OGDEN — First, it was the West Nile virus and now wildlife volunteers say bald eagles in northern Utah are being killed by lead poisoning. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah has documented three confirmed cases in as many weeks.
Volunteers there say hunters can fix the problem with a simple change in ammunition type, but some gun owners disagree with their reasoning.
Looking at video of an ill bald eagle, Wildlife Rehabilitation Center volunteer Buz Marthaler said it's tough to see our nation's official bird suffer.
"We feel helpless," Marthaler said Monday. "We don't have a lot of answers."
He and fellow volunteers are confident the bald eagles treated at their facility died as a result of lead poisoning. They came to this conclusion through both X-rays and blood tests.
"We don't know if what we're doing to them is helpful or if it's better just to end it," Marthaler said.
One eagle that swallowed a piece of buckshot had to undergo surgery, but it didn't survive long afterward.
"For 35 years, we've decided it needs to be removed from our paint, our gasoline, things like that to get it out of a human environment," Marthaler said. "We have not yet decided it's necessary to take it out of our natural environment."
He's asking hunters to switch to a more "green" alternative: brass or copper rounds. He's also encouraging voters to write their congressional representatives and ask that lead-free rounds be required by law, following other states like California.
"We're poisoning those animals, and it's a slow, painful death," Marthaler said.
Many hunters, however, disagree. Charles Hardy, public policy director for Gun Owners of Utah says lead is heavy and soft. Other alternatives, he said, are more expensive and could raise the cost of ammunition by as much as 500 percent.
"There's simply no other substance that really meets the needs," Hardy said.
Hardy also believes tests on eagles that found signs of lead poisoning are not conclusive.
"I have yet to see an independent scientific study that says we have a problem with lead, building up and killing animals," Hardy said.
In addition, Hardy says lead in its solid form does not spread and contaminate very easily, and that most hunters make efforts to ensure that rounds are not left in the wild.
"I think what we have are some concerns that are probably well-intentioned, but overstated," he said.