Is Super Natural B.C. losing what makes it super? Hunters, anglers, trappers and guides will all tell you that many fish and wildlife populations in British Columbia are declining. Salmon, steelhead, moose, bighorn sheep and caribou; the list goes on. You hear these folks echoing the same urgent concerns about what they are seeing or not seeing: fewer fawns, cows with no calves, dwindling herd sizes, bull-cow ratios that are out of whack, fewer old bulls and fewer returning salmon.
Folks are asking, “Why are populations declining? Why are there fewer calves and fawns? Why are management strategies like changing hunting regulations not working? Is it because we are ignoring science? Or, are scientists studying the wrong things? Are there too many predators, too much access or are the hunting seasons still too long? Is there a simple answer? Is there a simple fix to all of this?”
Many of these conservationists are working hard to increase funding for science to help everyone understand what is happing to B.C.’s biodiversity. They are also pushing decision makers to establish conservation polices in alignment with Tenant 6 of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation which reads:
“The purpose of principle number 6 means that science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy.”
But not everyone in the hunting community has embraced the idea of letting science drive policy in wildlife management. Some folks are skeptical of science and openly criticize what wildlife scientists are saying. A few folks have it all figured out. With arms crossed they say, “I tell ya, it’s those @#$% wolves.” On the flip side, some non-hunting groups and journalists continue to use alternative facts and junk science in social media and in their op-eds to sway public opinion. Citizen science can help solve some of these problems, but large scale integration of citizen science as well as good solid social science is lacking in British Columbia’s approach to wildlife management. There are so many complex non-linear tangled up relationships in nature and factors affecting fish and wildlife dynamics. No one person or group of people can possibly claim to understand let alone comprehend what is happening with something as seemingly simple as a population decline of a single species.
The primary threats to fish and wildlife that are consistently reported worldwide are: 1) over exploitation 2) habitat loss 3) invasive species and 4) pollution. British Columbia still has large amounts of wilderness which many feel is un-impacted by humans or industrial activities. Most believe our mountain streams run pure and clean. The rugged terrain of B.C. means we should always have a significant amount of untouched wilderness at least at the highest elevations. In all of B.C.’s beauty, it’s hard to comprehend or accept that pollution might be a significant factor affecting fish and wildlife populations especially in our wilderness regions. We occasionally hear of news stories about chemical leaks or spills and industrial pollution making its way into the soil or water. These sources of pollution can be toxic to fish and wildlife resulting in their immediate death. The adverse effects of being exposed to some types of pollutants, however, may not cause rapid death but rather lead to delayed adverse health impacts such as decreased growth or decreased reproduction. These impacts may take decades before anyone realizes what is going on.
The Dirty Dozen
There is a particular group of chemical pollutants called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, that are of significant concern in conservation. Persistent organic pollutants are those man-made chemicals that are stable, persistent and invisible in the environment. Persistent organic pollutants are “organic” in the sense that they can attach themselves to living cells like fat, muscle and liver tissue by moving through the body in the bloodstream. These chemicals are difficult and, for some species, impossible to get rid of, which means some chemicals can accumulate in an organism’s body over its life time. These chemicals can also be passed from a mother to her offspring during gestation and for mammals, through mother’s milk during nursing. Chemicals can also be transferred from species to species when a predator or scavenger consumes another individual. Storing chemicals in the body faster than they can be excreted is what scientist call bioaccumulation. When the concentration of chemicals in the body increases in species further up the food chain, scientists call that process biomagnification.
The United Nations Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that was created in 2001. The treaty was designed to protect human and environmental health from persistent organic pollutants by restricting the world’s most dangerous chemicals. The convention created mechanisms for the international ban of an initial group of twelve chemicals sometimes referred to as the “dirty dozen”.
