Rob Domenech moves along the Clark Fork River on a cool summer day, creeping toward a bald eagle. The bird is perched on a tree snag, near Quinn's Hot Springs. Net in hand, Domenech is stealthy, but not stealthy enough: The eagle flaps its one good wing and musters enough lift to jump from the snag, over Domenech's head, and land with a splash in the murky river.
Domenech had a feeling he'd be getting wet today. He jumps in after the eagle, fully clothed, and bobs up, net extended. He scoops up the boney brown-and-white bird.
"I just had to get him," he says.
Domenech is clearly more pleased with the outcome than the eagle, which ends up loaded into a large plastic dog carrier inside a dark SUV. Salmon scraps help win him over. Domenech feeds the bird pink hunks from the end of his Leatherman.
Domenech is the executive director of the nonprofit Raptor View Research Institute, in Missoula. Among his many bird-related tasks is tracking sick and injured animals, banding them, and testing them for lead poisoning. His partner, Brooke Tanner, runs her own nonprofit, Wild Skies Raptor Center. She works to make the animals flight-ready. It's not an easy job. Power lines, pesticides, erosion of habitat, human aggression, and lead poisoning all take their toll. "It's just one thing after another for these birds," Domenech says.
The bird netted by Domenech today will survive. But because of his crushed wing tip, he won't fly again. He'll likely become an educational bird.
The last two eagles Tanner tried to rehabilitate weren't so lucky. In February she took in a golden eagle found by a contractor in Thompson Falls. The eagle was bruised and had road rash after being hit by a car. It also had "crop stasis," a digestive ailment that develops when a muscular pouch near the bird's throat used to store and soften food stops emptying. The crop fills with fluids and fermenting food. This bird had a crop the size of a softball. The vehicle collision could have caused the condition, but lead poisoning could also be responsible. Domenech says the bird had 45 micrograms per deciliter of lead in its blood. That's well above the 10 microgram-per-deciliter "threshold for concern" that the Centers for Disease Control sets for human children.
How does lead end up in raptors?
Often enough, the birds eat gut piles of animals harvested by hunters. Fragments from lead bullets linger in the carcasses.
Lead in raptors causes digestive and kidney disorders, blindness, slowed motor reflexes, involuntary clenching of talons, droopy wings, and, not infrequently, death.
Of the 130 golden eagles Domenech has tested through Raptor View, more than 50 percent had what researchers call "above background" levels of lead in their blood. In another study, conducted in Wyoming by Derek Craighead and Bryan Bedrosian, 63 bald and golden eagles were tested during and after large game hunting seasons. Three-quarters of the birds had elevated lead levels. But such testing is not common, which makes it hard to gauge the scope of the problem. Still, researchers have now found that as many as 130 species, including mammals, are poisoned by lead from bullets or fishing tackle.
Conservationists and wildlife biologists for years have worked to educate the public about the possible effects of lead poisoning, yet it remains a touchy subject. The gun industry and some hunters say there's too little science backing claims that lead harms wildlife. And organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation say limiting lead, an inexpensive material compared to comparable metals like copper, will hit hunters in the wallet. The Center for Biological Diversity reignited this flashpoint last year when it petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a nationwide ban on lead shot, bullets and fishing sinkers. The move prompted an outcry from the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which called it an attack on hunters' rights. The EPA ultimately denied the center's petition. Undeterred, the conservation group filed a lawsuit in November asking a U.S. District Court judge to overrule the EPA's decision.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester jumped into the fray in April. With support from the gun industry, Tester is now working to pass his Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act. The bill would head-off attempts by the Center for Biological Diversity to ban or even limit lead ammunition, by permanently exempting it from EPA regulation.
As the debate has reached a higher pitch in the months leading up to Tester's 2012 reelection bid, the senator from Big Sandy is being accused of playing politics to the detriment of wildlife and, potentially, people. For example, Center for Biological Diversity senior legal counsel Adam Keats calls Tester's proposed legislation "one of the more craven and pathetic forms of kowtowing to a lobby that I've ever seen in Congress" and, for good measure, "a morally repugnant bill."
Domenech finds himself squarely in the middle of the debate. He doesn't support the center's attempt to get an all-out ban of lead. That would only cause hard feelings among stakeholders, Domenech says. He'd prefer to educate people about the dangers of lead instead. After watching dozens of birds fall ill from eating lead fragments, he thinks using lead ammunition to hunt is a bad idea. And he bristles talking about Tester's bill: "Lead poisoning is a huge issue out there for avian species. Why anybody tries to deny that when the evidence is so, so strong and so factual is amazing to me."
This bird is grounded
Brooke Tanner holds a red-tailed hawk on a black grate as a veterinarian places a plastic mask over its beak. The animal's wings finally relax. Even with anesthesia, the bird's body responds to the painful stimulus as a veterinarian attempts to repair its dislocated elbow. The hawk's discomfort is measured by a spiking heartbeat, a jagged green line on a black screen at Pruyn Veterinary Hospital: The line goes from 50 beats per minute to 200 as the vet manipulates the raptor's elbow. It flinches, drawing its wing closer to its body. The vet gently pulls the left wing out again, displaying the animal's tapered black, brown and white flight feathers.
Tanner squeezes the bird. The procedure is excruciating for the hawk, and it's also excruciating for Tanner. No matter how many times she takes a bird to the vet, it's never easy. "I hate stressing," she says.
The hawk has dirt on his talons. He's been hunting rodents. A raptor's talons in many ways tell the bird's story. In young eagles, they're bright yellow, not yet worn from a predator's hardscrabble life. In older animals, talons darken and become gnarled and pockmarked from wounds inflicted by sharp-toothed prey.