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Get the Lead Out
Calgary Herald, February 15, 2010

Lead poisoning blamed in death of four bald eagles in Alberta
By Jamie Komarnicki

CALGARY - Four bald eagles have died from suspected lead poisoning in southern Alberta, likely one of the lasting consequences of using ammunition made of the toxic metal, conservationists say.

The eagles were brought to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation near Madden, about 60 kilometres north of Calgary. They arrived within about a month of each other this winter, said wildlife biologist Dianne Wittner.

The four sick eagles were found in separate locations in southern Alberta, she said. They were weak and thin, and died within days of arriving at the hospital.

An obvious cause of death wasn't apparent in any of the cases, but the biologists suspected lead poisoning could be to blame and ordered further tests.

"We were doing everything we could to figure out what was going on," said Wittner.

The post-mortem tests confirmed the conservationists' fears of lead poisoning. In at least two of the cases, lab results showed lead levels five times and nine times the lethal level.

As birds of prey, eagles often feed on waterfowl or game carcasses left behind by hunters.

Legislation in the 1990s banned the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl, but the problem persists, said Wittner.

"We think we're a fairly lead-free environment, but we're not," said Wittner.

"For every eagle we try to get in here to save, who knows how many are out there dying.

"It's very alarming."

Further research is needed to determine the lasting effects of lead, Wittner noted.

The conservation organization hopes to launch a two-year study of the issue.

Cases of lead poisoning can be treated if caught early enough. But often by the time the eagles are sick enough to catch, it's too difficult for the biologists to save them, Wittner said.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton