Is Pay For Outcomes Feasible?

Hammer-Headed Flatworms Have Been Here A Long Time

By Doug Pifer

I was about to open the front gate when I spied a small worm crawling across my muddy tire track. Its golden color made me go back for a second look. Surprisingly, the front end of the worm resembled a hammerhead shark. As I returned with my cell phone to take a snapshot for identification purposes, the worm showed no alarm but seemed to flow over the ground like water. A quick search revealed it was exactly what it looked like, a hammerhead flatworm.

Hammerhead flatworms, recently touted as our latest alien threat, have been in the USA since 1891. It is believed they were introduced here accidentally through imported garden and landscaping materials from Southeast Asia. These creatures are possibly more common than they seem. The first and only one I saw was out and about in the early morning after a rain, which is when most of them are visible in the open. They would be difficult to find during dry spells. 

According to one source, at one time these worms were so plentiful in New Orleans they were used as demonstration specimens in biology classes. Hammerhead worms have become very prevalent in greenhouses throughout the country, so you may already have introduced them into your garden. Because they are voracious predators of earthworms, they are often a nuisance on earthworm farms. 

Gardeners might want to kill any hammerhead flatworms they see. But don’t squash or cut a flatworm into pieces with a shovel. The flatworm can reproduce by regeneration, which means the broken pieces are able to survive and become 
new worms. 

Sexual reproduction has not been observed, but these flatworms are known to lay eggs. Their typical way of reproducing is to regenerate themselves by fragmentation. A flatworm pinches or constricts the rear part of itself until it breaks off. The piece of worm left behind eventually develops a new head and lives on. This leads some people to call the animal “immortal,” which is not 
exactly true.

Here’s the preferred method of destroying a hammerhead flatworm. Wearing plastic or gardening gloves, place the creature in a sealable plastic bag and add table salt or 30 percent (cleaning grade) vinegar. Some sources additionally suggest placing the sealed plastic bag in a freezer for at least 24 hours before discarding to ensure the worm is dead.

Hammerhead flatworms are between four and eight inches long, sometimes longer. Unlike tomato worms which are immature insects, hammerheads are free-living flatworms, related to the parasitic tapeworms and liver flukes. The scientific genus name of this worm, Bipalium, means “two shovels, having a head shaped like a pickaxe.” Also known as broadhead planarians, they have become established in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Several species are now found throughout the United States, most commonly in the hotter, more humid regions of the southeast. 

The distinctive, half-moon shaped head contains sensory organs that help the worm locate its earthworm prey. Its method of feeding, rather gruesome, involves secreting a neurotoxin that immobilizes the earthworm. Then the flatworm digests the earthworm directly through the flatworm’s stomach, located on the underside of its body. Flatworms may not be permanent or abundant enough in an area to decimate earthworm populations. They also prey upon snails, slugs, and certain soft bodied insects. 

They also frequently eat each other. Otherwise, they have few natural enemies. The neurotoxin they secrete makes them distasteful or sickening to predators and is their 
only defense. 

The negative label “invasive” is often applied to species that have been introduced into this country. Often invasives out-compete native species, sometimes even diminishing entire populations. In the case of this flatworm, however, the earthworms it feeds upon are also invasive species. Most of the earthworms we see around here are species that have been brought in or accidentally introduced from other countries and have taken over the soil once populated by our native American earthworms.

Why are ratepayers footing the bill for Virginia’s data center buildout?

By Ivy Main

Virginia’s embrace of the data center industry produced new fallout this spring when Dominion Energy Virginia released its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). With data center growth the “key driver,” Dominion projects a massive increase in the demand for electricity. As a result, the utility claims the state-mandated transition to clean energy is now impossible to achieve. 

Jettisoning its commitment to the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), Dominion proposes to keep running uneconomic coal and biomass plants that were previously slated for closure, build a new fossil gas plant and pay penalties instead of meeting state renewable energy targets, all of which mean higher costs for customers.

As I said at the time, this IRP is primarily a political document aimed at currying favor with a gas-loving governor. It is not a serious plan. For example, a Sierra Club filing with the State Corporation Commission describes how Dominion put artificial constraints into its computer modeling (including limits on new solar) to ensure the plan came out fossil-friendly. Moreover, Dominion’s demand projections are inflated, according to the clean energy industry group Advanced Energy United.But for the sake of discussion, let’s take the IRP at face value. And in that case, I have some questions. How did Dominion let itself get blindsided by the data center growth spurt? Why are the rest of us expected to pay for infrastructure that’s only needed for data centers? Does the Governor understand that his deal to bring another $35 billion worth of new Amazon data centers to Virginia  is driving up energy rates for everyone else? 

