Charlie Palmer’s team of biologists wasn’t looking for rare bats while conducting field work in 2010 to assess impacts of a wind farm on Bear Mountain near Dawson Creek.
But that is precisely what they found – two eastern red bats, the first such sighting of that species in the region in 80 years, Palmer said.
Typically, the biology that goes into an environmental assessment for a large industrial project is limited to conducting wildlife surveys and collecting data to establish what animals live in the path of a proposed resource project. So it is unusual to make a discovery such as this, said Palmer, a biologist and a manager on the assessment job for consultants Hemmera Envirochem.
“The research biologists, they kind of usually get the cool discoveries,” he said. “They’re the ones with time and funding to discover new species or to be expanding the breeding ranges of (animals).”
Palmer added that his job, as an applied biologist, is to take what is mostly already known and use it in helping guide a project.
“Having the opportunity to (offer) some input to new science, research science, is something we don’t often get the chance to do, so it’s really exciting.”
Some of that excitement was tempered, however, by the fact the two bats were found dead among a collection of bats and birds that had been killed by the wind turbine blades, raising questions about the project’s impact.
It was still the first documented sighting of eastern red bats in B.C., which extends their known range, Palmer noted. It should also start a discussion about how much environmental assessments at both the provincial and federal levels contribute to the more general understanding of wildlife in the province.
Not that it will settle any debates about whether the assessments that have been done are adequate, or whether governments are using them to off-load responsibility for monitoring wildlife, or whether the results of assessments really end up protecting wildlife.
The accumulation of data over a couple of decades is creating a body of knowledge that industrial project proponents have been able to draw on and is available to government departments to add to whatever other sources of information they have.
At Bear Mountain, minimizing the danger of wind turbines to migrating bats and birds, particularly raptors, was a primary concern, and the reason biologists were still out looking for bats after the wind farm started operations, Palmer said.
Up until then, not a lot was known about what impact a wind farm would have on wildlife in B.C.
“I don’t know that we had a lot of expectations (for bats),” Palmer added. “There wasn’t an awful lot of bat work that had been done in the northeast (of B.C.) when we started.”
However, between themselves, another nearby wind farm and assessment work for BC Hydro’s Site C dam project, Palmer said a lot of significant information has been generated.
Studying wildlife has long been key to evaluating major projects, but the requirements for protecting wildlife habitat have become more stringent, the assessment process has brought more standardization to the methodology, and the whole concept of environmental protection has come more under the spotlight.
“In the old days, engineers would go out and do all of the technical (studies for a project) and show up at the last step and say, ‘Go do an (environmental) assessment, quick,’” said Susan Wilkins, a principal with the firm Pottinger Gaherty and a senior environmental scientist.
The process today, she said, is set up so that the assessment can contribute to a proposed project’s design.
“When the process is working at its best, the environment is being considered at every stage as a project moves along,” said Wilkins, who is also president of the International Association for Impact Assessment’s western and northern Canada chapter.
The data on wildlife that a proponent needs to collect is determined before making an application for their particular mine, pipeline or other development, said Chris Hamilton, an executive project director with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office.
It is a process of establishing what the “valued components” are that might be impacted by a major project, whether it’s wildlife and fisheries habitat, recreational or cultural values, or Aboriginal interests.
Hamilton added that his office wants the proponent to have a clear understanding of baseline conditions, and the information they have to provide in doing so is written into a set of application information requirements, a document often shortened to the acronym AIR.
For evaluating impacts on wildlife, Hamilton said the information is more of “an incremental value,” and big discoveries aren’t expected.
“There aren’t a lot of breakthroughs,” said Hamilton. “Wildlife biologists have a good understanding, over years of working in the field, collecting observed information or anecdotal information about (animal) populations.”
However, proponents have to set up study areas around the sites of their proposed projects during an assessment, which can involve conducting helicopter surveys of deer or moose populations, or other wildlife studies that can fill in data between years when the ministry might have last done them.
“A lot of those private-sector companies are contributing a significant amount of baseline data and ongoing data to the province,” Hamilton said.
Speaking a common language
The standardization of data collection across the assessments that have been done are also giving the private-sector consultants doing the work more of a “common language” for the work they do, according to Bill Rublee, a vice-president at Triton Environmental Consultants.
