored threatened and endangered species for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Nationwide conservation efforts included the 1972 banning of the pesticide DDT, which crippled eagle reproduction by causing their eggs to form thin shells.

Bald eagles recover in the flight cages at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Foundation in Broomfield.

By 2006, the bald eagle population grew to nearly 10,000 mating pairs in the lower 48 states, and the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list the following year. In Colorado, Klute said there are indications the population continues to increase.

“Now, we have well over 100 pairs,” Klute said. “Maybe 200 pairs.”

During annual nest surveys along the Yampa and Elk River corridors in the late-1990s, Parks and Wildlife biologist Libbie Miller would find about four nests.

“Now, we probably have three times that many,” Miller said. “I think they’re a success story, for sure. That’s why it becomes concerning when you see toxicity issues.”

Since 2013, Parks and Wildlife has examined 34 dead eagles. Of those, two died from confirmed lead poisoning. Another 11 had lead exposure.

Experts interviewed could not definitively say whether bald eagle lead poisoning was occurring disproportionately to population size.

“We don’t have any data, so to speak,” Miller said. “It seems to show up more often and more than we would expect.”

Those taking care of sick eagles think the population could be doing even better, and they are worried about another decline.

“The best analogy is if half of people went to the ER because they swallowed poison, we would be alarmed with that,” said Neumann, who continues her research in Iowa.

Doug Slaight holds a bald eagle rescued from a sewage pool at the Craig Wastewater Plant in January.

The source

The issue of lead poisoning in birds is not new, but those treating the animals are confident they know where the lead is coming from.

“Just one of these will kill a bird,” Heidi Bucknam said holding a vial containing five shotgun pellets recovered from an eagle.

Bucknam is the executive director of the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Foundation in Broomfield, another nonprofit where Bye takes her eagles and other poisoned birds for advanced treatment.

Bucknam said 75 percent of the eagles they treat have lead poisoning.

“At one point, we had four eagles brought into our ICU, which is not normal,” she said. “How many are actually dying that don’t get found? I wish there was more research going on.”

The poisoned birds brought in are often lethargic, weak, have impaired vision and no appetite. Some are admitted after being found emaciated on the side of a road. A bald eagle with high lead levels was taken to Birds of Prey in January after it was found floundering in the sewage lagoons at the Craig Wastewater Plant in Northwest Colorado.

X-rays and blood tests are used to confirm the presence of lead, which can quickly cause death if not treated. The medication that is used to remove the poison from their systems often leads to other medical complications.

“Birds with lead poisoning, they suffer,” Bucknam said. “It’s a painful death.”

Paula Brown helps care for the birds once they are transferred to outdoor flight cages, where they will hopefully regain strength and recover from the poisoning.

“It’s just preventable, and the birds just get so sick,” Brown said.

Brown became more of an advocate for the poisoned birds after she watched a bald eagle die in the flight cages.

“She was lying next to the water dish and just didn’t make it,” Brown said.

Bald eagles recover in the flight cages at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Foundation in Broomfield.

Taking action

Brown gathered more than 1,100 signatures from Colorado residents who supported banning lead ammunition, and she took her story, the petition and research she gathered to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting in November 2014.

“This whole petition started because I had to help euthanize her, and it was really sad to watch the beautiful national symbol die from lead poisoning,” Brown said at the meeting.

Opponents of Brown’s proposed lead ban surfaced and included 14 sportsmen groups, including the National Rifle Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“The body of scientific literature on the use of traditional ammunition does not support the petitioner’s underlying conclusion that the past and continued use of traditional ammunition has resulted in negative wildlife population level effects,” the groups wrote in a three-page letter opposing the ban. They also argued using alternative ammunition would be more expensive.

“The importance of recreational shooting to state fish and wildlife agency revenue cannot be overstated,” the opponents wrote.

Parks and Wildlife staff told the commissioners they did not support the ban because there was a lack of credible, scientific information. Staff also had concerns about the availability of lead-free ammunition and the economic impact on hunters as well as the Parks and Wildlife agency, which collects fees from hunters that are partly used to fund conservation efforts.

Potential impacts to the state were also noted, with Colorado hunting contributing $919 million to the economy each year, according to Parks and Wildlife.

The commission voted 7-1 not to institute a ban, but those against it expressed concern about the issue.

“Any eagle, that’s one too many, and we are going to work to do something to help them, but it’s also a big issue to ban all the ammunition,” said Commissioner Dale Pizel, of Creede. “I’d like for people — on their own — to start heading this direction.”

Commissioners were supportive of Parks and Wildlife doing more to educate the hunting community about the impacts to wildlife. In its current big-game hunting booklet, the agency provides some information about lead’s potential impact on human health. Brown remains focused on the animals.

A bald eagle with lead poisoning found this year at the Brown’s Park Wildlife Refuge near Craig.

More work needed

At the Elk River Guns store in Steamboat, salesmen Matt Gorevan and Bob Brassell were told about the number of lead-poisoned bald eagles that Bye had been brought for rehabilitation.

“That is not acceptable,” Gorevan said. “It’s a legitimate discussion.”

Not many customers regularly come into the store with a preference for lead-free ammunition.

“One or two,” Brassell said.

With that current customer demand, Gorevan searched the aisle for a box of lead-free bullets.

“Where did those go?” he asked himself before eventually finding a box of bullets that he confirmed with Brassell were non-toxic.

The cost and availability of lead-free ammunition has been cited as a concern by those opposed to lead bans. At Elk River Guns, a box of 25 shotgun shells containing lead costs $7.50. Alternative shells containing steel pellets cost three times as much.

Non-toxic projectile bullets at the store cost at least twice as much as those that contain lead.

“Bottom line is it comes down to economics,” said Mike Tincher, a lifelong hunter who works as a rehabilitation coordinator at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins. “Lead is cheap.”

As the lead debate continues, Tincher said it is important to stick to the data and research.

“The big thing is,  this is not an indictment on hunters,” Tincher said. “Hunters are the original conservationists, and so are farmers. We’re all in this together as far as preserving the resource.”

He said the lead ammunition issue is frustrating, and data and research will help lead to a solution.

“It’s got to be about biology,” Tincher said. “It’s got to be about science. Data, data, data, and that’s what we’re working really hard at. It’s not enough just getting these birds in and getting them back out into the wild.”

He believes the solution needs to come from beyond the local and state levels.

“It’s a real big challenge, and it’s a problem that has a solution,” Tincher said. “The solution needs to be on the national level.”

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.