In late 2018, researchers in Yellowstone National Park made a grim discovery: The first golden eagle in the park ever fitted with a tracking transmitter was dead.
She was killed by a bullet; but she hadn’t been shot.
She was known as “The Black Hole Eagle”, for the territory she roamed, hard up against the northern boundary of the park. One day, the researchers at Yellowstone noticed the marker that tracked the eagle’s movement had stopped. A few days later, researchers found her body near a small mountain lake.
They took her back to the lab and discovered she had died of lead poisoning.
Not from paint or tainted water, but from eating tiny pieces of lead ammunition, which she most likely found just beyond park boundaries.
Tiny Slivers Of Lead
Hers is the kind of death Bryan Bedrosian is trying to prevent.
Bedrosian is research director at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming, where he studies how to protect birds like golden eagles.
His methods put him at the center of a simmering civil war among conservationists around how to prevent collateral damage from hunting.
Wilson, Wyoming, sits in the Jackson Hole Valley, next to Grand Teton National Park, which itself abuts Yellowstone.
Beyond are vast tracts of National Forest Land. Together, the area is known as The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 18 million acres of nearly uninterrupted wild and one of the largest nearly intact habitats left in America.
But it’s in this pristine setting that protected species, like the golden eagle, are coming into deadly contact with people.
Bedrosian has done pioneering research on the effect lead can have on birds of prey.
He is also an avid big-game hunter.
But on an early summer day in Bridger-Teton National Forest, his target was several water jugs lined up against a tree.
Amid the rugged landscape’s signature lodgepole pine, he shot a few plastic jugs: some with a copper round; others with a round made of lead.
Looking at the ammunition side-by-side, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the difference. But it can mean life or death for animals like the golden eagle.
The jugs simulate what happens when bullets hit an animal: After firing the lead round, the bullet splinters. In some of the jugs’ case, tiny flecks of metal have fallen to the bottom, reflecting sunlight in the pool of remaining water. They look like what lucky gold prospectors would find at the bottom of their pans.
But the flecks aren’t gold. They’re lead, the material used for the vast majority of ammunition in the U.S. And when a bullet hits an animal, those flecks penetrate deep into the body.
A copper round, on the other hand, stays mostly intact, peeling down into four distinct petals.
Bedrosian explained that eagles ingest the tiny pieces of lead when they feed on the remains of elk and deer, known as a gut pile. And at high enough levels, it can prove deadly.
“These small little fragments that are about one millimeter in diameter or even less,” Bedrosian explained, “get distributed about 18 inches at a right angle to the bullet. So we have this huge dust cloud of lead that’s all throughout the gut pile that the birds are feeding on and [then] getting lead poisoning.”
Researchers found the same fragments threaten the very existence of the endangered California Condor. In response, California passed a law in 2013 banning the use of lead ammunition altogether.
But Bedrosian and some other conservationists think that approach is misguided.
Their argument is this: Instead of speaking to the shared appreciation of wildlife among conservationists — including hunters — as a way to educate them on the unintended damage lead bullets cause to the ecosystem, the ban alienates hunters and demonizes them.
In reaction, lead bullets have become a lightning rod for some hunters. Some gun groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a major lobbying group for the firearms industry, now refer to lead bullets as “traditional ammunition” and lobbied against the California ban and other similar measures.
“We simply oppose mandates to impose restrictions on the use of traditional ammunition,” said Larry Keane, general counsel for the NSSF.
In contrast, Bedrosian says most hunters want to protect wildlife and respond well to voluntary programs.
“Just showcasing, ‘Hey, there’s a better way to do this without having secondary effects on other wildlife,’” Bedrosian said is a better option. “That’s the route we need to go right now.”
Not Just Eagles
Lead bullets aren’t the only point of conflict.
Just outside of Yellowstone, grizzly bear researchers Jeremy Nicholson and Kyle Garrett have the unenviable job of laying out a mix of cow’s blood and rotting fish, accented with a little eau d’skunk.
“It doesn’t take too long for the fish to get pretty bad consistency and smell going on,” said Nicholson. “Once they reach a puddy level, that’s magic.”
Nicholson and Garrett are with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The mixture is bait to attract bears to the area, where the duo have cameras ready to record their behavior.
But in this landscape of pine forest, sage brush and snow-capped mountains in Eastern Idaho, not everyone is looking to attract bears.
As grizzlies are extending their territory, hunters are targeting elk in the area. And it’s a combustible combination.
In 2017 alone, hunters shot 17 of the protected bears near Yellowstone, all in self-defense.
There are just 700 or so grizzlies in and around Yellowstone. That makes run-ins with hunters one of the leading causes of death for bears in the area.
Nicholson says, whether or not it’s required, carrying bear spray is a good idea out here.
“There are some people that definitely don’t believe in the reliability of using bear spray,” Nicholson said. “But there are studies out there that show it’s a very good deterrent. If it comes to me, I want to have bear spray on me because I’m not Annie Oakley when I’m using a gun.”
By nature, hunters make the possibility of such an encounter a lot more likely.
When hunting, the name of the game is stealth, so they are doing all the things hikers are warned not to do in bear country. They walk silently, wear camouflage and bump around in the woods at dawn and dusk.
The death of protected grizzlies has brought national attention and has environmental groups from around the country up in arms. A coalition of groups filed a petition to the Idaho and Wyoming wildlife agencies formally requesting they require hunters in grizzly country to carry bear spray in the name of protecting the bears.
Activists like Humane Society attorney Nick Arrivo thinks initiatives like this need the force of law behind them.
“There are legal mandates for things like wearing hunter orange, there are legal mandates for carrying portable toilets when you are rafting in [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] land,” Arrivo noted, “so the idea that outdoor recreation needs to be completely hands off from the regulatory bodies is just not the case.”
Not everyone who supports carrying bear spray likes the idea of a mandate. Joe Kondelis, president of the Wyoming-based Western Bear Foundation, a hunter advocacy group, urges hunters to carry spray, but opposed the petitions.
“We live in the United States, we feel like you should have a choice,” he said. “I think [the mandate] takes away choice.”
Ultimately, state wildlife agencies in both Idaho and Wyoming rejected the environmental groups’ petitions. Both acknowledged that bear spray is helpful during a bear encounter, and include it among the recommended items on their respective agency sites.
‘Hunters Are The Solution’
Bedrosian, with the Teton Raptor Center, thinks a voluntary approach is the key. And he’s tested his hypothesis.
There’s a bit of an accidental side-by-side comparison in his backyard: The National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park butt up against each other; two federally protected areas that allow hunting, but impose different rules.
On the refuge, hunters are urged — but not required — to use non-lead ammunition and bear spray.
In Grand Teton, both are required by law.
So Bedrosian tested his approach in the Elk Refuge. For two years, he handed out free and discounted non-lead ammunition to hunters in the Elk Refuge, where the hunters have the choice, and then he studied the effects on local eagles.
“In both years, there was pretty much a direct correlation between the increase in hunters using non-lead ammo and a decrease in the lead levels in the eagles,” he said.
Bedrosian says the most important piece for him is to see results. That means partnering with the people who hold the fate of these animals in their trigger finger.
“I don’t think hunters are part of the solution, I think hunters are the solution,” he said.
How much of that solution is education versus regulation is still to be seen.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.