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What Is the Truth About Swan Deaths on the U.S./Canada Border?

April 2004

Cover Story

What Is the Truth About Swan Deaths on the U.S./Canada Border?

by Kevin Sinclair

Kevin Sinclair lives with his wife Wrenetta and sons Joel and Michael on a farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The farm, which includes the entire Canadian portion of Judson Lake, has been in their family since 1937.

Have you ever wondered what’s really going on with all the mysterious trumpeter swan mortalities in our area that continue unabated year after year? Did you know that more than 1,100 of these magnificent creatures have suffered and died from acute lead poisoning over the past five years? How is it that despite countless taxpayer dollars being spent on monitoring studies that the end result always seems to come out the same?

The truth is, the general public has not been told the whole story. In fact, where the swans are finding the lead shot responsible for their terrible deaths is not a mystery at all. My sincere hope is that after you have read this article you will not only be shocked by the information you’ve received but you will also be moved to take immediate action!

Let me begin by telling you that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) have known for many years about a very serious source of lead shot in Whatcom County that is likely responsible for many, if not most, of the swan mortalities over the past five years. The reason no action has been taken to remedy the problem is that the source of the leadshot is a trans-boundary lake that is three-quarters in the U.S. and one-quarter in Canada. It’s called Judson Lake.

For decades hunters have enjoyed their sport on Judson Lake (approximately two miles west of Sumas), leaving its bottom filled with millions of lead pellets. Due to the natural infilling process and high water usage, Judson Lake has become progressively shallow over the years, and the swans are now exposed to the lead shot. But please don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at what the U.S. and Canadian Wildlife Services have to say about this subject.

Ingestion of Spent Lead Shot

A government study published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1998 (Canadian Field Naturalist 112(2): 204-211) states that “ 1992 at least 32 swans died of lead poisoning in a single incident at Judson Lake on the British Columbia/Washington border, indicating that lead poisoning from ingestion of spent lead shot from past hunting is an ongoing threat.” The study goes on to say that “lead shot were detected in all the sediment samples taken from Judson Lake. The number of pellets/m3 ranged from 37 to 177 with an average of 95.”

This is a staggering statistic as “the USFWS estimates that a waterfowl which ingests one to two lead shot will die 21 days post exposure.” Please consider this for a moment. This is just the Canadian side we’re talking about. The U.S. side of Judson Lake is certainly more highly contaminated as this is where the majority of the hunting has occurred over the years.

In 2002, in an Abbotsford Times article, a Canadian Wildlife Service spokesperson was quoted as saying that “once the source is identified, a decision would have to be made as to how to remediate the problem.” Interestingly enough, the same person who said this also co-wrote the 1998 study.

Fifth Consecutive Dying Season

Another noteworthy quote comes from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in a newspaper article in 2001: “I’m concerned about this over time. This is two years in a row now. If we have a third, fourth and fifth year, I’m not sure this population can handle that.” Well, we are now experiencing our fifth consecutive “dying season” and by the time you read this article there will have been at least 400 lead poisoning mortalities this year alone. That’s roughly 20 percent of the visiting swan population and by far the heaviest die-off on record.

So what I can’t help thinking is why are the USFWS and CWS stalling? Why do they continue to let so many swans die? If Judson Lake is very contaminated, then why don’t we just all pull together and remove the lead shot when the lake dries up in the summer? You’d think this would be a no-brainer. There is plenty of industry and public support for such an undertaking. In fact, there’s even a local company with the capability of vacuuming the lead out of the dried up lakebed. Ducks Unlimited Canada has said that they would be willing to draw the restoration design, but also did make it absolutely clear that this could only happen if the USFWS/CWS first concluded that restoring Judson Lake would prove helpful in stopping the significant mortalities of migrating trumpeter swans.

Well, the answer I got as to why Judson Lake was not being considered as a primary source responsible for these grievous death was that the number of lead pellets they (USFWS/CWS) have found in some of the swan’s gizzards are very high, indicating that the source must be somewhere else. I was told that the results of the monitoring study were inconclusive and that they needed to collect more data. But wait a minute— they have already collected at least four years of data now.

Joint Monitoring Study

The following quotes are taken from a joint monitoring study conducted by the WDFW and CWS from 2001–2003. The study entitled “Lead Poisoning of Trumpeter and Tundra Swans by Ingestion of Lead Shot in Whatcom County, Washington, USA and Sumas Prairie, British Columbia, Canada” had this to say: “Locating the sources of lead was complicated because most (89 percent) poisoned swans were retrieved from night roost sites away from foraging areas. Shot was detected in only one of the 12 forage fields examined. A total of two shot were found.”

