A bald eagle with lead poisoning was MARS’ first patient of the year. The bird was found off the side of the Old Island Highway the morning of Jan. 1. MARS photo/ Facebook

Bald eagle with lead poisoning is MARS Wildlife Rescue Centre’s first patient of 2020

Bird was found off Hwy. 19A in Ocean Grove

Lead poisoning continues to be a problem for North Island birds. On Jan. 1, MARS Wildlife Rescue Centre received its first patient of 2020: a bald eagle with lead poisoning.

The bird was found off the side of the Old Island Highway in Campbell River’s Ocean Grove neighbourhood on the morning of the first day of the year and tested positive for lead poisoning.

It’s a common enough problem and has seen multiple groups advocating for the use of lead in hunting and angling to be illegal.

“Lead poisoning is something we see every day,” said MARS in a Facebook post on Jan. 1. “We see the detrimental impacts of lead on individuals of a population, but also on the population as a whole.”

The Merville-based nonprofit wildlife rescue centre tests all of its incoming bald eagles for lead poisoning, said Gyl Andersen, manager of wildlife rehabilitation.

There are a number of ways birds can become poisoned by lead. Andersen said that for carnivorous birds, like their bald eagle patient, it’s usually from eating a carcass that has lead shot in it left behind by a hunter, or an animal dies from other causes, but still has lead in its body from a previous encounter with a hunter. Carnivorous birds may also have ingested the lead by eating waterfowl that have lead sinkers in them.

“A lot of waterfowl will find little pieces of lead when they’re sifting through the substrate and they’ll ingest lead that way,” she said.

The nonprofit wildlife rescue centre says that the outcome of lead poisoning is not usually positive.

“By the time the birds come into us, they have already been dealing with this poisoning for some time, and have already been weakened to a state where even with all the hard work the dedicated staff and volunteers of MARS give them, they are simply beyond recovery,” says MARS.

On Dec. 31, a juvenile bald eagle that was in MARS’ care for lead poisoning died. The rescue centre said the poisoning was too wide-spread.

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A Jan. 4 update on the bird found in Ocean Grove was optimistic of the bird’s recovery.

“He has his moments, but overall seems to be doing as well as can be expected,” it says. “Still hopeful.”

On Jan. 7, Andersen said the bird has finished his first round of lead treatment and the lead levels in his blood have been reduced. He’s thin, so the centre is trying to increase his body condition and weight. Caretakers are optimistic that he’ll eventually be released.

MARS is encouraging hunters and anglers to not use lead in their outdoor pursuits.

“Even if we stop all lead use immediately, the lead that is currently hazardous in the environment will stay there indefinitely,” the rescue centre says. “This is a current problem, but will also continue to be one for many generations to come.”

While lead ammunition used to hunt migratory birds has been illegal for two decades, it’s still allowed for upland birds like grouse, and mammals. Non-toxic ammunition must also be used to hunt waterfowl in B.C.

A 2018 study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada examining the use of lead and non-lead ammunition for non-military activities in Canada suggests that as sport shooting increases in popularity and with no additional restrictions on lead shot, the level of lead released into the environment could increase from approximately 5,000 tonnes (2016) to 5,800 tonnes by 2025.

RELATED: MARS seeing influx of sick, injured eagles from north part of Vancouver Island

Andersen said many people just aren’t aware of how lead ammunition affects the animals that are shot with it or the creatures that will eventually eat those animals.

“It’s still going to be present in the environment,” she said. “There’s some lakes that are quite contaminated with lead sinkers and grains of lead and there are animals walking around that probably have lead shot in them and a lot of animals probably have it in their guts as well.

“It persists.”