Oh, and while I’m at it, are tech company commitments to sourcing renewable energy just a pack of lies?

Virginia’s data center problem is well known. Northern Virginia has the largest concentration of data centers in the world, by far. Data centers are Dominion’s single largest category of commercial power users, already consuming more than 21% of total electricity supply and slated to hit 50% by 2038. In addition to the new generation that will be required, data centers need grid upgrades including new transmission lines, transformers and breakers, with the costs spread to all ratepayers. 

Residents are not happy. Controversy around data centers’ diesel generators, their water use, noise and visual impacts have spread outward from Loudoun County into Prince William, Fauquier, and even other parts of Virginia as massive new developments are proposed. 

Data center developers don’t build without assurance they will have access to the huge amount of electricity they need for their operations, so they have to start discussions with their utility early. Yet in July of 2022, Dominion stunned the data center industry by warning it would not be able to meet new demand in Loudoun County until 2025 or 2026. The utility said, however, that the problem was not generating capacity, but transmission. 
So, what gives?

Not that it would be better if Dominion anticipated the oncoming tsunami but kept it secret until this spring. You have to wonder whether the General Assembly would have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and tax subsidies for new Amazon data centers in February if legislators understood the effect would be to upend the VCEA and drive up energy costs for residents. 

Some Republicans are no doubt pleased that Dominion’s IRP undermines the VCEA, but they shouldn’t be. Dominion proposes keeping coal plants open not for economic reasons, but in spite of them. These plants were slated for closure in previous IRPs because they were costing ratepayers too much money. Now Dominion says it needs more generating capacity and can’t (or rather, won’t) build enough low-cost solar to keep up with new data 
center demand.

Dominion also proposes to build a new methane gas combustion “peaker” plant that wasn’t in its last IRP, and again the company points to data center growth as the 
reason. Peaker plants are an expensive way to generate power; on average, the cost of energy from gas combustion is about double that of a solar/storage combination, or even triple once you factor in federal clean 
energy incentives.

Keeping the fossil fuel party going instead of embracing more solar isn’t the only way this IRP drives rates higher for customers. Limiting its solar investments means Dominion expects to miss the VCEA’s renewable energy percentage targets by a mile. The shortfall would subject Dominion to significant penalties. The kicker is, Dominion can pass the cost of those penalties  on to ratepayers, too. 

Regardless of your political persuasion, then, this IRP is bad news for 
Virginia consumers. 

It’s also concerning that the driver of all these higher costs and carbon emissions is the high-tech industry that is so eager to be seen as a leader in sustainability. If these tech companies were meeting their power needs with renewable energy, Dominion wouldn’t be able to claim a “need” to keep its old coal plants 
belching away.  

Amazon, the number one beneficiary of state data center largesse, says it is the leading corporate purchaser of renewable energy globally. Its website claims the company is “on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025.” A map shows it has developed around 16 solar projects in Virginia, adding up to over 1,100 megawatts. That’s great, but the company’s Virginia data centers are such energy hogs that they would need many times as much solar, plus a huge amount of battery storage to meet their 24/7 demand. And of course, Amazon’s demand will skyrocket with that next $35 billion in new 
data centers.

That same map, by the way, shows that Amazon has on-site solar at warehouses and Whole Foods stores all over the Northeast, but none in Virginia. Northeastern states have higher commercial power rates than Virginia does, so on-site solar means bigger bill savings in those states. One cannot help but suspect that Amazon’s commitment to 
renewable energy is really just a commitment to 
cheap energy.  

The Data Center Coalition’s filing in the IRP case does nothing to reassure us otherwise. Instead of chiding Dominion for reneging on its clean energy commitments, the Coalition’s Josh Levi essentially argues data centers are so important it 
doesn’t matter. 

I have no beef with data centers as a general proposition. They are an integral component of today’s economy, and the developments that now drive their explosive growth — machine learning and artificial intelligence — will also help us achieve a zero-carbon future.  

I just think data centers should try a little harder to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  

This commentary originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury. Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club’s renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization. 

