The day the U.S. federal government repealed the federal ban on lead ammunition on wildlife refuges, Lynn Tompkins had a bald eagle dying of lead poisoning in her bird rehab center.
She told the young woman working with her to grab a phone and video the bird’s suffering. The bird, likely poisoned from eating the carcasses of an animal shot with lead ammunition, later died. That was in 2017.
“Almost all the eagles we get in have lead,” she says. “We need to do something about it.”
Tompkins, who founded and runs tiny Blue Mountain Wildlife, in Pendleton, OR, has become an unlikely spokeswoman in the grassroots movement against lead ammunition, which is focused on convincing hunters not to use it.
In 30 years, operating on a shoestring, Tompkins has watched birds have seizures, lose control of their flights and die from lead poisoning. She has nursed many birds back to health, but lost a lot, too.
“Doing something about it” seems a simple thing. Given the widespread view among scientists that lead ammunition hurts raptors, wouldn’t it make sense to ban lead ammunition in, well, wildlife refuges? In fact, a ban on lead shot in wetlands hunting in 1991 has saved the lives of millions of ducks and swans. But that ban was passed during the kindler, gentler era of George Bush Sr.
These days, the environmental issue of lead ammunition has gotten tangled up with the nasty gun politics of America. When Zinke repealed the ban in the nation’s 560 wildlife refuges, many groups in the gun community applauded the move, saying that lead-free ammunition is more expensive. And some people in the gun community see any move by the government as the first step on a slippery slope toward an ammunition or gun ban.
To Tompkins, who has the unsentimentality of a true healer, these arguments are absurd. She is one of the few people in her community brave enough to speak about the science versus the politics. Her wildlife center is in a part of the country, near the borders of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where guns are common, and infuse the politics.
“It goes from, ‘Hunt lead-free’ to ‘You’re trying to take my gun away,’” she said. “We want people to hunt responsibly. And by the way, if you hunt with lead, you’re eating it. There’s no safe amount of lead.”
She gestures around her at the cages, blood testing machine and muddy floor. She treats more than 1,000 birds each year with a $300,000 budget, mostly from donations, though her dream is to build a $4.5 million hospital.
“I have nothing against hunting or guns,” she says. “Come on.”
The day I visited her refuge, which has gradually taken over much of her home, she was tracking an eagle that she’d re-released into the wild after bringing its lead levels down. Tompkins betrays her anxiety only in how frequently she mentions the bird.
“She’s alive, but she’s sitting in one place, not moving,” she says.
A life’s work
Tompkins founded Blue Mountain 30 years ago. She was working as a vet tech when she was recruited to help sick and injured birds by a veterinarian working in Pendleton. When the veterinarian moved away, Tompkins found herself with a dilemma: Abandon the birds or keeping going?
She kept going. Hers is the only rehab center within 120 miles, so she often gets referrals from state Fish & Wildlife agencies. Last year, she treated 1,500 birds (the weather mean the farmers moved their hay stacks early, which disturbed a lot of nests). She’s built close to a dozen aviaries around her house, to help birds who have either imprinted on humans and can’t be released, or those that she’s preparing to re-release.
“I bought 73,000 mice last year,” she says wryly. “At 70 cents a mouse.”
The job requires fundraising, and she’s creative about it. She’s currently seeking help from the power companies whose facilities, like wind turbines, hurt birds. Most of her $300,000 budget comes from memberships and donations. With that, she can afford one full-time and one part-time staffer, and a few interns each year from veterinary schools.
“Some of them want to be rehabbers,” she jokes. “I can usually cure them of that.”
In 1990, after attending a seminar on lead poisoning in the California condor (California recently banned lead ammunition for hunting), she began testing the birds at her center for lead.
She started with eagles and then started testing other birds. Many hawks, included red-tails, Cooper’s and Swensen’s, have lead. About a quarter of the great-horned owls do.
Lately, she has begun speaking out publicly, though it is risky. (She’s lost one donor). She devotes part of her web site to urging hunters to adopt non-lead ammunition (it’s usually made of copper).
To Tompkins, who has also recruited other rehab centers to test their birds for lead, this is a no-brainer. As in people, where lead has been found to lower IQ, lead in birds’ systems affects their neurological systems. Some birds die from it. On the day I visited, she introduced me to a red-tailed hawk with lead poisoning.
“He might decide to scavenge by the road instead of hunt,” Tompkins explains as a huge, beautiful reddish bird banks at the windows and turns toward our heads in one of her aviaries. “I’m not going to let him out with lead levels that high.”
Why All The Drama?
I stopped by a couple of sporting goods stores in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, to find out about the price of lead ammunition versus non-lead. In the store where I looked, a box of copper-based ammunition was roughly twice that of the same amount of lead rounds.
But I ended up thinking that the opposition to non-lead ammunition, like the opposition to gun laws in general, has to do with deeper currents.
I walked up to one gun counter and explained I was working on a story about lead ammunition. Within a two or three minutes, I was surrounded by five men, all of them much larger than I am. They started talking at once.
“Wait, slow down,” I said.
“Shush,” gestured one of the older men. He leaned in.
“What is lead?” he said, laying his trap.
Not sensing it, I said, “It’s an element.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It comes from the ground, and I’m just putting it back into the ground.”
“But lead is poisonous,” I protested.
“Look,” I said. “I’m a mother. I wouldn’t want any amount of lead near my children.”
The man on the other side spoke up.
“I used to chew the lead sinkers on my fishing lines.”
He grinned widely, showing me a mouth without all its teeth, or even many of them. At that point, thinking about the movie Deliverance, I retreated.
Last year, during the height of the MeToo movement, I talked to a Harvard psychologist about why some men can’t treat women with respect. Sometimes, he told me, it’s about fear: They fear that if they step outside the norms and rules of whichever patriarchal society they’re inhabiting, they will be cast out.
In wide swathes of the gun world, science is to disbelieved and the government is to be mistrusted. That leaves the truth-telling to a tiny woman on a shoestring budget at the edge of the Northwestern plains.
I asked Tompkins why hunters cling so hard to lead in the face of science.
“Old habits die hard,” she said with a sigh. “We don’t like people telling us what to do.”
Originally published March 30, 2019, on Forbes.com. Updated Jan. 5, 2020.
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