Eagle populations have taken off across Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania eagles have blossomed over the last three-plus decades.
They’re so abundant as to be mysterious even.
“From a lot of two or three nests in the 1970s, we have probably over 300 at this point,” said Patti Barber, a bird biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “I say probably because we have so many eagles it’s a challenge to keep track of them all.
“But that’s a good problem to have.”
There’s a bad one, too, though.
The surge in eagle numbers has been accompanied by a surge in eagle-human interactions, Barber noted. Not all end well.
In particular, incidents of eagles showing up with lead poisoning are on the rise.
“Other states have been dealing with this for quite some time. For us, it’s a recently new phenomenon,” said Steve Smith, chief of the commission’s bureau of information and education.
Starting this fall, hunters are asked to solve that problem.
The commission is launching a “significant educational campaign” to try and keep eagles from ingesting lead spread by hunters.
It’s sportsmen who are, at least in part, adding lead to the environment, said Justin Brown, wildlife veterinarian for the commission.
Eagles are scavengers, he noted. Like other raptors, they often feed on carcasses and gut piles left behind in the woods, intentionally or, in the case of animals shot but not recovered, unintentionally.
That causes problems, he said.
Eagles that feed on such carrion can absorb lead into their bodies. When it collects in high enough concentrations, it impacts everything from liver function and nervous systems to blood. That often leaves them emaciated, blind and unable to walk or fly, Brown said.
To prevent that, the commission is going to ask hunters to do one of two things: switch to using non-lead ammunition or bury or hide gut piles and carcasses.
“Basically, the goal is to protect lead from moving into those non-target species and our scavengers ingesting the lead,” Brown said.
Non-lead ammunition is much more readily available now than in the past, he said. While it remains more expensive, prices are coming down, he added.
“I think we feel good and are excited to get hunters invested in the management of the disease,” Brown said.
Commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County said the return of bald eagles in Pennsylvania is a “tremendous success story.” Sportsmen wrote it, he added.
It was the commission, financed by hunting license sales, that restored eagle populations, he noted. It secured birds from Saskatchewan and elsewhere and reintroducing them.
“We as hunters are the ones who brought all these birds back into Pennsylvania,” he said.
Now, he said, it falls to sportsmen to “keep that going.”
The commission developed a brochure explaining the lead-eagle issue. It will be available to hunters and trappers when they get their 2018-19 licenses. An educational video is ready, too, that’s online.
Both note that sportsmen led the charge to bring eagles back, Smith said. Now, they need to make sure those efforts don’t prove to be in vain.
“It’s only appropriate that we call on hunters and sportsmen again to try to save the population and continue what we do have,” Smith said.