Hunters and anglers should stop using lead products, vet says

Hunters and anglers should stop using lead products that can poison animals, a Nova Scotia wildlife rehab centre says.

Switching to copper-based ammo and tackle could spare more sick eagles like Birdzilla

Eagles seem drunk when they are suffering from lead poisoning. (Courtesy Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre )

Hunters and anglers should stop using lead products that can poison animals, a Nova Scotia wildlife rehab centre says.

The Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Brookfield sees the results in sick animals who have ingested the lead-based bullets. Earlier this year they rehabbed an eagle nicknamed Birdzilla, which got very sick from lead poisoning.

Helene Van Doninck, veterinarian and director of the wildlife centre, said the affected animals look drunk but show no signs of injury.

"Everything that comes here gets the same level of respect, but I always feel an extra layer of responsibility when we have species that are at risk," she told CBC's Mainstreet. "Eagles or loons — I always feel extra stressed when we have them here because their numbers have had trouble."

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      Environment Canada says lead poisoning affects 250,000 birds in Canada each year, and 2.5 million North American birds each year. Some get shot, some accidentally eat a bit of a lead bullet and others eat birds that have been shot by lead.

      Van Doninck plans to appear at every fishing derby across the province this summer to urge people to ditch lead and switch to copper-based bullets. 

      The Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters also asks its members to stop using ammunition or tackle that contain lead. In 2013, the Department of Natural Resources stopped using lead ammunition when staff put down animals. 

      'Hunters are being targeted'

      But not all hunters agree. 

      "Hunters are being targeted," says Bob LeBlanc. "They're being pointed at."

      LeBlanc has been hunting since he was 12. His father taught him to shoot and he doesn't feel there is any pressing need to make a change. 

      "To the best of my knowledge, there's never been any exploration of any other source of lead or contaminant in these birds other than directly pointing the finger at hunters," he said. 

      "To single out that one group of people when you don't know with 100 per cent certainty what you're saying is true, it ruffles my feathers, it truly does."

      'Overwhelming' scientific evidence

      Myra Finkelstein takes issue with this sort of rationale. She is a wildlife toxicologist who studied the effects of lead poisoning on California condors through her post-doctoral work. 

      "I think there's overwhelming scientific evidence which shows that animals exposed to lead through lead ammunition or tackle can be poisoned and die," she says.

      Recently, Finkelstein and a group of other scientists released a consensus statement called Health Risks from Lead Based Ammunition in the Environment.

      Problem for humans

      Through isotopic analysis, a process that analyzes and identifies specific isotopes in a sample, the lead found in bullets can be matched to the lead found in poisoned animals, she said. 

      She notes that isotopic analysis has been used for decades to understand how children get lead poisoning.

      "There's a vast body of information that shows that hunters that eat game shot with lead-based ammunition have higher lead exposure themselves," says Finkelstein. 

      "I think it's unfortunate, and I hope that we can do a better job of informing the public of the risks of lead."

      With files from Stephanie Domet and Jon Tattrie