Glass Recycling is Back Thanks to One Person Who Volunteered

By Cathy Kuehner 

Thanks to one county resident who is passionate about recycling and reusing material rather than adding it to landfills, other residents can now drop off glass for recycling at the Clarke County Convenience Center on Quarry Road
(Route 612).

Christi McMullen, who lives in the northeast part of the county near the facility for household trash, recently purchased an Expleco glass bottle crusher. It cost her about $7,000. She also purchased a small trailer and heavy-duty liners that make it easier to remove bottles from the trailer. Currently, she sifts the crushed glass by hand, but hopes to one day buy a mechanical sifter for $11,000.

Each weekend in May, McMullen placed her trailer at the Convenience Center as part of a county-approved pilot program. The two unknowns were the level of community support for recycling and the cleanliness of the glass deposited in the trailer.McMullen and county administration are thrilled with the initial results.

Over four weekends, residents placed 2,413 clean glass bottles and jars in McMullen’s recycling trailer. This represents about 2,000 pounds of recycled glass. Those bottles did not go to the landfill; they were ground into reusable sand, and those repurposed bottles saved money for the county.

Joey Braithwaite, county maintenance director, explained, “When the trash compactor is pulled and taken to the Frederick County landfill, Clarke County is charged by weight. With a glass recycling program, the dumpster’s weight will be significantly reduced, which reduces expenses for the Center’s operations.”

Reducing county expenses is good but keeping recyclables out of the landfill is even better. “Clarke County was never able to recycle glass, and when the Convenience Center opened in January 2019, there was no place locally that accepted glass,” Braithwaite said.

Glass is 100 percent recyclable, and it is infinitely recyclable without loss in quality; however, only about 33 percent of glass is recycled in the U.S. Virginia recycles about 10 percent. Why? Glass is heavy and expensive to transport to recycling centers. When glass is tossed into recycling bins, it breaks into bits that are difficult to separate out for recycling. And, since China stopped accepting U.S. recyclables in 2018, recyclers here are increasingly focused on quality and reducing contamination to maintain the value of their recyclable materials.

Many people feel good about placing paper, cardboard, plastic, and glass into recycling bins. But, when other people place materials contaminated with food residue and other trash into recycling bins, it all becomes trash and it all goes to the landfill.McMullen wants to improve the glass recycling rate — at least in Clarke County. “Anyone could buy a glass-crushing machine and do this, too,” she said. “It isn’t hard, but it requires community support.”

Glass is made from sand, and using the glass-crushing machine, McMullen can turn glass bottles and jars back into sand. Once McMullen unloads bottles at home, she sorts it by color, and removes any metal rings that may still be on bottle necks. She places one bottle at a time into the crusher and sifts the crushed glass into different grits or “cullet.” Larger cullet is good for art projects or decorative concrete. Finer grit — coarse sand — can be used in gardens to keep soil moist. The finest cullet is sand, which can be used for children’s sandboxes, flood-prevention sandbags, sandblasting machines, and replenishing beaches affected by coastal erosion. It takes 160 bottles to fill a 5-gallon bucket with fine sand.

Since purchasing the glass crusher in April, McMullen has given away most of the cullet she has made. “We hope to get sand to people who can use it, but it will take a lot of people and more machines to crush all the bottles and jars that would otherwise would go to the landfill,” she said. “I’m not doing this to make money,” McMullen said. “I’m doing this to make 
a difference.”

McMullen wants to be clear. “This is not a recycling business. It is a volunteer project because I love recycling.”

McMullen and her husband John used to move every four years or so because of his work. Now that John is retired, the McMullens have called Clarke County home for the past six years. “We try to give back to our community wherever we live,” she said.

“We are grateful to Christi for coming forward with this idea and being willing to volunteer her time and resources,” said Clarke County Administrator Chris Boies. “This is still a pilot program. At this point we are still evaluating the need and various logistical components of the program.”

Still, Boies hopes McMullen’s glass recycling trailer becomes a fixture at the Clarke County Convenience Center.For the glass recycling project to be successful and continue, all glass deposited in the trailer must be clean. All lids, caps, and corks must be removed. Paper labels are OK. Do not put mirrors, windows, heat-tempered glass such as Pyrex and mixing bowls, ceramic mugs and plates, wine glasses, etc., in the trailer.“

Anybody can reduce the amount of glass that ends up in landfills,” McMullen said. “We can make a big impact in a short amount of time.”

