Indiana bald eagle population growing, but facing lead poisoning threat

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — As the population of the formerly endangered bald eagle has grown nationwide, a new threat to its survival is emerging.

Once threatened by agricultural pesticide use and hunting, bald eagles are now seeing an increase in deaths from lead poisoning.

“It’s one of the most ironic parts of the conservation movement,” said Laura Edmunds, clinical director at the Indiana Raptor Center in Nashville. “The only reason it hasn’t had more attention until now is that there are more eagles now.”

The effects of lead toxicity might have remained undetected if conservationists hadn’t been so successful at restoring eagles’ numbers, she said.

How do bald eagles get lead poisoning?

The source? Wildlife experts believe it’s lead ammunition used by hunters — bullet fragments and shotgun pellets left in wounded animals that then fall prey to or are scavenged by eagles.

An eagle is more likely to pick a wounded duck or other animal for its next meal than a healthy one that may not be as easy to catch, Edmunds said. In cold weather months, eagles might scavenger more as well.

A bald eagle watches a seagull escape with the bluegill it had just killed in a waterway near the Wabash River in Gibson County Tuesday morning.  The eagle didn't seem to care as it continued to perch on a sandbar.

Once a federal and state-endangered species, eagles thrived under protection. In 2007, they were removed from the federal endangered species list; Indiana pulled the eagle from its endangered list a year later.

Currently, there are an estimated 350 nesting pairs of eagles in Indiana, said Amy Kearns, assistant ornithologist at the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife.

Kentucky counted 187 occupied bald eagle nests as of 2019, the most recent year for which information is available, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources.

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