Ground squirrel shooting and potential lead exposure in breeding avian scavengers

By: , and 



Recreational ground squirrel shooting is a popular activity throughout the western United States and serves as a tool for managing ground squirrel populations in agricultural regions. Belding’s ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) are routinely shot in California, Nevada, and Oregon across habitats that overlap with breeding avian scavengers. Ground squirrels shot with lead (Pb)-based bullets may pose a risk to avian scavengers if they consume carcasses containing Pb fragments. To assess the potential risk to breeding avian scavengers we developed a model to estimate the number, mass, and distribution of Pb fragments in shot ground squirrels using radiographic images. Eighty percent of shot carcasses contained detectible Pb fragments with an average of 38.6 mg of Pb fragments. Seven percent of all carcasses contained Pb fragment masses exceeding a lethal dose for a model raptor nestling (e.g. American kestrel Falco sparverius). Bullet type did not influence the number of fragments in shot ground squirrels, but did influence the mass of fragments retained. Belding’s ground squirrels shot with .17 Super Mag and unknown ammunition types contained over 28 and 17 times more mass of Pb fragments than those shot with .22 solid and .22 hollow point bullets, respectively. Ground squirrel body mass was positively correlated with both the number and mass of Pb fragments in carcasses, increasing on average by 76% and 56% respectively across the range of carcass masses. Although the mass of Pb retained in ground squirrel carcasses was small relative to the original bullet mass, avian scavenger nestlings that frequently consume shot ground squirrels may be at risk for Pb-induced effects (e.g., physiology, growth, or survival). Using modeling efforts we found that if nestling golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), and Swainson’s hawks (B. swainsoni) consumed shot ground squirrels proportionately to the nestling’s mass, energy needs, and diet, 100% of the nestling period would exceed a 50% reduction in delta-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase production threshold, the last 13–27% of the nestling stage would exceed a reduced growth rate threshold, but no nestlings would be expected to exceed a level of Pb ingestion that would be lethal.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Ground squirrel shooting and potential lead exposure in breeding avian scavengers
Series title PLoS ONE
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0167926
Volume 11
Issue 12
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Public Library of Science
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, Contaminant Biology Program
Description Article e0167926; 22 p.
Country United States
State California, Oregon
County Lake County, Malheur County, Siskiyou County
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