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Deer Hunt 2016: Eagles suffer from lead poisoning

Bald Eagle at Raptor Education Group Inc., near Antigo, November 30, 2016 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)

LANGLADE COUNTY (WLUK) -- A sometimes dangerous side effect of hunting is affecting wildlife in our area, like the Bald Eagle.

The birds can be poisoned by eating lead bullet fragments left behind in carcasses.

Now, wildlife officials are calling on hunters to help.

"We have this big hunk of lead here," said Marge Gibson, Raptor Education Group, Inc. Executive Director.

Gibson says the white specks on a bald eagle x-ray, tell it all.

"It was a gut pile, because we have the large part of the slug, and these little pieces which fragment," she said.

The young eagle is from the Shawano area. It arrived at the Raptor Education Group rehabilitation center near Antigo about two weeks ago.

"We've had six Bald Eagles come in since the beginning of gun season," said Gibson.

At a table nearby, another eagle is in its 10th month of treatment. Gibson says lead poisoning can cause brain damage, and shut down the digestive system in the birds. It can also be fatal.

"She was doing what she was supposed to be doing, and unfortunately happened to pick a gut pile or an animal that had been killed with lead," said Gibson.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of exposure to have an impact," said Jeff Pritzl, DNR District Wildlife Supervisor.

The Department of Natural Resources says the state's eagle population is healthy, but lead poisoning does happen.

"We do end up accumulating data, again, which shows us of all of the eagle carcasses that are submitted to the DNR over the past couple of decades, about 16 percent are due to lead contamination," said Pritzl.

Wildlife officials are asking hunters for help, by not using lead-based bullets, and using copper instead.

At Scheels in Grand Chute, firearm experts say the lead bullet with a copper cover is still the hunters' choice.

"All the deer ammunition as far as rifle goes, 95, if not more than 95% will be a copper jacket bullet," said Cooper Jones, Scheels Firearms Manager.

So what do hunters think? Tim Gerdmann, a deer hunter from Tomahawk, uses a lead bullet with a copper jacket.

"If it's a legitimate concern, the last thing I'd want is to cause harm to the eagle population, but I just don't want it to be like I said a knee-jerk reaction, with no scientific basis behind it," he said.

Rick Potter volunteers at the rehab center. He switched to copper bullets four years ago.

"They've come down considerably in price. There's very little difference. Maybe five dollars a box difference between lead and copper," said Rick Potter, Nekoosa.

Meanwhile, a young eagle continues to fight for its life.

"We're not giving up hope. We're hoping that we can pull him through," said Gibson.

At this point, the switch to copper bullets is completely voluntary.

Any change in the rules would come through legislation at the state level.

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