The Abbotsford lake where swans go to die

Judson Lake keeps killing hundreds of swans. How promises of a "long-term" fix floundered on the Canada-US border.

The swans don’t go to Judson Lake to die. They go to eat. They die all the same.

Judson Lake straddles the US-Canada border south of Abbotsford International Airport. The lake is shallow enough to be a perfect roosting ground for the trumpeter swans that descend on the region each winter. Ducks have also flocked to the lake. And for decades, hunters on the American side of the lake followed.

By 1999, close to 300 swans were turning up dead every year. Their bodies weren’t riddled with hunters’ bullets. Instead, a harder-to-stop killer was preying on the birds. Over the years, huge amounts of lead shot pellets had landed in the lake and sunk to its bottom. Swans that came to Judson foraged from the bottom of the lake and ingested those pellets. Then they died.

This all seemed perfectly obvious to Kevin Sinclair, who had married into a family who had owned the property abutting Judson Lake, in south Abbotsford. But it took years to persuade wildlife officials that the lead shot was the problem.

“For 5 years in a row, I was just fighting these guys tooth and nail to even acknowledge it was the primary source,” he said. “I was a public enemy with the Canadian Wildlife Service for years.”

It wasn’t until around 2006 that the wildlife service began formally testing to confirm the hypothesis. The lead, unsurprisingly to Sinclair, was the culprit. The hard part, he figured, was over. The BC Wildlife Federation envisioned a “full-bore reclamation project” that could turn the lake into a tourist attraction for bird lovers and anglers. Cross-border groups declared the lake to be “an obvious candidate for long-term restoration.” Ducks Unlimited Canada hopped on board.

Canadian officials said they would try to come up with a long-term fix. Sinclair took a step back from the issue.

What happened instead was this: the Americans stuck large sticks in the lake.

And for a while, the sticks actually worked to stop the swans from snacking on lead: Judson is incredibly shallow, shrinking to pond-size in summer. It’s one reason swans can eat off its bottom so easily. The bulk of the lake—and most of the lead shot that litters its bottom—is in the United States. So, as a temporary measure, the Americans stuck bamboo poles into the bottom of the lake to deter the birds, and it cut mortality dramatically, by around 82%, Sinclair said.

But it didn’t fix the lake and swans have continued to die—just in smaller numbers. Then last winter, before the swans arrived, the fencing never got put up. The result was mass-death: at least 182 swans died.

So Sinclair is back in the game. This time, he says he is in the Canadian Wildlife Service’s good graces. He has stopped pestering them, and started pestering politicians. Sinclair has started an official Parliamentary petition to have the government outlaw lead shot entirely. Lead is already illegal for hunting waterfowl in Canada, but is permitted for some other uses. Sinclair sees no benefit to allowing lead shot when safer, more environmentally friendly alternatives exist.

But Canada, in the end, is a relatively small player in Judson’s fate. Most of the lead flowing into Judson continues to come from the US side of the border, where hunting with lead remains permitted over land, though no longer over Judson itself. Officials have said they want to rehabilitate the lake. Ducks Unlimited says it is willing to help. And yet no one is suggesting the underlying cause of Judson’s murderous toll on swans will actually get solved. American officials say they want to fix the problem, but that it would cost millions of dollars. There just isn’t the budget, they have said.

In the meantime, Judson remains. And swans continue to die.

“The lake,” Sinclair said, “is an ecological disaster.”


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