Lead vs. copper: MPG Ranch study focuses on lead poisoning in eagles

Jess Abell

On a hot summer day outside Florence, MPG Ranch researcher Mike McTee quietly lied belly-down in the tall grass carefully sizing up a target in the scope of his .270 Winchester rifle.

Moments later a shot rang out, breaking the silence of a Bitterroot Valley morning.

“Should we take a look?” he asked as he brushed off the dust and walked toward a four-wheeler. His target set-up isn’t typical of most gun ranges. He’s not looking at what the bullet did to the target, as what the target did to the bullet. 

“When a lead bullet crashes into an animal, it’s traveling really fast, and that lead can splinter off.” McTee said. “If any of that’s left in the field, a scavenger is going to eat it. It’s really bad for eagles, and an easy solution is just to shoot a copper bullet.”

A study conducted in the Bitterroot Valley by the Raptor View Research Institute in Missoula from 2011 to 2018 tested 91 golden eagles and found almost 95% had elevated lead levels in their blood. The study, “Widespread Lead Exposure in Golden Eagles Captured in Montana,” was published in The Journal of Wildlife Management in December of

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