Ecologist warns building turbines in wintering habitat would jeopardize efforts to allow recovery of B.C. herds
The wind-farm industry is putting threatened woodland caribou herds at increased risk by seeking to put their projects on the same windswept alpine ridges that represent critical wintering habitat, a provincial caribou expert warns.
Dale Seip, a wildlife ecologist with the Ministry of Forests and Range in Prince George, told about 250 people at the conference of the Association of Professional Biologists of B.C., ending today, that the situation jeopardizes the province’s caribou recovery efforts.
“Wind-power development on the windswept ridges creates a significant risk to these caribou,” he said.
“Remember, these animals are threatened. They’re not doing well. They’re stable at best; many are declining. Under a recovery strategy, we’re supposed to be making things better. We’re supposed to be improving conditions for these animals so herds will be able to recover. It’s difficult to imagine how these types of industrial developments are somehow going to make things better for those caribou.”
Seip said there are forested ridges to the east of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern B.C. that can accommodate wind farms without harming critical caribou wintering range and the lichens they consume.
One company recently obtained investigative-use permits for six new wind farms in the Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge area: five located on forested ridges that do not threaten mountain caribou habitat, and one located in the midst of critical wintering range for the Quintette herd.
With 120 of the herd’s 200 caribou wintering there, a wind farm “clearly would be a serious concern,” he said.
While no wind farms are currently located on prime high-elevation wintering habitat, “the entire area is currently covered with investigative-use permits for wind farms,” he said.
B.C.’s only commercial operating wind farm is at Bear Mountain near Dawson Creek. BC Hydro announced last March it is awarding power-purchase agreements to five more wind farms that were proposed in response to its clean-power call for new sources of electricity. The Dokie Wind Energy Project is also underway near Chetwynd.
Seip said wind farms pose a threat to caribou on several levels: the direct loss of critical habitat due to turbine infrastructure along with road building and transmission lines; increased access by humans and wolves; and the potential for caribou to avoid the wind farms.
Research from Alberta’s oilpatch shows caribou will generally stay 250 metres from seismic lines, 250 to 500 metres from roads and one kilo-metre from a well site. In Newfoundland, caribou stayed four kilometres from a mine.
“The same could potentially happen with caribou on these windswept mountain ridges,” he warned. “We don’t know how caribou are going to feel if they have such a major industrial development placed on top of their core winter range.”
He noted wolves rarely go into caribou alpine habitat in winter due to the rigours of navigating steep slopes with deep snow. “If there are roads and trails … we may lose this separation that allows wolves to coexist with caribou.”
No one could be reached for comment at the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
The West Moberly first nation went to B.C. Supreme Court in response to the province’s failure to protect caribou from development in the northeast.
In a landmark decision last March, the court ruled that the B.C. government failed to sufficiently consult first nations or accommodate their concerns over destruction of critical caribou habitat near Chetwynd.
Justice L. Paul Williamson ordered a 90-day stay of First Coal Corp.’s advanced exploration program to “permit and to mandate a proper accommodation of West Moberly’s concerns” over the fate of the threatened Burnt Pine caribou herd.
“The Crown, in consultation with West Moberly, should proceed expeditiously to put in place within that period a reasonable, active plan for the protection and augmentation of the Burnt Pine herd, a plan that takes into account the views of West Moberly, including the reports of the Crown’s wildlife ecologists and biologists with the Ministry of Environment,” Williamson’s ruling said.
The band went to court to fight the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources and First Coal Corp. over development of a coal mine that threatened critical habitat of the Burnt Pine caribou herd, on lands where native hunting rights are guaranteed under the terms of Treaty 8, negotiated in 1899 with first nations in parts of Western Canada.
Only about 11 caribou remain in the herd, which has been decimated over the years by the cumulative impact of resource development and hydro dams, the band argued in court.
The band sought to quash three Crown permits in 2009 related to bulk sampling of coal, advanced exploration drilling and timber cutting.
The province continued to accommodate First Coal despite serious concerns from government experts in two ministries.
Seip warned on Sept. 25, 2008: “The proposed activities occur directly on core winter range of this threatened caribou herd and will result in the destruction of critical caribou habitat.”