US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version



Published in Contaminants Report Number: R6/720/05, 1-24, (2005)


Recreational shooting of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) is a common activity at Thunder Basin National Grassland (TBNG), Wyoming. The prairie dog carcasses left in the area are scavenged by coyotes (Canis latrans), raptors, and other animals. These scavengers are susceptible to lead (Pb) poisoning if they consume Pb bullet fragments or Pb shot when scavenging the shooter-killed prairie dogs. In 2000, a local rehabilitator noted an increase of Pb poisoning cases in raptors (L.Layton, pers. comm. 3/30/01) from the area. We collected several shooter-killed prairie dog carcasses from TBNG for determining if Pb fragments remained embedded in the tissue that potentially would be consumed by raptors. Radiographs showed fragments consistent with Pb to be present. In 2002, we conducted a more in-depth study to determine if Pb poisoning was occurring in raptors at TBNG by documenting the number of raptors on prairie dogs at colonies where shooting occurred, assaying bullet fragments in shot prairie dogs to determine Pb content, and analyzing blood and feather samples of ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) and golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) nestlings and feathers from burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) for clinical signs of Pb poisoning.

We observed raptors foraging at prairie dog colonies and collected data on the number of shooters shooting at prairie dog colonies. To determine if raptors preferred foraging on shot prairie dogs, we compared raptor use at prairie dog colonies where shooting occurred to raptor use at prairie dog colonies where shooting did not occur. Shooter intensity did not predict raptor use. We also collected prairie dog carcasses and examined them for Pb shot fragments. We detected metal fragments in four of ten prairie dog carcasses. The total weight of the fragments found in each carcass ranged from 10 – 146 mg. Copper was the primary metal detected in 3 of 4 carcasses; but, significant amounts of Pb (20 mg, 28 mg, and 124 mg) were found in the three carcasses. Blood Pb concentrations in ferruginous hawk nestlings were below sub-clinical levels at TBNG and the control site near Rawlins, Wyoming. Analysis of red blood cell delta-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase activity, hemoglobin levels, and protoporphyrin levels also did not indicate Pb poisoning in ferruginous hawk nestlings. Additionally, blood and feather samples from golden eagle nestlings and feather samples from burrowing owls (juveniles and adults) at TBNG did not indicate Pb poisoning. Although ferruginous hawks and golden eagles (and possibly burrowing owls) scavenge on the carcasses of shot prairie dogs and some carcasses contained Pb-bullet fragments, we did not detect Pb poisoning in any of the birds. Lead poisoning may become important if the availability of alternate food sources decreases or shooter intensity increases.