A coalition of animal-welfare groups, conservationists and veterinarians is urging Ottawa to ban the use of strychnine poison, saying it causes undue suffering to animals and is leading to the deaths of non-target animals such as dogs and grizzly bears.
Alberta is the only province in Canada still to use strychnine to kill animals, including wolves and coyotes, and it has asked Ottawa, which regulates the poison’s use, for permission to continue using it.
The toxin is banned in many other countries, including Britain. Other Canadian provinces no longer use it.
Animal-welfare groups have asked Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos to ban strychnine and another poison, Compound 1080, which is sodium fluoroacetate. The groups say that information from freedom-of- information requests show that in Alberta, rules have been breached on how the poisons should be used – including checking and disposing of carcasses.
They say eagles, grizzly bears, foxes and ravens have died after eating carcasses of poisoned animals while the bodies of poisoned wolves have not been buried or incinerated to stop the poison from circulating.
“Animals that are consuming the poison and dying are becoming poisoned bait themselves and that propels it through the food chain,” said Hannah Barron, a conservationist with Wolf Awareness, one of the groups in the coalition.
In an interview, Ms. Barron said she had been contacted by Alberta trappers expressing concern that near bait sites meant for wolves, other wildlife including wolverines and birds are eating the bait and poisoned carcasses.
In 2018, a single poisoned wolf resulted in the death of at least one grizzly bear, a great grey owl, a lynx, eight ravens, two coyotes and five foxes, after their remains were discovered, an incident report recorded by Health Canada shows.
Baited sites are supposed to be checked and carcasses disposed of through incineration or burying them in a deep pit.
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) re-evaluated use of the poisons last year and decided to allow Alberta to continue to use strychnine to kill predators threatening the endangered caribou population and farmers’ livestock – if the province takes steps to reduce the risk of exposing people and non-target animals to the poison.
The decision, followed with a consultation, sparked an outcry from animal-welfare groups who want the federal government to overrule it when a final decision is made in February. Federal approval would allow the Alberta government to continue using strychnine to kill wolves, coyotes, black bears and skunks.
Animal advocates say the poisons may have found their way out of the province. Earlier this year, two pet dogs living near each other in B.C.’s Interior are reported to have died after being poisoned, which the RCMP attributed to strychnine. They believed the dogs ate bait illegally used to kill coyotes.
Nigel Caulkett, an Alberta veterinarian who also teaches at the University of Calgary, said he has treated several dogs poisoned with strychnine. He said Alberta is out of step with other provinces, such as B.C., by using it to control wolves to protect caribou.
“I’m not opposed to humane deaths, but strychnine is a long, cruel death. If they ingest it, they start to convulse, their legs will flail and they go into rigidity. They will have muscle contractions and they can’t breathe,” he said. “If this was used in a human arena, it would be banned under the Geneva Conventions.”
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association said the ingestion of strychnine and compound 1080 causes severe pain, uncontrollable seizures and death by asphyxiation.
“CVMA believes it is necessary to consider the impact of prolonged pain and suffering on target and non-target species caused by these chemicals and discontinue the use of any pesticide which leads to unacceptable welfare outcomes,” said the association’s president, Trevor Lawson.
Animal-welfare campaigners uncovered records through access-to-information requests that show species not targeted by the poison have been poisoned, including golden and bald eagles, foxes, grey jays, grizzly bears, lynxes, martens, minks, ravens, skunks and weasels.
Liz White, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, said the records show more non-target animals died from the poisons than target animals.
The Alberta government says strychnine is highly effective and acts rapidly, and its Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas follows all requirements for strychnine application, handling and storage under the Pest Control Products Act.
“We need to protect caribou populations from unnatural and unsustainable levels of predation if we want this species to still be present once we achieve habitat recovery,” said Tom McMillan, spokesman for Alberta Environment and Protected Areas.
“Wolf management is undertaken through a variety of means, including aircraft-based tracking and euthanization using firearms, trapping and, in some cases, the use of the toxicants (strychnine). A toxicant program was not delivered in 2022-23.”
Marie-Pier Burelle, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, said it is reviewing information received during the consultation period, and the final decision on the toxins will be made in February. Health Canada “takes all reported instances of potential non-compliance very seriously,” she added.
“Health Canada will continue to monitor new information on predacides and will take appropriate action if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of these products is resulting in risks of concern to human health or the environment, including non-target animals,” she said.