Find more information on McMullen’s Facebook page: Glass Recycling Clarke. Contact her at glassrecyclingclarke@gmail.com.
Read more about the Clarke County Convenience Center, including its hours of operation, at www.clarkecounty.gov/
residents/trash-recycling.

The Bradford Pear Story

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer

It sounded like springtime in December. Three dozen robins were singing and scolding on Christmas morning. They had gathered to feed on the fruits of Bradford pear, an ornamental tree that was the darling of landscapers thirty years ago and is now black listed by many gardeners and nature lovers.

Bradford Pear, Pyrus Calleryana, has an interesting history that began early in the 1950s when pear orchards in the Pacific Northwest were decimated by fire blight, a disease that kills fruit trees. Agricultural researchers discovered that the Callery pear, a thorny wild tree native to China, had rootstocks highly resistant to the disease. They grew imported Callery pear trees in nurseries where branches from choice pear varieties were grafted onto their roots. This eventually saved the commercial pear business from being wiped out by fire blight.

Meanwhile, one agricultural nursery grew a Callery pear tree that was sterile, had a beautiful shape, profuse flowers, and no thorns. This cultivar was named “Bradford” after its discoverer. Bradford pear became the ideal landscaping tree in the 1980s. It had a lovely, symmetrical shape. It thrived in a variety of climates and soils. It even tolerated the polluted air and compacted soil next to city streets, shopping centers, business parks and parking lots. Its shiny green leaves turned from yellow to orange to deep red and stayed on the tree until late fall. Its white blossoms made a spectacular show in early spring.

As they matured, Bradford pear trees became problematic. They were short lived. Their narrowly forking branches and soft wood were prone to breakage. A windy spell would 
frequently tear a large Bradford pear tree apart. The clouds of white blossoms, while stunning, smelled bad to some people. While the original Bradford variety was sterile, most trees you see now have been cross pollinated and bear small, pinkish brown “pears.” Most of these trees also have thorns. If you park your car under one of the fruiting trees after a night of heavy frost, you may return later to find your windshield smeared with their thawing, fallen fruit. Robins, starlings, and other fruit-eating birds gorge on these little pears during late fall. The birds, in turn, disburse the seeds.

Now Bradford, or rather Callery, pear trees grow everywhere.

Localities in several states have banned Bradford pear trees. People are urged to dig up and destroy Bradford pear trees on their property. Disposing of them isn’t easy. After a tree is cut, its roots must be destroyed before they send up new shoots everywhere. A tractor brush hogging a field can get thorn-slashed tires. Putting cut branches though a wood-chipper creates mulch which may contain pear seeds that sprout in the spring.

A wild Chinese pear tree once saved the American pear industry and then became a favorite landscaping tree. Now reverted to its Callery roots, it has become what many would call a scourge.

Conservation Groups Meet At Cool Spring

Nearly 30 area conservation groups and land trusts met June 20 at Shenandoah University’s Cool Spring Campus for a summit of the Blue Ridge Conservation Alliance. They gathered to explore more cooperation and collaboration to protect what is considered one of the most threatened mountain landscapes in the Eastern Seaboard, the Blue Ridge and surrounding area from Front Royal, Va., to the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. 

The Blue Ridge Conservation Alliance, or BRCA, is a network of partners working to protect the natural, scenic, and historic values of this landscape, and to conserve land, safeguard watersheds, and preserve the historic landscape along the Appalachian Trail corridor and the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Its steering committee includes representatives from Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Land Trust of Virginia, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Piedmont Environmental Council, Virginia Working Landscapes, and Berryville-based The Downstream Project.

Guest speakers at the event included Trail Conservancy (ATC) staff members working on two initiatives with direct impact in Clarke County. Dennis Shaffer, ATC’s director of landscape conservation, described how partnerships like BRCA are collaborating along the trail’s 2,180-mile corridor to conserve land and become more connected with the towns within the trail’s view-shed — Berryville, for example, is a recognized Appalachian Trail Town. Anne Baker, ATC landscape partnership manager, invited local groups to tap into Wild East, a promotional campaign that highlights the role of the Appalachian Trail as a vital natural corridor for wildlife, plants, and quality of life for people. 

