The troubling poisoning deaths of four bald eagles in South Delta are raising alarms over the use of lead by hunters and fishermen in the region.
Lead shot has been banned for decades for waterfowl hunting due to the potential for geese and ducks to consume the lead and pass it on to predators such as eagles. But lead is still legal for skeet and trap shooting at gun clubs and for hunting of upland game birds such as pheasants, as well as in fishing lures and weights.
Four lead-poisoned eagles — two from Vancouver Island and two from Metro Vancouver — brought into the non-profit OWL (Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society) rehab centre near Ladner in the last two weeks have died, said Rob Hope, the facility’s raptor care manager and himself a hunter.
Hope said he wants to educate the hunting and fishing community on the availability of alternatives to lead, such as steel shot, as well as copper bullets with polymer tips rather than lead core with copper jackets for big game.
“We don’t want to come across as anti-hunting, anti-fishing or anti-outdoors. We want to educate people and encourage them to change on their own.”
Waterfowl ingest the lead while feeding and eagles prey upon the weak ones, he said.
“A piece of lead the size of a grain of rice will kill an eagle in 24 hours,” Hope said. “We have a lead-testing machine and the readings are very high. Some have x-rays of the pellets inside of them.”
Trumpeter and tundra swans in the Fraser Valley have also suffered over the years from the consumption of lead, with historic deposits of lead shot suspected of playing a role.
Rob Hope, the OWL rehab centre’s raptor care manager, says four lead-poisoned eagles brought into the centre in the last two weeks have died. Hope here shows off a healthy eagle that has been at the facility for the past 15 years.
Victor Skaarup, chair of the B.C. Wildlife Federation’s sport shooting committee, said he sees no reasons why lead cannot be replaced with safer alternatives such as steel for upland birds, just as it is with waterfowl hunting, and said he’d support the B.C. government implementing such a ban.
“The short answer is yes,” he said. “The risk may be low, but if it can be made zero without significant implications, why wouldn’t you do that?
“As a general principle, the federation is opposed to introducing harmful materials into the environment.”
Jeremy Uppenborn, spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said Thursday the government will investigate the issue of lead shot for hunting upland birds, but noted that regulations pertaining to angling methods fall under the federal Fisheries Act.
Skaarup noted that eagles are scavengers and have a very acidic digestive system, making them more vulnerable to lead poisoning. “It’s of concern they’re getting poisoned because it’s not a very pleasant way to go.”
He said alternative sources of lead such as from landfills should not be discounted, although Hope said that’s not a factor in the recent deaths of the four eagles.
The BCWF is working with the Ministry of Environment on best practices for clubs with shooting ranges that use lead in skeet and trap shooting, including the prevention of leaching into water sources. Shooting ranges are not considered areas where waterfowl and raptors are likely to ingest lead, he noted.
As for the use of lead in fishing lures and weights, Skaarup encouraged fishermen to seek better alternatives, although they may cost more. “Where there are safer alternatives, we should be using them.” The problem is probably greatest in lakes where fishing effort is more concentrated, he suggested.
Lead ammunition can also break into fragments upon hitting a big-game animal, with the potential for eagles to ingest fragments in a carcass.
Jens Cuthbert, manager of Stillwater Sports in Ladner, said a box of steel shot costs about $2 more than lead but hunters also prefer lead because it “flies faster, hits harder and is easier on your barrel.”
He noted that hunters are interested in ensuring the health of wild populations. “Hunters are some of the biggest conservationists of wetlands. We care more about the birds than your average person does.”
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