poisoning in Whatcom County in record numbers, but the deaths are starting to decrease this year, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report.
Washington and southwest British Columbia in the past nine years. Current swan
population is around 10,000. Lead pellets caused most of these deaths because
swans eat the pellets, according to the report.
Hunters used lead pellets for shooting game until
1991, when wildlife officials outlawed lead shot. The
pellets still contaminate the environment because officials have not
removed them, according to the Department of Fish and
Trumpeter swans are the rarest swan species in
the world, nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900s, according to the
trumpeter Swan Society website.
The birds are covered in delicate white feathers
and have charcoal-black markings leading from their eyes to the edge of their
beaks. They swim gracefully, using their long necks to pick at vegetation,
according to the Trumpeter Swan Society website.
While the future looked bleak for trumpeter swans
in the last few years, swan deaths are decreasing dramatically, said Paul
DeBruyn, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
“Things are getting better,” DeBruyn said. “The
population is growing, fewer swans are dying from lead and we’re improving
techniques [to remove lead risks].”
DeBruyn said about 200 to 400 swans died every
year between 1999 and 2009. An average of 283 swans die each year collectively
in Whatcom County and British Columbia, he said.
About 117 swans died last year in Whatcom County,
but Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials see this number as
progress, DeBruyn said. It is one of the lowest numbers of swan deaths in the
area in 10 years.
The deaths have decreased by 65 percent in since
about 2006, DeBruyn said.
Swans were a rare sight in Whatcom County about
30 years ago, DeBruyn said. Now, their population is up to 10,000 and
more people are aware of the effect lead pellets have on the environment.
DeBruyn said stray lead pellets transform the
lake’s scenery as they kill off swans. The swans are stunning as well as
important to the environment, he said.
“To see these big, beautiful, iconic birds laying
dead is completely disgusting,” DeBruyn said.
Swan corpses lying around in parks and lakes pose
a risk to other animals, he said. Scavengers feed on poisoned swans, giving
themselves a lethal dose of lead, he said.
Swans help the soil around lakes because their
digging increases soil fertility for other plants to grow, Fairhaven professor
John Bower said.
“The swans muck around in the mud looking for
vegetation,” Bower said. “Swans aren’t a keystone species for the environment,
but they play a role in soil recycling.”
Volunteers and Fish and Wildlife officials
collect dead swans from across the county, slice them open and search for tiny
grey lead pellets or signs of poisoning in their organs, Debruyn said. It’s
messy work, but necessary to preserve the species, he said.
“We have to look through their gizzards and
livers for signs of lead,” DeBruyn said. “It’s not always an easy process.”
Finding and collecting the dead swans before scavenger animals get
to them is crucial and DeBruyn said his team is on constant alert. He said he
X-rays the birds and some are cut open for chemical analysis.
DeBruyn and his team use a technique called
“hazing” to keep them off the lake. In 2007, officials started hazing the birds
by scaring them away or providing them alternative roosting spots, he
“We wanted to keep the birds off the lake because
we knew it was contaminated with lead,” DeBruyn said.
Active hazing was a time-consuming process, so
officials switched to passive hazing techniques about two years ago, DeBruyn
said. Officials set up bamboo poles in the lake to keep swans from landing on
the water’s surface, and planted cameras with an online feed to monitor birds on
Judson Lake, he said.
The passive hazing techniques are working, but
lake contamination is still an issue in Whatcom County, DeBruyn said. The
problem is not necessarily the amount of lead in the lake, but plants keeping
the lead from sinking out-of-reach of waterfowl, he said.
Plants such as pond lilies make lead
contamination worse for animals because they hold lead pellets and gravel, which
swans use to digest food, above the surface, DeBruyn said. If the pellets could
sink to the soil at the bottom of the lake, swans would not swallow them.
“The strategy we’re going after right now is
getting rid of pond lilies,” DeBruyn said. “If we can do this, we can prevent
swans from swallowing most of the lead.”
Officials already banned hunters from using lead
pellets, but existing pellets are difficult to remove, he said.
The department proposed draining sections of
lakes to remove lead, but this is an expensive and difficult process, he said.
Judson Lake stretches across the United States and Canadian borders, which would
mean drafting an international agreement between the two countries, he said.
“[Removing lilies] is the easiest thing to do,”
DeBruyn said. “It’s easier than trying to drain parts of lakes that sit across
national borders, which can get complicated.”
Canadian wildlife officials are cooperating with
the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to preserve the trumpeter swan’s
natural habitat, Debruyn said. After swans are collected and examined in Whatcom
County, the samples are shipped to Canada for further testing, he said.
The Washington state Department of Fish and
Wildlife has a full-time staff monitoring and collecting poisoned birds, DeBruyn
said. His team set up a hotline for people to call if they see a dead
“It helps us find birds that we miss and gives
people a source for reporting and removing dead swans,” DeBruyn said.
To report dead or injured swans, call
360-466-4345, ext. 266. Lines are available 24 hours a day until the end of