“We’re certainly getting to know a little bit more about individual species,” Rublee said, “about genetics and whether the groups (of animals) in a specific area are mixing, or whether there is genetic separation (between them).”
Rublee said maintaining biological diversity in development has always been a priority, but 10 to 15 years ago, fisheries protection was more of a centre of attention.
A fisheries biologist himself, Rublee said about five years ago, more than 80 per cent of Triton’s consulting staff would have had a fisheries background.
Today, Triton’s staff has grown considerably with more of an even split between wildlife and fisheries experts.
Rublee added that as consultants, they are trying to deliver clear information, not just to their client, a project’s proponent, but to government agencies and the public as well, to make “right decisions” about the environmental impacts of development.
“You do get to a point where they become management decisions, risk decisions,” Rublee said. “There are groups (for whom) their preference is to not have any disturbance in an area.”
It is usually the consultant’s job, however, to determine whether risks can be mitigated.
“If one position is (that there be) no disturbance, there has to be strong evidence and strong data that they can develop the management plans to mitigate the risks that are areas of concern for those other groups.”
Filling in gaps
Hamilton noted that how much private-sector environmental studies contribute to the overall body of knowledge about wildlife also depends on how much development pressure there is in given regions.
In the South Okanagan, for instance, which boasts many grassland animals listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, there are fewer proposed projects and assessment processes compared with the northwest of the province, where mining, power and pipeline projects have triggered more assessment work.
However, Wilkins added that the process can contribute new data about places that have previously been hard to reach.
“Because so many resource development projects are in remote areas, the baseline (information) is slim to none,” Wilkins said. “So the onus is on a proponent to figure out what’s there and what has the potential to be impaired.”
The work is data collection to establish what wildlife is there, Wilkins said, and is careful not to call it scientific research in the usual sense of writing a hypothesis and going about proving it or disproving it.
The information is still valuable, she added.
Marine mammal studies off the east coast of Haida Gwaii, related to Naikun Wind Energy Group’s proposal for a large wind farm, stand out as an example for Wilkins.
As part of the work, she said they needed to evaluate the potential for the noise from construction and operation of the facility to impact animals, including whales, in an area that hadn’t seen a lot of animal surveys.
“That was a body of really interesting, unusual studies,” she said. “We had to find a way to minimize the impacts for whatever was in or using that habitat.”
How well assessments actually protect wildlife remains a point of contention for conservation groups, however.
“It’s a process that’s run by very good people, but it’s a weak process,” said Kevin Hanna, an associate professor of geography at the University of B.C. Okanagan.
He noted that B.C. has raised the threshold for which projects are required to undertake a full environmental assessment several years ago, which was “a political decision”.
“These processes almost never reject projects,” Hanna said. “B.C. has said no maybe twice in its existence, and it’s had some questionable ones pass the desk.”
Changes to the federal environmental assessment legislation is another big concern of the environmental conservation community, according to Anna Johnston, a staff lawyer at the West Coast Environmental Law Association.
“In 2013, when the government enacted the (new Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency Act), that cancelled 3,000 (assessments),” Johnston said. “Now, approximately 90 per cent of projects that used to get (environmental assessments) never get them.”
To many, she added, environmental assessments appear to be more of a rubber stamp.
“I don’t necessarily endorse this perspective, but I definitely think there’s a strong public perception that government agencies are project enablers,” Johnston said.
Johnston added that establishing what baseline project proponents should study is another point of contention for conservationists. The preference of conservationists is that projects be evaluated against a pre-industrial baseline – an estimate of what the environment would be like before any development, and that the accumulation of impacts be weighed in any decision.
Looking at regions, such as the northeast, that have experienced a lot of development, and use existing conditions as the baseline, “you just don’t have an accurate picture of what our collective actions have been,” she added.
That, however, would involve difficult and expensive questions about how much effort should be put into bringing areas that have been impacted back to a pre-development state, in Palmer’s view.
“A lot of the things we take for granted would have to cease or change a lot for us,” Palmer said. “From a practical standpoint, what we can realistically do is protect what we’ve got and do a better job of protecting what we’ve got.”