Lead ammo concerns New Mexico bird watcher

LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — Dr. Douglas Thal has always been fascinated by golden eagles. He grew up on his family’s ranch in Golondrinas, where for hours he would watch the majestic birds of prey that resided in large nests built on the ledges of sandstone cliffs.

“They’ve been there as long as any human beings can remember,” Thal said. “I spent a lot of time watching those birds when I was tiny. I grew up with them, and they’ve always been something I dearly love.”

But in recent years, Thal hasn’t seen many golden eagles on the ranch, and the nests seem to have been vacated.

Last November, while visiting his family ranch for Thanksgiving, his brother said he’d seen a golden eagle in an area. Thal was excited at the prospect of seeing one of the birds he loves so dearly, and he wanted to share the experience with his son, who was 8 at the time.

Thal and his family hiked into the canyon hoping to see one of the majestic birds in flight, or perhaps settling into a nest. Instead, they found one on the ground, dying.

“I put her in a box, and took her to Kathleen Ramsay (a veterinarian),” Thal said. “She died that night.”

Thal, an equine veterinarian himself, asked Ramsay what she thought killed the eagle. Her opinion was the eagle had died from lead poisoning, possibly from eating the carcass of an animal — most likely an elk — that had been shot with a lead bullet.

Her answer surprised him. The more he researched the matter, the more he realized the potential threat lead bullets pose to wildlife.

“Even a rifle bullet disintegrates,” Thal said. “Lead is soft enough that as it hits the tissues, it just sheds into the tissues. A carcass is actually laden with lead. I had no idea. I thought if an animal doesn’t ingest that big slug, then they’re not going to be affected. Well, that’s not the case at all. It was a real shock to me.”

Gabe Vasquez of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation said his organization hears third-party reports on the impacts of lead several times a year, but has not been directly involved with a case.

“We’re aware and highly concerned that lead poisoning from lead ammunition is having a detrimental effect on birds and other wildlife in New Mexico and across the country,” Vasquez said.

“I can’t say, don’t hunt,’” Thal said. “I’m a hunter myself. I don’t hunt a lot, but it’s not like I’m coming from an extremist environmental standpoint. It’s pretty hard to defend the use of lead ammunition these days.”

Thal said he’d known non-lead ammunition existed, and when he began researching it, he learned that in the last couple decades, the quality had improved drastically.

“There is a cost difference per round,” Thal said, “but it’s not a big cost difference. Large caliber ammunition has gotten to be extremely expensive anyway, and the typical big game hunter isn’t shooting 30 rounds. They’re shooting two or three rounds, maybe. If you look at that, what are you saving? A dollar? Some of these elk hunts are $10,000 elk hunts.”

Julian Rains of Outback Firearms in Las Vegas confirmed there is not much of a difference in price between traditional lead rifle ammunition and newer non-lead options. However, he said he doesn’t stock much non-lead ammo at his store because his customers rarely ask for it.

Thal said he believes some of the opposition to non-lead ammunition is the perception that it won’t kill an animal as effectively.

“There’s now a lot of research done on the comparison of killing power of non-lead versus leaded ammunition,” Thal said. “The newer generations of non-lead bullets have the same killing capacity, the same accuracy as lead bullets.”

Rains didn’t see a problem with the killing power of non-lead ammunitions, either.

“It’s a matter of where you place the shot, I think,” Rains said.

While there may not be a huge demand for non-lead ammunition in New Mexico, that’s not the case everywhere. In 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a statewide ban on hunters using lead ammunition.

The law was drafted in response to the state’s declining condor population and many scientists believe the population levels declined due to condors ingesting lead from bullets left in carcasses.

“California’s raptor populations are all coming back since that ban took place,” Thal said. “So we know we can help. We know there’s an answer. We know it’s a problem, so we need to be thinking about doing something about it.”

Vasquez said the New Mexico Wildlife Federation would support a similar ban in New Mexico.

“We have listened to the experts and looked at the research data that’s out there, and it’s clear to us that lead shot is having a negative impact on raptors and other birds,” Vasquez said. “We should start by addressing the most pressing concerns, such as using non-toxic shot in waterfowl migratory hunting, transitioning away from the use of lead fishing sinkers and supporting robust educational campaigns aimed at sportsmen and women so we can protect the wildlife that we all love.”

Private landowners who lease their land for hunts can always require non-lead ammunition be used on their land. Thal’s family is one such landowner, and he’s drafted a letter for hunters on his family’s ranch notifying them that only lead-free ammunition is allowed during hunts.

“My brother sent that out to our hunters and they’re all fine with it,” Thal said. “They’ll be hunting with non-lead ammo. I want to do my part because I deeply care about these birds.”


Information from: Las Vegas Optic, http://www.lasvegasoptic.com