The B.C. government is seeking public input on its plan to ban all public and most commercial pesticides known to be poisoning the province’s owl, cougar and raptor populations.
The call comes 10 months after B.C. introduced an 18-month ban on the sale and use of second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides, or SGARs, while government reviewed the science and developed recommendations for a new policy.
“The abundant use of SGARs to control rodents has led to an unacceptable level of non-target wildlife poisonings,” states a government intentions paper published Wednesday.
Multiple studies have shown the poisons have massive knock-on effects for a variety of wildlife beyond the mice and rats they are meant to target.
International bodies like the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species recognize that large-scale use of such rodenticides “pose a global risk to vertebrate wildlife,” notes one 2017 study co-authored by John E. Elliott from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Pacific Wildlife Research Centre in Delta, B.C.
For birds of prey, the problem is amplified through the food chain, as hawks, owls and other creatures consume poisoned prey. In Western Canada, for example, one study found high detection rates of rodenticide in 70 per cent of owls between 1988 and 2003.
First-generation anti-coagulants, such as warfarin, cause death over five to seven days. The second-generation poisons — including active ingredients like brodifacoum, bromadiolone and difethialonecan — cause rodents to bleed out in near-instant death.
But they are not the only ones affected. Any predator or scavenger that feeds on those rodents consumes the poison too.
Predators who don’t die from the poison are thought to become more lethargic, an effect that impacts their ability to hunt. It increases the chance of starvation, according to a UN review of the ecological effects of poisoning on migratory birds.
The proposed changes to the Integrated Pest Management Regulation would exempt essential services, including agriculture, health services, sanitation, communications, as well as the BC Coroners Services and those performing mortuary services.
The government is also proposing to prohibit the use of SGARs within any critical wildlife habitat unless it falls under an authorized government-approved conservation project.
Public feedback, says the government, is meant to further refine that list of who should be exempt.
Call to ban poisons growing
The push to ban SGARs from B.C. has been gathering support in recent years.
In the lead-up to the 18-month temporary ban, at least 17 municipalities had moved to ban the use of SGARs on civic properties, including Metro Vancouver cities on the North Shore and the Tri-Cities.
At the time, Simon Fraser University rodent ecologist Elana Varner sent a letter to local governments warning multiple studies have shown the poisons are harmful to a variety of wildlife and can even “destabilize ecosystems.”
Varner acknowledged mice and brown rats are “hyper-reservoirs for zoonotic diseases” and require “intensive control efforts.” In its intentions paper, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy added that up to a third of the world’s food supply is lost to rodents.
“Due to their ease of use and effectiveness, SGARs have become normalized for rodent management across many sectors,” noted the paper’s authors.
In other words, all sides recognize rodent control is a problem.
But many pest control companies continue to fall back on SGARs to take care of such pests, partly because of their easy application and partly due to ignorance of their impact on local wildlife, Varner said.
The researcher says effective alternatives include ensuring garbage and compost around properties are properly stored, rodent-proofing buildings by patching up holes, and educating residents. In some cases, lethal control measures like eco-friendly kill traps are necessary and don’t require the use of poison.
In Boston, Varner said this so-called integrated pest management approach has in the past helped reduce the city’s rodent population by 87 per cent in just three years.
But in B.C., the poisons have become so normalized that when Varner visited coffee shops, grocery stores and gas stations in recent years, she did not see a single food establishment that didn’t have permanent bait stations using rodenticide.
She's even come across libraries, apartment complexes and parks that have turned to the poisons as a cheap and easy-to-deploy solution.
There are other options out there, including from Varner's research group, which has developed “irresistible food baits and sex attractant pheromone lures” to better attract rodents to mechanical traps.
“Regardless of the price tag, the environmental cost is too high,” Varner said in her letter to municipalities.
Proposed changes provide exemptions for 'essential services'
The proposed changes to the Integrated Pest Management Regulation also include banning preventative baiting and requiring some of the non-chemical solutions Varner recommends are tried first.
When an exempt business, institution or individual uses SGARs, the proposed changes would require significant documentation recording their deployment and removal as well as what other pest control measures were tried before the poisons.
Any essential services using the poisons would also have to be certified in their use and receive a licence under the Integrated Pest Management Act.
Those holding a general licence to use the pesticides would need to pay a $250 annual fee to apply the poisons on up to 50 hectares of property. Licence holders would also be required to keep daily use records and submit an annual report on pesticide use to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
All of that is meant to move away from the long-term use of SGARS.
But for some, the proposed measures don’t go far enough.
Exemptions leave animals, pets vulnerable, say advocates
Yasmin Abidi has been advocating for a blanket ban on second-generation rodenticides since she helped save the life of ‘Lucky,’ a barred owl who in 2020 survived two poisonings in three weeks.
Her advocacy helped persuade the North Shore’s three municipalities to roll out their own bans, but that only applied to civic lands.
While Abidi was pleased to hear of the province’s move to put a temporary ban on rodenticides last summer, in the months since she has documented a number of instances where poison traps are still being used.
“Even though it was ‘illegal’ for private users, they were still being used,” said Abidi.
She points to the North Vancouver park where she found Lucky, and where she suspects the owl was poisoned through a number of nearby food establishments that use the poison. Abidi worries they could be exempt under the proposed provincial changes.
“How is what they say now going to affect this area?” she questioned.
The fallout from second-generation rodenticides has been felt across the province, with the poisons thought to have killed at least 60 owls on Vancouver Island last year.
Even pets aren’t immune. In February, a Kimberley family joined Abidi in warning British Columbians not to use rodenticides after they had to put down their Husky due to poisoning, reported the Kimberley Bulletin.
Abidi says the province’s push to move away from rodenticides in the long term is a step in the right direction. But she worries that enforcement and education need to be ramped up.
To that end, she is working with the District of North Vancouver to roll out a pilot project using ContraPest, a poison-free organic substance that can be placed in a bait box. When a rodent eats the substance, it stunts the animal's reproductive system, and in theory, reduces the rodent population over the long term.
The U.S. company claims the “sweet, fatty liquid formula” has shown signs of success in cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C., where it says it reduced rat sightings by up to 99 per cent.
Abidi says the North Shore municipality could set a Canadian precedent.
“We’re destroying our ecosystems, we’re destroying our wildlife,” said Abidi.
“We can do this in a better way.”
With files from Brent Richter/North Shore News and Maria Rantanen/Richmond News