Please think about this for a moment. After two years of monitoring studies, which involved radio collaring swans and following them all over the countryside and collecting core samples from the fields they were foraging in, our two governments combined found two lead pellets. Now, if you’re not scratching your head yet, check out this quote: “Preliminary results suggest the sources of lead shot responsible for the swan mortalities in the Whatcom County and Sumas Prairie are likely local. The main sources of lead shot may be either in Whatcom County or the Sumas Prairie, possibly near the border.”

So let’s do the math. We have an irrefutable government study (1998) stating that Judson Lake is horrifically contaminated. Add to that a conclusive two-year monitoring study (2001–2003) stating that “the sources of lead shot responsible for the swan mortalities are likely local and possibly near the border.”

And let’s add one more quote for good measure. This one comes from the executive director of the U.S. based Trumpeter Swan Society: “I had heard of Judson Lake, but had not realized the significance of this particular site, in relationship to all the places where dead swans are being found (November 25, 2003).”

Death Trap

Hoping to find out firsthand what on earth was going on, I was allowed to attend a meeting in La Conner, Wash., which was for stakeholders in the Whatcom Co. —Sumas Prairie Trumpeter Swan Mortality Project. What I found out was our wildlife agencies are doing absolutely nothing of a practical nature to stop these grievous deaths. Although I had heard the name Judson Lake come up repetitively in the discussions, the lead players had not even considered the fact that water levels in Judson Lake had dropped over the years, creating this death trap. In fact, they still don’t. Their strategy is to continue radio-collaring swans (they collared 98 more this year) and monitor them.

A few days after the meeting I sent e-mails thanking them for letting me be there. I asked if we could utilize the dried up lakebed to perform strategic core sampling to pinpoint the hot spots and offered to volunteer my help. Their response was, “your idea is interesting, but in our experience it’s not practical.”

Now here is the kicker. At the stakeholder meeting I was given a copy of the “Strategic Action Plan Outline for 2003-2004.” The only proactive component of the plan is entitled “Remediation of Contamination or Removal of Threat.” The objective is to “clean up” a site that is contaminated or at least make the lead shot inaccessible to the swans. After reading this I immediately submitted the following e-mail (I’ve left the names out):

“I’ve been reading the ‘Strategic Action Plan Outline for 2003-2004.’ I would like to propose a viable solution in regards to the fourth component of the plan, which is entitled ‘Remediation of Contamination or Removal of Threat.’

We, the owners of the Canadian side of Judson Lake, believe that this lake must be ecologically restored. We have asked Ducks Unlimited if they would be willing to get involved and devise a strategy to assist in the recovery and maintenance of the ecological integrity of our shared lake. We could all partner together to help create something beautiful that future generations will marvel at, while taking clear steps toward the goal of eliminating the significant mortalities of wintering swans. Because the portion of Judson Lake that is on our property is much smaller than the U.S. side, we could use it to investigate remediation techniques which may be an option, and create the model for restoring the entire lake.” This time there was no response.

Formal Petition

To get an in-depth look at just how far our federal wildlife managers have gone in order to suppress the truth, please view our formal environmental petition (web address in next paragraph). In Canada, we have a commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. The commissioner’s office is devoted entirely to providing environmental audits of the government’s activities, and the commissioner assists parliamentarians in overseeing the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.

The petition (which I penned) has been read by the commissioner and has been assigned petition file number 99. It is posted in the Petitions Catalogue on the Web site of the office of the Auditor General of Canada at (click on Petitions Catalogue in left hand column).

This is serious. We are responsible for killing these beautiful creatures and we have a moral obligation to correct our terrible mistake. Our federal wildlife managers have their heads in the sand and there’s not an environmental organization out there that’s willing to take a close look at this. Unless ordinary citizens stand up and speak out, countless numbers of these majestic birds will needlessly continue to suffer and die. This situation is appalling, but together we can stop this.

I urge you, please get involved! Join us in this fight to save the swans. Please forward this article on to your local politicians. Forward it on to Governor Gary Locke. Demand that this issue be investigated. Tell them that you look forward to their written response to your concerns. How many more swans must needlessly die before our federal wildlife managers are held accountable for letting this senseless tragedy continue year after year after year?

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