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Industry looks to limit impact on migratory birds

Migratory bird counts in Canada’s boreal forests continue to drop, but industry is taking on efforts to limit their impact on the declines being seen in Northeast B.C.
Alder Flycatcher

Migratory bird counts in Canada’s boreal forests continue to drop, but industry is taking on efforts to limit their impact on the declines being seen in Northeast B.C.

Around 40 residents turned out to the to the Lido Theatre April 12 for a presentation by Mark Phinney, a Dawson Creek forester and wildlife biologist, and environmental advisor at Encana.

“A lot of people say that birds are everywhere, there are so many birds here, if you look out into your backyard,” Phinney said. “But 20 years ago there were more, and 40 years ago there were even more than that. You have to look at the data to get a real sense of the decline.”

The Peace River region winds through the south edge of the boreal forest, an area unusual for its diversity of migrating bird species, Phinney said. About 200 species nest here, including Brewer’s blackbirds, which will be back in the Peace in a couple weeks, great grey owls, American three-toed woodpeckers, and alder flycatchers. Several of the species hosted by the south boreal are not found elsewhere in B.C.

Phinney showed slide after slide of graphs illustrating declining bird populations. Declines along his Tupper Breeding Bird Survey route, which follows Highway 52, Highway 2, and rail lines southwest of Dawson Creek, were echoed throughout Canada.

The Breeding Bird Survey has been done Canada-wide along the same routes each year since 1966. It sees researchers or volunteers stop at selected points to look and listen for three minutes, then record the number of birds of each species. 

On the Tupper route, the number of tree swallows declined from an average of five per year between 1994 and 1999, to only 1.8 between 2012 and 2017. Throughout Canada, the number of tree swallows recorded on an average route dropped steadily from 11.5 in 1970 to five in 2015.

“There are many, many things birds have to contend with now that they didn’t have to 100 years ago”, Phinney said, listing deforestation, pesticides, climate change, agriculture, wind farms, and night-time light pollution that can cause confusion for birds.

In the Peace, industry is the primary threat to the boreal forest migrating birds depend on, Phinney said. Though cutlines regenerate relatively quickly, “oil and gas development will not be put back to its natural state for decades,” he said.

Phinney’s talk focused on how industry avoids contravening the Migratory Birds Convention Act, where fines can run between $100,000 and $12 million for companies that disturb or destroy migratory bird nests. Still, even fear of bad headlines is more of a deterrent, Phinney said.

Federal guidelines focus on reducing the risk of “incidental take,” the disturbance or destruction of migratory birds, nests and eggs during development and operations. Individual companies are left to decide exactly how to do this, Phinney said.

For its part, Encana takes a stepwise approach, and uses habitat models for 15 selected species. The company has mapped where birds are likely to nest — for example, the rusty blackbird nests in boggy areas. Encana avoids clearing from May 1 to July 31, he said, and, if that’s not possible, the company avoids the specific nesting or reproductive season of species likely to nest in the area. If it can’t avoid those times, it would go out and look for nests, Phinney said. 

He compared Encana’s measures to a BC Council of Forest Industries (COFI) management tool, which delays logging until nesting is complete, avoids blocks with trees likely to have nests, and has procedures for active nest encounters. He noted pros and cons to both strategies, but was critical of the COFI approach, saying there is much variation in how companies apply it. 

“Companies say they’ve applied the management tool … on the ground, the differences may be stark,” he said.

Despite these differences, Phinney said he’s pleased to see more industry paying attention. 

“Even if they’re going about it in their own separate manner, they’re going in the right direction,” he said.

Phinney’s information-packed presentation was funded by the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, which partners with BC Hydro, the province, First Nations, and the public, with a mandate to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by existing BC Hydro dams. 

Namha Khadha, a wildlife enthusiast who said she likes all animals, asked what the public can do to help. Phinney encouraged the public to report infractions to company managers or BC Fish and Wildlife. He pointed a finger at road sweeping and construction that disturb nesting. He also encouraged participating in backyard bird counts or using to record sightings.

After the talk, FWCP board member Ross Peck emphasized the need for public awareness.

“It’s heartening to see a good turnout,” he said.

The program funds public education, research and conservation programs. Peck encouraged non-profits and neighbourhood groups to apply for community engagement grants, which provides up to $1,000 for projects that support conservation work.