Golden Eagles & Lead-Free Bullets: A Small Change, A Huge Impact!

Note: This blog post is not about horse health. Instead, it is a personal story about another animal I care deeply about. Please take some time to read and share this blog post.  I truly believe this is an important and worthy cause.

Dr. Doug Thal with lead-poisoned eagle, November 2017. The eagle died shortly after it was rescued.

Dr. Doug Thal with lead-poisoned eagle, November 2017. The eagle died shortly after it was rescued.

My Personal Story

I have been a practicing equine veterinarian for 25 years.  Before that, I grew up on my family’s cattle ranch in Mora County in northern New Mexico. As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by the wildlife that was a daily part of life on that place.  But of all the wildlife I have known, the most special place in my heart has always been held by the noble Golden Eagle.
I had the most unique opportunity to get to know them. Built on 3 ledges on the face of high, orange sandstone cliffs of the Coyote River Canyon (a special place we call “The Gap”)….. for generations…… Golden Eagles built and maintained their massive stick nests. I spent thousands of hours of my childhood in the Gap, huddled in my “blind” or standing on the mountain-top, watching our pair of Golden Eagles raise their young, and live their lives. I can tell you that not much compares to a Golden Eagle on the wing.   Fantastic predators with a 7-foot wingspan, they are capable of hunting large game and stooping at over 150 miles per hour.  Golden Eagles are one of the world’s most magnificent creatures, and a true symbol of what little wild country we have left.
Eagle nest cliffs4

One of my favorite childhood views: the view north- spring flurries in the mountains- from atop one of the eagle nest cliffs.

My family still owns the ranch.  For the last few years, I have been surprised and disappointed not to see the Golden Eagles nesting. In fact, ravens nested in the giant nest last year- a first.  I also hadn’t seen many eagles around the region lately, so I was excited in early November 2017 to hear from my brother (he runs the family ranch now) that he had seen a Golden Eagle in the Gap.  Hoping we might see the eagles, on a Sunday afternoon, I took my wife and 8-year-old son on a walk into the gap. As we were walking along the stream through thick coyote willow,  something startled out of the willows just a few feet in front of us.
Unsteady on the ground in front of us was a very weak, emaciated Golden Eagle. She stumbled forward, her wings dragging behind her, head drooping in defeat.
I quickly walked back to headquarters and returned with the truck, a big box, and a blanket. Too easily, we caught her and transferred her into the box. It was a bad sign, as a healthy Golden Eagle is really dangerous to handle. This one had absolutely no fight left in her.
We transported her to the Santa Fe Raptor Center, where she was well-cared for under the guidance of Dr. Kathleen Ramsay—a veterinarian and Head of the New Mexico Wildlife Center -who has been rehabilitating eagles and other wildlife for 40 years.
Despite excellent care that first night, that beautiful bird suffered a massive seizure and died.  Kathleen suggested right away that the most likely diagnosis was lead toxicity—something she said she sees all the time. She sent the body to the New Mexico Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, and the results confirmed her hunch.  The eagle had sky-high levels of lead in her blood, incompatible with life.  There would have been no way to save her.
I was really saddened and disappointed by this tragic waste of such a fantastic creature. If I found this bird on a short walk, how many others are dying out there? What a waste!  I decided to learn more about lead poisoning in eagles, and to see if there was something I could do to help prevent it in the future.

The Story of Lead Poisoning & Eagles

The Golden Eagle, while a legendary predator, typically won’t refuse a meal of freshly-shot deer or elk, and that is the source of the lead they consume.  When I heard the lead-poisoning diagnosis, I remembered about the California Condor. Lead had been a critical factor in the Condor’s extinction in its natural range in southern California.  I had read recently that lead was now limiting the success of the effort to reintroduce the condor, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which eagles were also affected.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this poor Golden Eagle on the ground. It was too late to save her.

I knew lead ammunition had been regulated over the years, but that was about all I knew.  It seemed obvious to me that shotgun pellets in waterfowl could easily be swallowed by a raptor (as they would be more distributed through the carcass) but it was difficult for me to imagine that an eagle would be able or likely to swallow a large chunk of lead while eating elk or deer remains.
Radiograph showing a deer killed with a lead bullet. Fragmentation is bright white.

Radiograph showing a deer killed with a lead bullet. Just look at all the bright white lead fragments spread around the carcass!



Bullet Fragmentation is the Issue

I did some research and began to better understand the problem. I hunt a little bit myself, and I am a veterinarian, but I had never appreciated the massive degree of fragmentation of a lead bullet as it passes through an animal’s body.  Bullet fragmentation is, in fact, one of the main reasons lead bullets work so well to rapidly kill big game animals. Not only does the main bullet ‘mushroom’ as it travels through the body, but a large quantity of the lead is shed during the bullet’s passage,  destroying even MORE tissue and vital organs as all the lead passes through the animal.  Lead shrapnel travels literally everywhere, sometimes even feet from the bullet’s path.
Main bullet showing spreading. A large percentage has shed off as fragments, with shrapnel embedded deep within the tissue, sometimes feet from the main track.

This photo shows that the main bullet has mushroomed, but a large percentage of lead has shed off as fragments. many of which were retrieved from tissue far from the main bullet path.

The more I researched, the more I realized there was a whole lot more to the story of  Golden Eagles and lead poisoning than I ever could have imagined.  If you want to get a sense of just how big a problem this is, the Peregrine Fund’s International Lead Conference is the best overview- it details all aspects of the problem and the potential solutions.
If you care about the future of our natural resources (and even your own health), you too should know the truth about lead poisoning from bullets, and become part of the solution.