The world’s 12 most toxic chemicals
|A pesticide applied to soils to kill termites, grasshoppers, corn rootworm, and other insect pests||Toxic to humans, fish and other wildlife|
|Used extensively to control termites and as a broad-spectrum insecticide on a range of agricultural crops||Toxic to humans and wildlife
Possible human carcinogen
May affect human immune system
|Perhaps the best known of the POPs, DDT was widely used during World War II to protect soldiers and civilians from malaria, typhus, and other diseases spread by insects. It continues to be applied against mosquitoes in several countries to control malaria||Eggshell thinning in birds
Associated with chronic (long-term) human health effects
Endocrine system disruptor
|Dieldrin||Used principally to control termites and textile pests, dieldrin has also been used to control insect-borne diseases and insects living in agricultural soils||Highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life
Frog embryos exhibit spinal deformities
|This insecticide is sprayed on the leaves of crops such as cotton and grains. It is also used to control mice, voles and other rodents||Highly toxic to fish
|Primarily employed to kill soil insects and termites, heptachlor has also been used more widely to kill cotton insects, grasshoppers, other crop pests, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes||Associated with bird population declines
Lethal to mink, rats, & rabbits
Adverse behavioural changes and lowered reproductive success in wildlife
Possible human carcinogen
|HCB kills fungi that affect food crops. HCB is also an industrial chemical and can be released as an unintentional byproduct of combustion processes||Lethal to some wildlife
Associated with adverse reproductive effects in wildlife
Accidental poisonings in humans resulted in wide range of effects
|This insecticide is applied mainly to combat fire ants and other types of ants and termites. Mirex is also an industrial chemical used as a fire retardant in plastics, rubber, and electrical goods||Toxic to plants, crustaceans and fish
Possible human carcinogen
|This insecticide, also called camphechlor, is applied to cotton, cereal grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It has also been used to control ticks and mites in livestock||Highly toxic to fish
Possible human carcinogen
|Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
|These compounds are employed in industry as heat exchange fluids, in electric transformers and capacitors, and as additives in paint, carbonless copy paper, sealants and plastics. They are also released as an unintentional byproduct of combustion processes||Lethal to fish at high doses
Reproductive failures in wildlife
Associated with immune system suppression, behavioural abnormalities and developmental problems in humans
|These chemicals are produced unintentionally due to incomplete combustion, as well as during the manufacture of certain pesticides and other chemicals. In addition, certain kinds of metal recycling and pulp and paper bleaching can release dioxins. Dioxins have also been found in automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke and wood and coal smoke||Toxic to wildlife
Associated with enzyme disorders, immune system disorders, chloracne and cancer in humans
|Furans||These compounds are produced unintentionally from the same processes that release dioxins, and they are also found in commercial mixtures of PCBs||Affects similar to dioxins
Possible human carcinogen
In 2001, Canada became the first country to ratify the UN Stockholm Convention. The convention went into force in 2004 and was initially ratified by 151 countries. In 2004, these countries agreed to outlaw nine of the dirty dozen chemicals, limit the use of DDT to malaria control, and curtail inadvertent release of dioxins and furans. Parties to the Convention have agreed to a process by which persistent toxic compounds can be reviewed and added to the convention if they meet certain criteria for persistence and transboundary threats. Countries that did not ratify the treaty include the United States, Israel, Malaysia, and Italy. An additional 16 chemicals have since been added to the list, and three more are currently pending acceptance onto the list.
The Solution to Pollution Isn’t Dilution
Even though many of the “dirty dozen” chemicals have been banned by some countries including Canada, some of the chemicals are still manufactured and used by other countries. Chemicals like furans and dioxins are still generated through industrial processes in Canada including in pulp and paper manufacturing where the chemicals are discharged with other effluent into rivers. Persistent organic pollutants present a unique challenge for wildlife conservation because 1) the chemicals can mobilize from the country of use and be deposited anywhere in the world where the environmental conditions favor them being released out of the atmosphere and 2) once in their new environment, the chemicals can get taken up into the food chain where they can harm fish and wildlife. DDT is the most famous example of these phenomena. While DDT was used mostly in temperate portions of the world nearer the equator, DDT found its way into every living organism on earth, which lead to significant declines of many bird species worldwide.
Some types of persistent organic pollutants once released into the environment (i.e., pesticides sprayed on a crop) will volatilize into the atmosphere. Global atmospheric cycles tend to move from the equator towards both poles. The chemicals move towards the poles but as they reach the colder mid-latitude environments, they can condense and be deposited with snow and rain. When the weather warms, the chemicals can volatilize again and continue their journey towards the poles. This process is called the “grasshopper effect.” Once reaching the poles, the cold dry stable temperatures generally mean that the Polar Regions are the end of the line for these chemicals.
In Canada, the Arctic ecosystem has been under intense scientific study for several decades, and many contaminants have been detected throughout Arctic ecosystems at unexpectedly high levels including in the Inuit people. The problem is so serious that Health Canada warns Inuit people to limit their intake of marine fish and mammals and offer an especially serious warning for pregnant women. In Canada’s Arctic, persistent organic pollutants dissolve into the ocean where they enter the marine food chain and biomagnify in species including seals, polar bear and humans. On land, the chemicals are absorbed by plants and enter the terrestrial food chain where they biomagnify in wolves and humans.
The endocrine system is made up of glands that produce hormones which are chemical messengers that regulate physical and chemical processes in the body including cell and organ activity as well as sexual development and reproduction. The body’s endocrine system has feedback loops whereby receptors in the body relay information back to the brain to either increase or slow production of hormones so that proper concentrations of hormones are maintained in the bloodstream.
