I was saddened last week to learn of the passing of Dr. Helene Van Doninck, a veterinarian who ran the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Truro. I knew Helene for many years and I also had the opportunity, a few years ago, to attend a presentation she gave at the Pictou library on the impact of lead on wildlife. Dr. Van Doninck became concerned when she began to see eagles and loons arriving at her clinic suffering from lead poisoning. In her presentation she presented research which showed that lead from hunting and fishing activities could have a negative impact on wildlife as well as humans. The eagles and loons she treated at the Centre were picking up lead when feeding on animals contaminated with lead bullets or on fishing gear. Her presentation on lead bullets was an eye opener for me and I promised her I would dedicate a column to it during hunting season that fall.
Lead is a heavy metal which can very toxic effects on plants, animals and the environment. In her presentation Dr. Van Doninck outlined how game shot with lead bullets can have significant amounts of lead breakup from the bullet which spreads throughout the animal. These particles may be very small and not be detected by sight or touch. Modern, high velocity bullets may break up on impact, spreading lead particles in an area of up to eighteen inches from the point of entry. In the case of deer she suggested that the meat in this area should be removed and safely discarded. This includes making sure it is not available to wildlife such as eagles which may feed on it.
Some progress has been made on this issue and the Nova Scotia Dept. of Lands and Forestry has an excellent summary in their hunting regulations booklet regarding the issue of lead ammunition and suggests ways to avoid the problem. These include using alternate bullets, such as those made of copper, or high weight controlled expansion ammunition. Another suggestion involves using slower velocity firearms, such as a shotgun or muzzle loader as there is less chance of fragmentation occurring with these lower velocity firearms. They also suggest that care be taken with shot placement to ensure fragmentation is not a problem. One comment Dr. Van Doninck made was that hunters need to make sure they sight in their rifles when switching to copper bullets as the ballistics may be different from the lead they have been using.
While the majority of hunting ammunition uses lead bullets, progress is being made in replacing it. The use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl was banned in 1999 and since 1997 it has been illegal to have lead fishing sinkers or jigs while fishing in a National Park. For a long time it was very difficult to find alternatives to lead bullets but that has changed as more and more ammunition companies begin manufacturing alternatives. As a result today there are more and more products on the market and Dr. Van Doninck had several of these alternatives at her presentation. She described an ammunition exchange program which the Halifax Wildlife Association, an affiliate of the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, had organized where hunters can swap their lead for safer options. Dr. VanDoninck was a tireless crusader for wildlife and she will be dearly missed. To honour her passion and legacy donations may be made in her memory to the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (www.cwrc.net.)
Something else you can do to continue her important work is make an effort to get the lead out of your fishing tackle, as well as your ammunition if you hunt, and replace it with more environmentally friendly and healthy alternatives. The eagles, loons, and Helene, will thank you.
-Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.