Lead or Lead-Free…..a pretty easy answer to that question
If you spend enough time on the rivers around here, you start to notice more than just the water in front of you. Sure, it’s easy to get entranced analyzing pools and ripples, keeping an eye out for rising fish and the bugs they’re hunting, but eventually you look behind you. Of course, that usually happens after you’ve caught yourself in some sort of snag and have to undo a tangle or a knot. Sometimes, you might look down and pick up rocks as you try to find out what’s hatching or floating in the water. But finally, especially at the end of a beautiful day of fishing, you might sit down on the banks and look up and realize you weren’t fishing alone.
Bozeman area is a migration corridor for many species of raptors and also serves as the summer and winter range for a variety of raptors. We’re also lucky enough to have over 20 species living in the area full time. All of these birds are notable for different characteristics. You could be hanging out near Blacks Ford on the Lower Madison and watch osprey fish while you’re throwing out a line, in a meandering trout stream in a big meadow in Yellowstone National Park with Red Tailed Hawks circling and giving their well-known screech, or floating the Yellowstone River with one of our guides and see Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles sitting in the cottonwood trees along the shoreline.
These birds command respect with their sharp talons, curved beaks made for ripping and tearing, incredible flight speeds, and amazing eyesight. They are master hunters and fishers….something that any sportsperson in Montana can appreciate. Yet certain species of raptor are killed every year in a variety of ways. As a volunteer at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, I’ve seen birds come in that have been caught in a powerline, hit by cars, injured from fights with other animals, blown from nests, and poisoned by lead. This last injury is perhaps the most devastating because it is 100% preventable.
Eagles are especially susceptible to lead poisoning because the majority of their diet is made up of carrion – dead animals. Whether it is a deer that was shot with lead ammunition and not retrieved or a fish that died with a fly that has lead wrap on it to make it heavier, that lead eventually works its way into the eagle’s digestion and then, aided by stomach acid, dissolves into the raptor’s blood stream and begins to poison the bird.
Symptoms of lead poisoning in a raptor are (as detailed by the Montana Raptor Conservation Center’s website):
1) The bird may be off balance
2) Open mouth breathing
3) Bird may be making a honking noise due to distressed breathing
4) Muscle weakness
5) Dehydration and starvation
6) Kidney damage
7) Liver damage
Every eagle that is admitted to MRCC is tested for lead poisoning and 90% of them are found to have elevated lead toxicity levels. It is resource intensive to treat a raptor that has lead poisoning and many of them die, no matter the supports provided. This eagle was admitted and, when found, was exhibiting labored breathing/wheezing and had its mouth agape. The talons were clenched tightly (as you can see in the first photo) and probably couldn’t stand. MRCC did their very best with this beautiful eagle and one volunteer even built “eagle shoes” so that the bird could at least stand up.
At Fins and Feathers, we sell lead based split shot and wire for fly tying, but we also offer a great variety of non-lead products that work just as well as the lead-based stuff. Yellowstone National Park has banned all products with lead in an effort to help protect and conserve our natural resources. This problem is not a big one and the solution is pretty simple, next time you purchase split shot, opt for the lead-free version. When tying flies, try using lead free wire wrap. To be honest, I’ve used the lead-free wire in a variety of weights countless times, especially when tying woolly buggers, and I find that the wire bends just as easily but doesn’t break off nearly as frequently.
The photos from today’s blog post were all taken from the Montana Raptor Conservation Center’s Facebook Page. You can like and follow them to find out more about what they do and how you can help support their efforts. They do an awesome job of sharing great photos are stories about their successes with the raptors come in and you can also learn about when they are giving classes and clinics. Raptor Fest usually happens each year in October, so keep an eye out for that! Fishing in Montana is made special not just because of the mountains, the rivers, and the fish…but it’s everything else that makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so incredible biodiverse!