BAKER CITY, Ore. – The recovery of an emaciated golden eagle not expected to fly again after suffering lead poisoning has become both a success story and a warning about the dangers of pollution by hunters.
Lynn Tompkins, a wildlife rehabilitator from Pendleton, examined the male eagle last April after a Baker County man found the sick bird on his property near Richland.
The eagle was so severely emaciated that Tompkins decided not to weigh or X-ray it, fearing it could kill the bird.
“He was in very bad shape,” said Tompkins, who directs Blue Mountain Wildlife, a private rehabilitation center where workers specialize in rescuing eagles and other raptors.
The property owner who found the eagle called the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Baker City, and biologist Brian Ratliff drove to Richland that day to collect the bird. He first brought the eagle to Dr. Lutz Kethler, a Baker City veterinarian who suspected the bird was suffering from lead poisoning.
The eagle’s talons were clenched, as if frozen in place. The symptom, combined with the bird’s withered body and inability to fly, convinced Tompkins that Kethler’s diagnosis was correct.
Eagles and other raptors sometimes ingest the toxic metal when they eat prey that a hunter shot with lead ammunition, Tompkins said.
Oregon law requires waterfowl hunters to use steel shot, but upland bird hunters can legally use lead shot, said Nick Myatt, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Baker City.
Eagles, like other raptors, eventually regurgitate hard stuff, including shotgun pellets and fragments of lead bullets, but before they do, some of the metal can leach into the blood.
Tompkins said lead-poisoning is a growing problem in northeastern Oregon. The Pendleton rehabilitation center treated nine eagles in 2007, with six – including the Baker County eagle – showing lead levels high enough to warrant treatment.
She immediately started treating the eagle with a process called chelation – injecting the bird with a drug that scavenges lead from its blood. The treatment has to be repeated because it does not reach vital organs, and lead leaches back into the blood as those organs purge it.
After 10 months of treatment costing several hundred dollars, the golden eagle had reached 12 pounds – actually a little chubby for a raptor.
Tompkins said she was glad to be proved wrong about her prediction the eagle might never fly again when, on Feb. 19, a group of Fish and Wildlife employees led by Ratliff drove east from Baker City and released the bird.