Christmas Eve anglers on the Mississippi River were stunned as Bill Doms paddled past them with a bald eagle perched on his kayak.

But the bird's odd placement wasn't a stunt. It was sign that something was very wrong.

Doms paddled hard to get the eagle to waiting Wright County sheriff's deputies and a volunteer from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, hopeful that the whatever ailed it could be treated.

But toxicology tests showed otherwise. In the end, the majestic bird had to be killed, yet another victim of lead poisoning.

Despite more than a decade of efforts to curtail the carnage, dozens of Minnesota eagles die each year after ingesting lead fragments, sometimes as small as a pencil tip, while feeding on the carcasses of deer shot by hunters using the toxic ammunition. And this season, little or no snow on the ground has meant that gut piles and carcasses remain exposed to the birds of prey longer into the winter.

"I'm incredibly frustrated, angered and disappointed," Dr. Pat Redig, a veterinarian and founder of the U's Raptor Center. "I've been talking ad nauseam about this for 16 years."

But nearly every year, 25 to 30 eagles die from lead poisoning, he said. And some years, as many as 45 eagles have succumbed to lead poisoning, Redig said. Last year, 17 eagles -- 13 since October -- were brought into the Raptor Center with lead poisoning. Only two recovered enough that they could be released; a third is being observed.

"It's sad," said Doms, an avid outdoorsmen and hunter. "The eagle isn't just the national symbol of our country, but it's probably one of the most majestic animals you'll ever see."

But poisoned by lead, the eagles can become blind, uncoordinated or too weak to fly. They also can suffer seizures and damage to the stomach and intestines, Redig said. "They're usually too far gone by the time they arrive here," he said.

Other eagles -- more than 120 last year -- come into the Raptor Center suffering from assorted traumas after run-ins with such things as cars or power lines. About 85 percent of those eagles have elevated lead levels in their blood, Redig said.

"We don't know to what extent the lead poisoning increased the possibility that they were injured," he said. "They can't fly or see very well, so they forage on road kill. Then they get killed by a car," he said.

As the Minnesota eagle population has increased from about 100 nesting pairs in the 1970s to about 1,500 now, it can be difficult to convey the seriousness of lead poisoning to the public. "They say, 'If we lose a few eagles, who cares?' Well, I do," he said. "We should be better than that."

Decades of dying

"I've been getting eagles with lead poisoning since the mid-1970s," Redig said. At a time when the deer population was low, the primary cause seemed to be eagles eating crippled waterfowl hit with lead shotgun pellets, he said. Federal officials eventually banned lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting in 1991.

But Minnesota eagles continued to die, baffling scientists. The "aha moment" came when Redig was working with a California team focused on the declining condor population. The condors were tracked with radio collars and researchers quickly learned some condors were succumbing to lead poisoning after feeding on deer gut piles and carcasses left by hunters who used lead ammunition.

"I said, 'Shoot, I bet we have the same thing going on here," Redig said. After more research, Redig published a paper in 1997 that showed lead bullets and fragments left in deer carcasses and gut piles were poisoning eagles.

"But here we are ... years later, and despite talking about it to all kinds of people and all the news reports and papers, it pretty much continues unabated."

Redig attributes the lack of change to "entrenched traditions" in using lead ammunition. And some believe a push to ban lead ammunition -- which he favors -- is a "thinly veiled disguise" to interfere with gun ownership and hunting rights, he said.

Not true, he said. "We just want to stop eagles from dying of lead poisoning."

Carrol Henderson, the DNR's nongame wildlife program supervisor, said state officials have no plans to push for a ban on lead bullets.

"Any time we try to mandate behavior, it engenders a lot of opposition," he said. "We're trying to educate people, not point fingers and put hunters in a bad light. We're just trying to say there's a way to avoid these problems with the eagles."

Nontoxic bullets

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the higher costs of copper and other alternatives to lead ammunition is the main reason deer hunters haven't switched from all lead bullets. But in recent years, the performance, availability and cost of non-toxic ammunition has gotten better, he said.

"As time goes on, more and more deer hunters will start using nontoxic bullets," he said. "And that will be good for the eagles."

In the meantime, hunters should cover the gut piles left behind after they dress their kill, he said. "If the eagles don't see it, they won't come."

"Hunters are the ultimate conservationist," Johnson said. "They pay for the opportunity to interact with nature and their dollars fund the [Department of Natural Resources], fund the recovery of species. They're very attuned to what's going out there. But this [lead poisoned eagles] is one of things we just have to remind them."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788