Some persistent organic pollutants are known as endocrine disruptors. These artificial chemicals can enter the bloodstream and mimic hormones, sending bad signals or blocking normal signals to the brain. Endocrine disruptors can adversely affect the health of wildlife and humans by causing immune system and reproductive impairment, as well as developmental and reproductive abnormalities. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to abnormalities in laboratory animals and wildlife including feminization of males, abnormal sexual behavior, birth defects, altered sex ratios in populations, decreased sperm density, decreased size of testes, breast cancer, testicular cancer, reproductive failure and thyroid dysfunction. Increases in abnormalities, disorders and diseases in individual animals as a result of exposure to endocrine disruptors have been linked to wildlife population declines. Chemical pollution is one of the current theories used to explain the global decline of amphibians.
When the bald eagle and other raptors started declining in the 1960’s because they were having problems reproducing, people were surprised when scientists discovered the insecticide DDT was accumulating in their bodies and causing their eggshells to thin and break before the chicks were ready to hatch. When scientists discovered a hole in the earth’s ozone in the 1980’s, people were surprised to find out that it was very small chemical reactions in the atmosphere from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were causing the loss of ozone that protected earth from dangerous ultraviolent radiation. When officials talk about drinking water and the risk of humans ingesting toxic substances, they are generally talking about concentrations of chemicals that are safe even at levels in the part per millions. So when the concentrations of chemicals in the environment are reported in parts per billion, many people think that those concentrations are so small that there couldn’t possibly be any harmful effects to fish, wildlife or humans.
Natural hormones are incredibly potent chemicals that function at concentrations so low that they can only be measured by the most sensitive analytical methods. Hormones such as estrogen are in concentrations in the blood typically in the parts per trillion, one thousand times lower than parts per billion. When body functions such as reproduction or the immune system rely on hormone concentrations so infinitesimally small, one can begin to appreciate how even the tiniest amount of man-made chemicals that build up in the body of a fish or mammal (or you) could negatively impact health.
A New Threat to Fish and Wildlife Emerges
Canada has banned many persistent organic pollutants; however, not all countries have. The ability of these chemicals to be transported around the world, condense in the colder ecosystems of Canada and be taken up in food web represents a serious conservation issue regardless of the action Canada has taken to support the UN’s Stockholm Convention. Although concentrations of many historic contaminants have declined since countries took action under the Convention, many new pollutants such as brominated flame retardants (PBDE) have been detected in Arctic wildlife including polar bears and ringed seals. The cold dry environment in the Arctic favours the accumulation and storage of pollutants, so climate change is becoming a big concern for toxicology scientists. Warmer temperatures in the Arctic create the potential for volatile chemical pollutants to be re-released making more contaminants available to enter the food web. Dealing with climate change and impaired endocrine systems could be the deadly one-two punch for many species.
In the late 1990’s, scientists in Canada who had been involved in the federal Arctic Contaminants Research Program asked the question; if persistent organic pollutants are accumulating in the high latitude Arctic regions because of the cold climate, could the same chemicals also be accumulating in cold higher altitude regions of the mountains of western Canada? They set about analyzing snow and glaciers in the Rocky Mountains along the continental divide between British Columbia and Alberta in between the towns of Banff and Jasper Alberta and Golden B.C. The scientists found seven of the dirty dozen chemicals are accumulating in the Rocky Mountains during winter. In fact, concentrations in the snow of some of the dirty dozen chemicals were similar to those they found in the high Arctic. The scientists found that the higher they went in altitude, the higher the chemical concentrations were in the snow. They reported that the most significant spike in chemical concentrations occurred above 2000m elevation.
In 2000, scientists reported the occurrence of toxaphene, DDTs, PCBs and other organochlorine chemicals in lake trout and mountain whitefish in alpine lakes in the Southern Rocky Mountains of B.C. and Alberta, which indicates that part of the aquatic food chain in this region is affected by at least three of the United Nation’s “dirty dozen” chemicals. In 2001, other scientists were reporting that persistent organic pollutants were bio accumulating in Arctic terrestrial food chains including the lichen-caribou-wolf food chain.
By early 2002, no one had looked into whether these chemicals were entering the food chain of wildlife in the Rocky or Purcell Mountains as a possible way to explain declines in species like bighorn sheep and the endangered mountain caribou. In 2002, I decided to undertake a Master’s of Science degree to investigate this question. With help of hunters and trappers, I collected liver, muscle and fat tissue samples from cougars and wolves since they are the species representing the top of food chain in the mountain ecosystems of western Canada. I collected over 100 samples from 18 cougars and 8 wolves. This should have been sufficient for me to determine if any of the dirty dozen chemicals were in the food chain. The analysis of tissue samples for persistent organic pollutants at ultra-low concentrations is very expensive. With hundreds of samples to analyze at a couple thousand dollars per sample, no funder was willing to support my research. Because my research findings could have implications to the endangered southern caribou herds, there seemed to be some trepidation on behalf of some federal agencies to help with what I was doing. I often wonder if I may have been asking a question that people didn’t want answered. I ended up having to foot the bill out of my own pocket to complete my degree, so I could not afford to run all the samples like I needed to. I wasn’t even able to access the federal government labs that had the type of equipment needed to analyze the tissue samples for ultra-low concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals. In the end, I wasn’t able to detect if there were chemical pollutants in the food chain of the Southern Rocky Mountains. It’s still a mystery where these chemicals are going.
