British Columbia

Switch ammo to stop lead poisoning in birds, B.C. wildlife experts tell hunters

Hunting season in British Columbia can have toxic consequences for birds of prey and it's time to get the lead out of ammunition to stop them from being poisoned, say raptor expert.

Eagles feeding on carrion left behind by hunters are most at risk

This golden eagle is being treated for lead poisoning at the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta, B.C.. Experts say it's time to rethink the use of lead ammunition which may poison the birds as they scavenge the remains of hunted game in B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society)

Hunting season in British Columbia is having unintended toxic consequences for birds of prey and it's time to get the lead out of ammunition to stop them from being poisoned, say two local raptor experts.

The Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society, or OWL, in Delta, B.C., is currently treating two eagles for lead poisoning and it can see up to 20 raptors each year, said long-time raptor caretaker Rob Hope.

The birds ingest lead when they scavenge the carcasses of animals killed with lead shotgun pellets or rifle bullets that contain the toxin, Hope said.

The Canadian government banned lead for hunting waterfowl two decades ago, and non-toxic shot is now required to hunt most migratory game birds across the country. Lead shot is also prohibited for all types of hunting in 55 national wildlife areas.

A young bald eagle was released back into the wild after it was treated for lead poisoning. Often scavenger birds get lead poisoning after they consume carrion containing lead shot, bullets or fragments. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Still widely used 

But pellets and bullets containing lead are still widely used to hunt large game and upland game birds, such as grouse or pheasant.

It's unclear how many birds are being poisoned and the source of the lead poisoning is hard to pin down, said John Elliott, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in B.C.

In addition to spent ammunition, the birds can also ingest lead through fishing tackle.

But the increase in lead-poisoned raptors at OWL generally coincides with the hunting season, said Hope, with ailing birds being delivered from across the province between October and March.

Hope said he would like to see hunters switch to non-lead ammunition, adding he's not against hunting.

The Canadian government estimates that 40 to 80 tonnes of lead are used every year for hunting activities in Canada. (Tamarack Wildlife Center/Facebook)

Myles Lamont, a wildlife biologist based in Surrey, B.C., said the soft metal of the bullets breaks up upon impact, almost like a microplastic.

"They just disintegrate, and so you get this powderized lead all through the carcass, which is undetectable. You never actually see it unless you use an X-ray machine."

Some affected birds don't show symptoms, while others are lethargic, starving or have trouble breathing.

Elliott said it takes a small amount of lead to poison the birds.

"An eagle only has to get a few of those fragments," he said. "If it gets into their system, into the digestive tract and starts to be absorbed, it will slowly kill them."

The Canadian government estimates that 40 to 80 tonnes of lead are used every year for hunting activities in Canada.

Just a small fragment of lead from a bullet or lead shot is enough to kill an eagle. Birdzilla had been found sick on the ground from lead poisoning in 2016, according to a Nova Scotia wildlife rehab centre. (Submitted by the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre)

Lamont, who is a hunter, said he's reached out to the B.C. Wildlife Federation, which has 43,000 members and represents resident hunters in B.C., in order to spread the word.

"This is sort of an emerging issue," said Tina Coleman, the director of corporate operations for the wildlife federation, adding she's invited Lamont to speak with members.

"If this is a problem, we should be looking at it, educating ourselves, and every citizen should make the right choice."

There is a learning curve for hunters switching to non-lead alternatives, such as copper bullets. They are ballistically different than lead, with different weights and trajectories, said Coleman.

"If you've been doing something the same way for 10 or 20 years, you're not likely going to want to change," she said.

"There would have to be huge evidence of why it's so bad," Coleman said.

Elliott helped initiate an ongoing, nationwide study of lead poisoning in avian scavengers for Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2017.

Since much of the Canadian wilderness is remote, it's been difficult for researchers to collect enough carcasses of scavenging birds to assess the extent of the problem, he said.

But, he said, there's probably a "fair number" of birds being poisoned.

10 per cent of count poisoned

He also contributed to a study of bald and golden eagles in Western Canada in a survey conducted between 1986 and 1998, which found 10 per cent of 546 eagles had tissue with lead levels consistent with poisoning, while five per cent had elevated but non-lethal levels.

The study found golden eagles were twice as likely to be affected than bald eagles.

The B.C. government said it's not contemplating expanding the existing federal restrictions on lead shot. 

No one from Environment and Climate Change Canada, which published the report, could immediately be reached for comment.

Lead isn't just a problem for birds.

A 2018 article published by the American Journal of Medicine found that people who eat meat harvested with lead ammunition are at risk of developing unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

"My interest is seeing the hunting community embrace the literature and the science, that say even if you don't care about the animals that feed on your gut piles, consider this from this your own family's safety perspective," Lamont said.

 

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