Dan Holmes, policy director for Piedmont Environmental Council, gave a presentation on utility-scale solar energy farms cropping up in the Shenandoah Valley. He urged partners to work with local planning agencies to develop ordinances that protect agricultural lands and scenic values while enabling expansion of solar energy. Learn more about BRCA at BlueRidgeConservation.org

Working Toward A Green & Prosperous Future For The Shenandoah

What comes to mind when you think about what makes the Shenandoah watershed so special? What images do you conjure when you imagine the river? That’s what dozens of people gathered to discuss at three meetings and three public forums this spring. Hosted by Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the Green and Prosperous Shenandoah meetings took place in some of the places that are icons of the Valley: Front Royal, Harrisonburg, and Woodstock. The idea is to find common ground on a vision for potential futures for the river and its watershed. 

The Shenandoah couples with the long spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains to form the defining landscape feature over its length — each fork is about 100 miles long, and the main stem, which forms in Front Royal, is about 55 miles in length. It’s a popular recreation river that is often plagued by water quality issues like high fecal coliform counts. Over the last 15 years, the river has seen occasional fish kills, along with seasonal algae blooms that occur each summer.

It’s also the drinking water supply for Berryville and Charles Town, W.Va., and several other communities upstream. It passes through agricultural counties, industrial zones, many small towns, shopping centers, and huge shipping and warehouse facilities. Runoff and pollution from each of these sectors plays a role adding pollution loads to the river. Residential growth also is putting a strain on the Shenandoah’s ecology.

Stormwater runoff from towns and developments, and from the highways that serve them, is a major 
contributing factor.

Arriving at a shared idea for the future may have been the easy part. Not surprisingly, many people identified some cornerstones in their vision for the Shenandoah: a thriving farm economy and working landscapes, continued and expanded access recreation on the river, vibrant communities where people cherish their connections with the river, and a Shenandoah River that is much cleaner than it is today. The big questions folks grappled with centered around the steps, or milestones, that would bring about that future.

Participants included farmers, business owners, outfitters, conservation organizations, county and regional planners, and people who live along or just plain love the Shenandoah. They bandied around ideas that, if adopted or strengthened, would help restore the river and retain the rural character of the region.

Now volunteers are taking the feedback from all of the meetings to compile their ideas into that roadmap. “Potomac Riverkeeper Network is honored to host these sessions,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. “Ultimately creating a roadmap to a Green and Prosperous Future for the Shenandoah watershed will take many people from many backgrounds and interests.”

Frondorf says the volunteer team will work through the summer and unveil the roadmap in the fall. 

As the Crow Flies

After 20 Years, A Purple Martin Colony!

