Deer hunters are killing eagles

Within the first 12 days of 2020, five bald eagles in five different towns tested positive for high levels of lead, and all five had to be euthanized. Avian Haven in Freedom has found 57 such eagles in the last five years. In response, the state is working on a campaign to convince hunters to move away from lead ammunition.

It has been determined that this lead is coming from lead bullets used by deer hunters. Apparently lead ammunition shatters upon impact, spreading tiny particles that are eaten by eagles as they consume left-behind carcasses and the remains of deer.

California has banned lead ammunition and other states have launched aggressive campaigns to reduce the use of lead bullets.

Here is more information on this issue, from a Boston news source, which I read in Maine Audubon’s newsletter.

“It’s often said a piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to take down an eagle,” said Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist from Maine Audubon, who listed “brain damage, neurological damage and motor function impairment” as other symptoms of lead poising in eagles.

Hitchcox says much of the problem is attributable to lead ammunition used by hunters, since the eagles will eat carcasses or pieces of meat not carried away by sportsmen.

“It’s known with bald eagles that it’s coming almost entirely from game that’s left behind, especially game that’s either shot and gets away or when game is dressed in the field,” he explained.

Advocates for Maine hunters, like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, do not dispute lead ammunition is a problem that is killing eagles. However, they believe education and outreach, not an outright ban on lead ammo, is the solution to the problem.

“We’re not talking about making something illegal,” said David Trahan, the executive director of SAM. “We’re talking about helping people make a better decision in their lives.”

With 8,000 members and associations with more than 60 hunting and fishing clubs, Trahan believes his group has the connections to make change to save bald eagles, advising the use of copper ammunition instead of lead in many cases, especially for hunting big animals like moose, where pieces of meat can easily get left behind.

“If you’re going to kill an animal and leave it in the woods like that, let’s use a copper bullet,” he said. Trahan also thinks the benefits of copper ammunition, though more expensive, will be good for humans, too, since lead is not healthy for us, either.

“If I give meat to kids, to family, I want to make sure I’m not providing something to them that could be harmful,” he explained.

Trahan said lead ammunition makes complete sense for use in training and at gun ranges, where it won’t come into contact with wildlife.

“I know of no hunter who wants to hunt an animal and knowingly kill a bald eagle,” he said.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.