A Time of Hesitation
One-half hour before sunrise this morning the first of Iowa’s two shotgun deer hunting seasons opened for 2020. Nearly 100,000 (some years more, some years less) whitetail deer will be harvested by all deer hunters in Iowa. Deer hunting is a popular sport and necessary to manage a deer herd that can quickly grown out of control.
Before I began hunting seriously with a camera, I too hunted whitetail deer with a bow and shotgun. My time in the field hunting was memorable and proved to be some of the impetus for me to begin hunting year-round with a camera. Hours in my tree stand, especially when bowhunting, exposed me to so many fascinating aspects of our natural world that an intense appreciation and passion for wildlife and wild spaces developed.
Now that I have decades of camera hunting under my belt, and after assisting with more bald eagle rescues than I can remember, a dark detail of hunting becomes more apparent to me, especially over the next few weeks. The demon is lead in slugs and shotgun shells.
For several hundred years lead has been the projectile of choice for ammunition and angling. Lead is affordable, available, consistent with trajectory, and toxic to non-target species. For a bald eagle, one tiny piece of lead the size of a grain of rice can be and often is toxic. Non-target species ingest lead when they feed on gut piles, deer remains in the field, and by eating lead associated with fishing.
As bleak as this sounds, options exist to minimize the chances of poisoning non-target species. Non-lead ammunition and fishing tackle is available for a variety of hunting and angling activities. Not every use of lead has an equal non-lead alternative. I too struggle with that challenge and have not yet been able to replace all lead.
There is no argument that non-lead alternatives are almost always more expensive than traditional lead slugs, shot, and sinkers. However, the trade-off is clearly worth the investment. If you doubt the value, I encourage you to witness firsthand a lead-poisoned bald eagle. Sometimes the birds can stand and only their head droops. Other times the birds cannot even stand. Survival might happen if the birds can endure the effects and treatment for fourteen days. I have seen eagles suffer through to thirteen days and then succumb to the effects of lead. Toxic poisoning that can be prevented is certainly worth the cost and effort.
As I looked around today I saw many bald eagles that reminded me of the threat they face with plentiful gut piles now that the shotgun season has opened. Hopefully the transition from lead to non-lead has been occurring. Hopefully the non-target species won’t find any lead this season.
Take a look at the eye on this bald eagle. Some sort of flap or cyst seems to be hanging from behind the eye. Whatever it was did not seem to affect its flight.