On becoming a landlord to the largest North American swallow
Article and photos by Doug Pifer
For over 20 years my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived.  We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators. I measured the site’s distance from large trees and from our house. I even carved and painted realistic martin decoys which I put up each year.
I bought a CD recording of the dawn song of purple martins and played it from April till July from 5:00 until 8:00 in the morning. We watched and waited as house wrens, tree swallows, and bluebirds successfully nested in our martin house. A colony of 8 bluebirds even roosted in our wooden martin house all winter. But no martins.
Sometimes three or four martins would show up. They would call out loudly, circle lazily around the house or gourd rack, or hover in front of it. They sat in the upper branches in a dead tree nearby, checking things out. But they neither stayed nor even landed on the house! Each year we held our breath as the martins would come, circle around and then leave. Something didn’t
suit them.
In 2016 we bought a historic red brick farmhouse a mile or so from the Potomac River, with a barn, woods, a spring-fed stream, and five acres of pasture. After we moved in, I bought a new aluminum four-tiered martin house and put it up the following March. I set up a couple of decoys.
Finally, one May morning three purple martins appeared. They came every day but seemed to shy away from the decoys.  After I swallowed my pride and took my decoys down, four purple martins came back, hung around for an hour or so and then left. They repeated this daily routine until the end of July, but never nested or stayed overnight. Bruce Johnson, then owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc. in Winchester, assured me they would return to nest next year.
Bruce was right! I put up the martin house in the same spot, and around the first of May four purple  martins came. With much excitement and loud chirping, they circled around and entered all the nest chambers. In early June, three out of eight chambers contained active nests.  By summer’s end all three nests had produced baby martins —not bad for a first-year colony. The first brood fledged at the end of June and the last one left near the end of August.
Maintaining a martin colony requires a firm, long-time commitment from the landlord. Many folks are much more actively involved than I was last summer. They check the nests regularly during the breeding season, examining nestlings for parasite infestations, and, when necessary, replacing their nests and dusting the babies with insecticide. I only lowered the house on the telescoping pole and opened the chamber to check the nests once.  I hated disturbing the birds, especially because they all seemed to be just fine without
my interference.
Here are things I learned last summer about purple martins:
Purple martins aren’t in a hurry to do anything.
Martins require lots of clear, open space around housing.
Activity around the nest is generally in early to mid-morning.
Martins spend much of the day away from their nests, even when feeding young.
If you have house sparrows around, martins won’t nest. Buy and use a sparrow trap.
Get the half-moon shaped entrances for your houses to discourage starlings.
Not all martins choose the same material for their nests.
You don’t have to monitor martins as closely as some people do.
Martins capture and feed their young many large flying insects like dragonflies and cicadas.
Young martins may not return to the house to roost after they fledge.
First-year males look much like the gray breasted females, but can breed as successfully as older “purple” males.
Martin housing should have a nesting chamber larger than 6 inches by 6 inches.
Gourds used for martin housing should be at least 12 inches in diameter
Trust martins, and don’t get excited if they don’t do what you think they should do. If you do everything right but don’t get martins right away,
be patient!
When I took down the martin house to clean and put it away for the winter, I examined the three well-used nests the martins made. Each nest was a shallow cup of plant material lined with fresh green leaves plucked from trees. Yet each was uniquely constructed according to the preference of the builders. One nest was composed exclusively of small dried rootlet rosettes of short grasses plucked from the ground. Another was made of 4 1/2-inch long hay stems. The third nest consisted of short, dead twigs, and contained some dried mud and about a dozen fingernail-sized freshwater clam shells, evidently gathered from the banks of nearby Rocky Marsh Run.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association, www.purplemartin.org, offers helpful information for martin landlords, a blog where you can connect with fellow enthusiasts to share your concerns, and sales and discounts on martin housing and supplies.
I can’t wait for them to come back this spring!