Since I completed my research, there has been more work on persistent organic pollutants in B.C. and in Canada coming to the fore front. Some newer studies have reported:
- Contaminant levels are affecting endocrine processes in harbor seals in B.C.
- B.C.’s killer whales now represent some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. In 2017, the Salish Seas Orca population is down to 76 surviving animals and there has not been a new calf since 2015.
- Persistent organic pollutants have been reported accumulating in vegetation in the Rocky Mountains at higher elevations where bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer and grizzly bears live.
- Persistent organic pollutants have been reported in B.C. salmon, grizzly bears and osprey.
- Persistent organic pollutants have been found in moose in the Northwest Territory.
In 1996, British Columbia signed the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. The Accord served as the framework for the Canadian Federal Species at Risk Act. As a signatory to the National Accord, B.C. is obligated to develop recovery plans that address the threats to species like the endangered mountain caribou in Southeastern B.C. Mountain caribou use high elevation habitat in late winter and forage heavily on arboreal lichens. Caribou in the Arctic were found to be bioaccumulating persistent organic pollutants by ingesting contaminated lichen, yet the bioaccumulation of these chemicals were never seriously considered as a threat to mountain caribou reproduction, and the study of endocrine disrupting chemicals has never been an integral part of the recovery plans for endangered caribou in B.C.
Canada’s international reputation has been criticized by some for its lack of domestic policy action on persistent organic pollutants. The Canadian government publicized the plight of contaminants in the Arctic and Great Lakes to countries considering taking action on persistent organic pollutants. Canada’s international advocacy for banning these chemicals has not been adequately matched with domestic policy on persistent organic pollutants and other endocrine disrupting chemicals. Canada’s federal Toxic Substances Management Policy and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act prevent meaningful action from being taken on banning chemicals that might affect fish and wildlife within Canada. Criteria that define a chemical’s persistence in the environment or ability to bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife are weakly addressed in the current federal policy and Act. The inadequacy of domestic policy legislation means Canada will only take action on persistent organic pollutants and other endocrine disruptors that are on the list of the UN’s Stockholm Convention.
Opportunities for Change
That’s some pretty heavy stuff. Agreed, but it is important stuff that needs to be brought to the fray in the discussion here in British Columbia about the lack of science in fish and wildlife conservation. This article hopefully illustrates to hunters and other conservationists how utterly complex the world is with respect to traditional beliefs about what is causing fish and wildlife populations declines. Persistent organic pollutants are invisible and they are accumulating in our fish and wildlife already. But to what degree are the chemicals affecting population dynamics? Many more species are in decline that science has yet to ask the question whether these chemicals may be contributing to the declines (i.e., moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer). Remember, endocrine disruptors have been linked to impacts like failed reproduction and increases in diseases that resulted in total fish and wildlife population declines. Are scientists adequately considering the role of chemical pollutants in B.C.’s environment when they are studying fish and wildlife? Are there enough wildlife toxicology scientists working on these sorts of questions in B.C.? Are they getting the funding they need? No amount of “boots-on-the-ground” experience will be able to help us see whether these invisible killer chemicals are impacting fish and wildlife populations. This is why hunter conservationists need to adopt a principle-based approach to wildlife advocacy and demand more science in fish and wildlife management.
Our scientific approach in B.C. needs to mature into a holistic one that embraces a multi-disciplinary approach to researching the most pressing questions relevant to conservation. Fish and wildlife research needs to consider and incorporate more toxicology studies and researchers need to be unified in their approach, priorities and messaging. There are not as many experts in wildlife toxicolology as there are ecological, biological or behavioral wildlife scientists. That’s a problem for B.C. because toxic chemicals are accumulating in our environment. A multi-disciplinary approach and funding across broad areas of conservation science is where we need to get to in B.C. and we need to get there sooner than later.
Even without the Stockholm Convention and the support of ratifying countries, Canada can take action to address the impacts of other chemicals on fish, wildlife and humans. The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations have proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act that would allow Canada to restrict or ban other endocrine disruptors under Canadian law. After banning them in Canada, the Government of Canada could then push for those chemicals to be added to the Stockholm convention to force their worldwide elimination.
Like many issues in conservation today, political intervention is necessary to put governments back on the proper path of acting in meaningful ways to protect the environment and our fish and wildlife populations. Hunter conservations don’t need to be scientists; hunters just need to tell politicians we need more scientists to cover off all the disciplines that need to be researched and, more importantly, politicians need to listen to what scientist say.