Rodent bait from oilsands poisoning animals commonly trapped in Alberta

The study, released last week, found rat poison in the livers of some fur-bearing animals, such as fishers and martens, that live near oilsands facilities as far north as Fort Chipewyan.

Oilsands companies respond by banning rodent poison

Researchers said the rat poison they are detecting in fishers and martens are likely from oil sands using it to prevent squirrels and mice from destroying their equipment. (Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

Environment Canada says rat poison from oilsands facilities could be killing animals that are traditionally trapped for their fur. 

The study, released last week, found rat poison in the livers of some fishers and martens that live near oilsands facilities as far north as Fort Chipewyan.

"There's some effects for sure," said Phil Thomas, a biologist for Environment Canada and the study's lead author. "It's the first time in Canada that fishers are reported to being exposed to rodenticides, and the first time worldwide that martens are being exposed."

A researcher has found rat poison in commonly trapped animals, like martens, near oil sands facilities. (Wiki Creative Commons)

The amounts could be high enough to kill the animals, deteriorate their fur or leave them weak and lethargic. The research also traced the restricted rodent poison Bromadiolone to its use in nearby oilsands operations.

Oilsands companies commonly use rodent poison to kill mice and squirrels that can sometimes damage equipment and buildings. Fishers and martens then eat the rodents.

The study screened the livers of animals commonly trapped in Alberta and northern Canada, which were submitted by local trappers. It found that 25 per cent of fishers and 10 per cent of martens had detectable levels of the poison.

Declining animal populations

Fisher and marten populations have significantly declined due to overharvesting and habitat destruction, such as logging and resource development.

The study’s lead author and Environment Canada biologist, Phil Thomas, dissects one of the animals that local trappers submitted. (Submitted)

While the study detected the presence of poisons, it hasn't determined how many animals are dying or at what rate.

"Those animals that were sampled were the animals healthy enough to pursue prey and then be captured on the trapline. So obviously those sick and lethargic animals we are not sampling," Thomas said.

Ninety animals were collected across 27 traplines during the winter months.

Ryan Abel, who oversees environmental issues for the Fort McKay First Nation, said he has heard from trappers and land users who have been seeing fewer animals in the oilsands region for years.

"The consensus in what I continually hear is that there's less wildlife. There's fewer animals to trap by far," Abel said.

Some have also seen a decline in the health of the animals caught.

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the city of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The company contacted CBC News and said it discontinued use of the poison once it was notified of its effects on wildlife. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"Some of the ones they were catching weren't completely healthy, and they were questioning as to why," said Rob Miskosky, vice-president of the Alberta Trappers Association. "And that's when it was considered to have something to do with the oil and gas industry."

Working with industry

Researchers say they informed oilsands companies in the region of their findings as soon as data started to come in.

As a result, 25 companies voluntarily stopped using the poison researchers found in martens and fishers.

"Industry turned around and said, 'Wow, this is incredible, and what can we do to help?''' Thomas said.

It is up to the federal government to ban use of the harmful rat poison. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter and via email.