Lead Toxicity Remains A Problem For Raptors 

by the Wildlife Center of Virginia
Lead is a soft, pliable, elemental metal that is found in naturally occurring deposits around the world. While it has been used for centuries for many purposes, the highly toxic properties of lead have become well-known over the last 100 years through the issues of food contamination in cans sealed with lead solder, the toxic effects of lead-based paints and glazes, the polluting effects of leaded gasoline, the presence of lead in drinking water which passes through pipes connected with lead solder, and, more recently, the toxic effects of lead ingested by wildlife.
In wildlife, lead is most toxic when consumed by an animal, as opposed to lead bullets or shot simply lodging in muscle tissue. Exposure to digestive fluids and stomach acids breaks down the lead, allowing it to be absorbed into the blood stream and distributed to internal organs, the nervous system, the respiratory system, and the renal system. Lead may also leach from lead fragments lodged in joints and in bone marrow.
In 1991, the public became very concerned that nearly four million waterfowl in North America were dying from lead poisoning each year. Ducks and geese were ingesting bits of lead they found while filter feeding on the bottoms of
wetlands, marshes, shallow estuaries, or other bodies of water. The lead fragments the birds ingested were mainly shotgun pellets that had missed their primary target and rained down over the water.
The birds would deliberately pick up this shot and swallow it, thinking it to be food or grit they need for digestion. After years of debate, the federal government finally enacted a ban on the use of lead shot for most waterfowl hunting. The use of lead and lead-based projectiles for hunting of so-called upland species of game and nuisance wildlife has remained legal, presumably on the logic that spent shot which falls upon the land is very unlikely to be found and ingested by wildlife.
However, overwhelming scientific evidence now confirms that lead fired at upland game and nuisance animals is also finding its way into non-target wildlife, but mainly from lead projectiles that actually hit their intended targets. This lead is being ingested by eagles, raptors, scavengers, and non-target species when they prey upon wounded animals that have been shot, or scavenge the remains and entrails of animals that have been shot and left in the field.
While this once unrecognized toxic threat has existed for many decades, there is a dramatically increased awareness of the problem because new technologies and increased surveillance have enabled lead poisoning cases to be more readily identified. Also, the successful recovery and rapid expansion of once-endangered populations of species like Bald Eagles, whose historic habitat is greatly diminished, are forcing the birds to move into sub-optimal habitats where preferred food sources are not readily available.
As they move farther away from major bodies of water, like tidal rivers and bays, and are no longer able to find adequate supplies of fish for their normal diet, birds like Bald Eagles resort to scavenging as a primary foraging practice. Especially during and after the hunting season, animals and animal parts that are left in the field become a main food supply. As a result, often tiny fragments of the lead-based ammunition that remain in these dead animals and animal parts are available to be consumed by Bald Eagles and other
scavengers.
Between 2011 and 2017, the Wildlife Center of Virginia admitted 275 Bald Eagles, with 55 eagles being admitted in 2017 alone. The majority of these eagles came from the eastern third of Virginia, the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. More than two-thirds of the eagles admitted were suffering from measurable lead intoxication, to varying degrees.
Of the 55 birds admitted in 2017, approximately 35 percent had clinically observable indications of lead intoxication, including a general listlessness, inability to maintain balance, refusal to eat, overall weakness, and lack of muscle coordination. In severe cases, lead intoxication can cause a head tilt, blindness, convulsions, and eventually death. In such cases, treatment options are very limited and seldom successful.
Another 35 percent of the eagles admitted in 2017 were found to have elevated but less critical levels of lead in their blood, indicating some degree of intoxication, though the noticeable effects were less obvious. With “sub-clinical” levels of lead in their bloodstream, eagles may appear normal but still suffer damaging effects of the toxicosis. The birds may be able to fly, but with less agility. They may be able to see, but with less precision. They may be able to feed themselves, but not capture live prey. Their reaction time and reflexes may be slowed. Such sub-clinical intoxication is the functional equivalent of driving drunk; the birds are more likely to suffer accidents or injuries that would otherwise be avoidable.
As in waterfowl, the source of the toxin in eagles is lead shot and bullet fragments that were ingested by the birds as they feed. Frequently, diagnostic radiographs of the eagles show actual lead shot or bullet fragments still in a bird’s digestive tract. In some cases, the lead can be surgically removed, but not always. Even if the actual projectile has passed out the digestive tract and no longer remains in the body, dangerous amounts of dissolved lead can still be circulating in the blood or stored in the bones, brain, or internal organs of the body. No level of lead in the body is considered “safe.”
Compounding the threat is that, unlike organic toxins, lead is a heavy metal; an eagle’s internal organs are not able to easily purge the lead in the bird’s bloodstream. Once the lead enters the body, it remains virtually forever, accumulating in the bones of the bird and continuing to have permanent negative impacts. If the bird is exposed to additional lead in its diet, the amount of the toxin will accumulate and increase over time, eventually affecting the bird’s ability to survive. The cumulative impacts can last for years, and can only get worse over time.
For many people who don’t like hunting, this seems like an easy answer; but the truth is, it’s not that easy.  Hunting is not as popular as it once was in the United States, as a greater percentage of our population has gravitated to urban and suburban locations, but it is still an extremely popular pastime in the United States.  In some states, like Virginia, hunting and fishing are rights guaranteed in the state constitution.  And, to some extent, a hunting ban would be like banning driving as a way to reduce traffic accidents—not a proportional response.  In truth, many of the leaders of the movement to eliminate lead from hunting ammunition are themselves, hunters.  They are often the most effective messengers for information about lead toxicity.  Conversely, someone who openly opposes all hunting is NOT the right person to try and educate or inform the hunting public about this issue.  It may make you feel good to rant about hunters and declare, “Just shoot the hunters!” but that is actually extremely counterproductive.  The issue is about the availability of lead to scavengers, not about whether or not hunting is a good thing.
The challenge is not to find a way to ban the use of all lead — it is to find a way to reduce the amount of toxic lead fragments available to non-target wildlife and to do it without unreasonably affecting those whose activities are otherwise legal and acceptable to the public. Most lead-based firearms ammunition is used for national defense and public safety — by the military and police agencies. Target and competitive shooters, and those who own firearms for self-defense, consume the majority of munitions purchased by the private sector. Hunters use only a small percentage of all ammunition sold in the United States each year. A ban on all lead-based ammo would deal a serious blow to national security and public safety, and would hurt a lot of law-abiding firearms users, who are not contributing to the problem of lead-poisoned wildlife!
Thanks to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for this dispatch. The Wildlife Center of Virginia was formed in 1982 to provide quality health care, often on an emergency basis, to native wildlife. For more information, visit www.wildlifecenter.org