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Maine Wildlife Advocates Look to Curb Lead Poisoning in Bald Eagles

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People in Maine are considering ways to save bald eagles from lead poisoning.

Over the past few months, a number of the birds have gotten sick or died after ingesting the metal.

In January 2020 alone, there have been five confirmed cases of eagles getting ill from lead in their blood, according to Avian Haven, a bird rescue group.

"It's often said a piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to take down an eagle," said Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist from Maine Audubon, who listed "brain damage, neurological damage and motor function impairment" as other symptoms of lead poising in eagles.

Hitchcox says much of the problem is attributable to lead ammunition used by hunters, since the eagles will eat carcasses or pieces of meat not carried away by sportsmen.

"It's known with bald eagles that it's coming almost entirely from game that's left behind, especially game that's either shot and gets away or when game is dressed in the field," he explained.

Advocates for Maine hunters, like the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, do not dispute lead ammunition is a problem that is killing eagles. However, they believe education and outreach, not an outright ban on lead ammo, is the solution to the problem.

"We're not talking about making something illegal," said David Trahan, the exeutive director of SAM. "We're talking about helping people make a better decision in their lives."

With 8,000 members and associations with more than 60 hunting and fishing clubs, Trahan believes his group has the connections to make change to save bald eagles, advising the use of copper ammunition instead of lead in many cases, especially for hunting big animals like moose, where pieces of meat can easily get left behind.

"If you're going to kill an animal and leave it in the woods like that, let's use a copper bullet," he said.

Trahan also thinks the benefits of copper ammunition, though more expensive, will be good for humans, too, since lead is not healthy for us, either.

"If I give meat to kids, to family, I want to make sure I'm not providing something to them that could be harmful," he explained.

Trahan said lead ammunition makes complete sense for use in training and at gun ranges, where it won't come into contact with wildlife.

"I know of no hunter who wants to hunt an animal and knowingly kill a bald eagle," he said.

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