BOZEMAN — It’s a growing problem among Montana’s apex predators in the sky.
Since the start of the year, several eagles have already tested positive for lead poisoning, a man-made trend that has conservationists concerned.
In two months, six eagles found their way out of the skies and to treatment at the conservation center -- all showing signs of lead poisoning.
Three had to be put down.
Volunteers here say it’s a relatively common and preventable issue that hurts more than just birds of prey.
“These are the animals that are being overlooked," says Kendra Dennis, volunteer at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman.
To Jordan Spyke, the center's operations and development, and the volunteers at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, this golden eagle is more than just the number that he’s been given.
“It’s heartbreaking for me," Spyke says. "These guys are keystone species. They are indicator species. They are one of the most animals that we have in our food chain.”
GOEA 13-20 is one of six birds, each suffering from lead poisoning.
“The lead fragments are in the organs and stuff like that," Spyke says. "The eagles come down and other raptors come down, scavenge off that then ingest the lead.”
Four of the eagles were bald eagles.
Two of them were golden eagles.
Spyke says all it takes is a simple switch of ammunition.
“It could easily be avoided with the switch to non-lead ammunition, if enough people get behind it, we could really make a difference," Spyke says. “Just making that switch can mean all the difference between life or death for a lot of animals.”
Volunteer Kendra Dennis has worked closely with these eagles for two years.
Dennis says the presence of an eagle means an ecosystem working at its best.
“That means that there’s growth for all of their prey, too, that’s being vitalized, and so it’s just a healthy, healthy circle," Dennis says.
She hopes hunters heed the message because it all starts and ends with lead bullets.
“I think the biggest thing is that there’s going to be no change," Dennis says. "If people aren’t actually going to be willing to buy non-lead ammunition then it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Spyke tells MTN News two of the eagles, including that golden eagle, are recovering well and the other eagle has already been released.
“The ones that we have with us are doing pretty good right now," Spyke says. "You know, we are in the healing stages of trying to get all of the lead out but fingers-crossed that we can have healthy releases for both of them.”
With a treatment that costs between $150 and $250, while expensive, it’s the price Spyke says is worth it to save what the center can.