Wilted Wings: A Hunter’s Fight for Eagles By Mike McTee Riverfeet Press | 2022 | 170 pages
American conservation, much like the history of America, is entwined with guns. The Pittman-Robertson Fund is an excise tax on firearms and ammunition that provides the lion’s share of the support state wildlife agencies receive. Those agencies use that money together with hunting and fishing license sales to purchase land, enhance habitat, reintroduce extirpated species, and open public access. Hunters, who buy licenses, guns, and ammunition, are among the user groups most invested in American public land and wildlife. But what happens when hunters are one of the top killers of the continent’s eagles?
Wilted Wings: A Hunter’s Fight for Eagles, Mike McTee’s gripping and timely call-to-action to shield North America’s eagles against lead ammunition, builds a bridge between environmentalists, birders, and hunters. This book lays a blueprint of common ground on which all parties can stand and cooperate for the sake of wildlife—and as McTee asserts, cooperation between these groups is the key to ensuring wild creatures and places will endure through the 21st century.
The plight of eagles and their collision with hunters’ lead ammunition isn’t through the poaching of these federally protected raptors, but through their scavenging of gut piles left in the field by successful hunters. The soft composition of lead results in fracturing when the bullet impacts a deer, elk, or ground squirrel at high speeds. These at times microscopic shards are forced throughout the body of the animal and are impossible to recover. When a golden or bald eagle lands on the gut pile, they fill their crop with laced protein and are susceptible to lead poisoning once the metal reaches their highly acidic stomachs.
McTee, an environmental chemist working in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, has witnessed the debilitating effects of this poisoning in dozens of large raptors firsthand as well as the impacts this pain and death has on the rehabbers: “the memory of each poisoned eagle dragging [them] toward grief.” The gasping beaks, folded wings, and clenched claws drove him to research actions that could be taken to prevent further destruction.
McTee’s debut shows a command of feature writing one would expect from a seasoned author. His weaving of personal narrative, natural history, journalism, and scientific study quilt a unique wildlife book for our current political landscape.
As a hunter and scientist, McTee must walk a delicate line between these sometimes-conflicting interests. The importance of hunting for wildlife management is reiterated throughout the book, and his own experiences hunting elk and deer in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains texture McTee’s time in raptor rehabilitation centers and on raptor surveys. The history of hunter-led conservation, including the shift to non-toxic shot in waterfowl hunting (100 percent of American waterfowl hunters must now shoot non-toxic ammunition as mandated by federal law), and environmentalist-led outlawing of DDT in 1972 shows that these sweeping regulations to harmful substances in the environment can occur and can yield dramatic increases in the numbers of game birds and eagles.
It’s important to note that McTee isn’t preaching to the choir as he calls for hunters to switch to non-toxic rifle bullets. Copper bullets—the most readily available alternative to lead—don’t splinter, and if an eagle is unlucky enough to swallow an unretrieved bullet as it eats the lungs of an elk, the metal won’t act as a poison like lead. As an activist who travels across rural America demonstrating the issues of lead ammunition, McTee has been met with resistance by hunters who don’t believe the science or fear government regulation. Yet just as this book delivers its argument scaffolded with stories that promote a shared love and interest, McTee meets these nay-sayers where they are, as hunters.
This style of argument is where Wilted Wings shines. In a time when differing conservation groups butt heads and lose the opportunity to create impactful change—the outdoor recreation community balking against a “backpack tax” or the hunting community resisting cooperation with environmentalist groups—McTee offers multiple parties the knowledge they can take into the world and use when they interact with individuals uninformed on the subject. There is no haughtiness in these pages. While the stories of McTee’s travels across the American West to study these eagles and other scavengers are entertaining and fascinating, this book at its core is a tool for environmental progress.
Noah Davis’s poetry collection Of This River was selected for the 2019 Wheelbarrow Emerging Poet Book Prize from Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry, and his poems and prose have appeared in The Sun, Southern Humanities Review, Best New Poets,Orion, The Year’s Best Sports Writing, North American Review, and River Teeth, among others. Davis earned an MFA from Indiana University and now lives in Missoula, Montana.