Vilas Co. deputies add lead-free ammo to utility belts, hoping to cut down on accidental eagle poisoningSubmitted: 06/04/2019
Story By Lane Kimble

Vilas Co. deputies add lead-free ammo to utility belts, hoping to cut down on accidental eagle poisoning
RHINELANDER - Creatures of all kinds get many different treatments in an office just past Wild Instinct's main entrance in Rhinelander, but lately Mark Naniot has felt like an eagle oncologist.

"In a lot of ways, it's almost like chemotherapy," Naniot said.

The seasoned rehabilitation director spent Tuesday morning injecting bald eagles with a chemical that treats for lead poisoning, but it also removes important minerals like zinc and copper.   It's a process he's done on 13 eagles since January.

"So far we're at 100 percent, every single one of them had lead," Naniot said.

Naniot's isolation bays are full of very sick bald eagles, which can get lead poisoning from eating fish with lures stuck in them and deer shot with lead-based ammunition. The first eagle Naniot fed on Tuesday came in from Forest County with a reading above 65 parts-per-million, which is the lead scanner's highest level.

Naniot says survival rates depend on how severe the poisoning is and how long the bird was sick before it came into his care. Any eagle with chronic lead levels that build over time usually don't make it.

"It's our national bird and look what we're doing to it and it's very easily preventable," Naniot said.

That's a mindset Vilas County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Fulton respects.

"[One of our detectives was] pretty adamant on us coming up with an alternative," Fulton said.

Fulton estimates his patrol deputies need to euthanize more than 100 deer hit by cars along roadsides every year. At that detective's request, Fulton did some research into non-toxic ammo.

He settled on International's version of the handgun and rifle rounds. Vilas County ordered rounds for all deputies to carry in red, specially marked magazines. The bullets cost more and don't have as much punch as the standard ammo, but can get this specific job done.

"It doesn't have the penetration as a lead round does, so if it hits anything hard it basically turns into powder," Fulton said. "Now we have an opportunity to reduce as much lead as we can from the environment."

Naniot knows he can't save every eagle that comes in, but he hopes more departments following Vilas County's lead will lead to him being able to target his attention elsewhere.

"That's a huge milestone and so that's a huge win for us," Naniot said. "We got the lead out of our paints, we got the lead out of our gasoline, now we just need to do it in our hunting and fishing equipment and that will make a huge difference with the birds out there."

Vilas County deputies will still carry standard-issue ammo at all times.

Naniot says the Forest County eagle he was treating has made great progress. Its lead levels dropped to about 15 ppm in just two weeks.

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