Big Game Season, Lead Bullets & Sick Eagles

As it turns out, high lead levels in much of the Golden Eagle population, during and after big game hunting season, has been a well-known fact for years.  Many of the birds don’t actually accumulate lethal lead levels and die.  Those that do survive have lead levels that slowly dissipate during the off-season. But some of these less affected eagles become sick though, and as a result have a higher likelihood of dying from other causes. In contrast to hunting season and the months immediately following, we know that birds tested months after hunting season have almost uniformly low lead levels. So there is a clear connection.
Lead from big game hunters’ bullets continues to be one of the most important causes of death in Golden Eagles in the U.S.  It continues to plague the remaining population of re-introduced California Condors across parts of Arizona and Utah, and it kills  Bald Eagles too.  It’s not just a problem in the US. Lead bullets also poison endangered vultures and other large raptors around the world.

A Much Bigger Problem Now Than Before

If you look back 30 or 40 years, there was relatively little big game hunting happening in New Mexico, as our elk and deer populations were relatively low.  Over the last few decades though, there has been a drastic increase in our elk population, and consequently, a sharp increase in both big game hunting and ‘gut piles’ left behind by hunters.  Eagles have adapted to this new food source, increasingly utilizing these piles as an easy source of nutrition, with many dying as a result. Our eagle populations are suffering.

There’s a Solution

The Federal Government banned the use of lead shotgun ammunition, especially along the flyways,  at least 20 years ago. But there is no federal regulation on rifle ammo, and yet we know for a fact that this tragic waste can be prevented by using lead-free bullets for big game hunting. So far, California is the only state to completely outlaw the use of lead ammunition. They did this about 10 years ago. Hunters have adapted to the new regulations, and it has worked! Lead levels in eagles and vultures have been found to be much lower in the lead-free areas following the ban, and populations of Golden Eagles have already increased.
So if lead is so toxic, and the solution is so obvious, why aren’t we all using lead-free bullets? You will hear the excuse that lead-free bullets don’t kill game as well. I did a bit of research. Unlike the way it was a decade ago, there are now dozens of bullet manufacturers making EXCELLENT lead-free bullets. Yes, the ammunition is a little more expensive than average lead bullets, but the ballistics and killing performance is now equal to that of premium lead ammo.  So there is really NO EXCUSE not to make this change! The small additional investment in ammo is a tiny price to pay for the care of the resource.
National and international bans on all hunting with lead is ABSOLUTELY NEEDED and will surely happen eventually.  Until that time though, it is going to be up to us to do the right thing and to make this change ourselves.
Now is the time! Hunters, Land Owners, Everyone…..Want to stop killing eagles and other wildlife needlessly? We ALL need to insist on the use of lead-free bullets, for ALL hunting.
I want my son—and maybe even his children, someday, to be able to stand on the mountain like I did,  Blinded by the cold hard wind and the glare of the sun off the snow.  West wind hissing through the Ponderosa branches.  Squinting against the frigid little ice crystals flying from the pine boughs, they will be staring into the brilliant blue New Mexico sky…..unblinking… in awe. 2000 feet above the the bright orange cliffs will be the  massive, black shape of a female Golden Eagle.  She’ll be soaring right into the face of that 60 mile per hour icy March gale—and yet she will be perfectly still. I have to believe that you, too, will want your children and grandchildren to be able to see her.
Gap cliff photo by Rob

The “Gap”  in fall- a special place on our family ranch where the eagles nest.


What You Can – And Should – Do!

LANDOWNERS – Please make the reasonable and firm rule that people hunting on your property NOT USE LEAD BULLETS. Instead insist that hunters use a lead-free bullet of their choice.  Provide adequate notice to allow them to practice with the new ammo, prior to the hunting season.  Here is the document we use at the Thal Ranch. Feel free to use any part of it to help you create your own notice to hunters:
Thal Ranch Notice Hunters

Thal Ranch Notice to Hunters – Lead-Free Bullets Only – Starting 2018 Hunting Season

HUNTERS – If you care about conservation, please use lead-free ammo. Do the research, pick a good bullet, practice with it, use it ALWAYS.
CONSERVATIONISTS – Learn what you can and reach out to your State Representatives. This is not a new issue; the web is full of helpful information.

A few important resources. Just the tip of the iceberg.

All the science behind lead and its impact on raptors around the world can be found at the Peregrine Fund’s International Conference on Lead Ammunition. 
This website  – excellent, balanced resource created by hunters and wildlife biologists.
USGS Fact Sheet on Lead-Poisoning in Wild Birds
The Raptor Center Research on Lead Poisoning, at the University of Minnesota
Cleaning Deer of Lead Will Take More Care,” – Implications of lead on human health. Minnesota Star Tribune, a site advocating for ethical ammunition
A State-by-State breakdown of lead ammunition regulations.
Gratitude: My family, for being conservation minded to this day, and for raising me where I got to spend time with eagles. Dad, I wish we could still watch the eagles together. My wife, Kristin, as always, for her love and support, Dr. Kathleen Ramsay DVM, for her work on this eagle and the countless other wildlife she has worked on to return to the wild. The Good Folks at the Santa Fe Raptor Center, for the work they do there. Tom Smylie – falconer, raptor biologist, and Golden Eagle expert,  for his enlightenment on the problem. Dr. Michael Melloy DVM – falconer, vet, and close friend, for his support and ideas. Forrest Matti – engineer, hunter, friend. Your early support made all the difference! All of you. Because I know you will do the right thing, and help me make this change, first in northern NM, and then BEYOND!
– Sincerely, Doug Thal DVM DABVP


1 Comment

  1. A very well written and researched document. I’m delighted to have contributed to it.

    I have hunted Dr Thal’s ranch in New Mexico since 2012. The history of the late Dr. Alan Thal is beyond spectacular. His earning a PhD in surgery from the University of Minnesota in 1956 has added at least fifty years to my life and to be able to help in this manner is very rewarding to me.

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