Anne Murray: Birds or planes? Dilemma at Boundary Bay Airport
East Delta residents were shocked recently by the sudden demolition of a group of large black cottonwood trees at Boundary Bay Airport. The cottonwoods were popular with roosting eagles; one tree held a nest, with an eagle already sitting near it, ready for the breeding season. This was the second round of tree cutting at the airport: another nest and stand of trees were felled last spring. The airport is attractive for eagles and many other bird species because of its location beside the shallow waters of Boundary Bay, a major migratory stop-over and wintering area for tens of thousands of shorebirds, a hundred thousand waterfowl, and the greatest number and diversity of wintering birds of prey in Canada.
Just north of the airport is Burns Bog, a wetland habitat for ducks and geese, and the location of the Vancouver Landfill, which has attracted gulls and other scavengers ever since it opened in the mid ’60s. Tens of thousands of gulls, of several species, together with northwestern crows and bald eagles, feed at the landfill every day. Big flocks of gulls regularly fly across the airport to rest or roost in the bay and many join with clouds of blackbirds and crows to feed at a nearby compost facility and turf farm.
The airport’s location makes it a prime candidate for bird-plane collisions, which typically occur near water and landfills. One pilot narrowly averted a bird strike when gulls passed right across his flight path on their “regular route from the dump to the beach”, less than a kilometre from the runway. On another occasion, a student pilot on his first solo flight experienced the scare of having a mallard crash through his window. Fortunately, incidents so far have been relatively minor, yet the risk of something more serious cannot be overlooked.
So what on Earth is an airport doing in such a bird-rich, agricultural area, squeezed between the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area and the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area? Should the dangerous consequences not have been foreseen?
Boundary Bay Airport began its existence in 1941 as a flight training centre for the Royal Canadian Air Force set amidst an open landscape of hay fields, boggy ground, and salt marsh. Three fighter squadrons rotated through the base before it was decommissioned at the end of World War II. The site became the Vancouver Wireless Station, and a small community grew up nearby, complete with gardens and trees, before that too closed down and the land became vacant.
In 1976, Transport Canada proposed the reactivation of the airport for flight training and for light piston and turboprop airplanes. The conditions imposed by the federal environmental review panel included operational procedures to minimize impacts on birds and detailed studies of bird populations and movements. Any changes to the specified uses would trigger another environmental assessment. As a further condition for opening the airport in 1982, some old field habitat would be set aside as a raptor management area. A compliance committee reiterated the need for further environmental assessment when Transport Canada wanted to expand operations five years later.
In 1997, Transport Canada circumvented this requirement by selling the airport to the Corporation of Delta for a dollar, as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act only applies on federal lands or for projects using federal dollars. In 2004, Delta entered into a long-term lease with the current operators, Alpha Aviation, which invested $35 million in a new terminal and extensions to a second runway, for which B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation chipped in $600,000. The intention was to service corporate jets, charters, and some scheduled flights.
The airport is probably here to stay but it is unfortunate that this site was chosen. According to a Delta staff report, “Boundary Bay Airport is recognized by Transport Canada as having one of the most extreme wildlife environments of any airport in Canada due to its location on a migratory bird route, seaside location, natural habitat, temperate climate, and it is surrounded by agricultural land rather than industrial land.”
Transport Canada regulations require a wildlife management plan “to promote aviation by reducing wildlife hazards and risks to aircraft”. This regulation, mandating the removal of habitat and birds, inevitably conflicts with the federal environmental review panel’s instruction to “minimize impacts on birds”. Removing habitat around an airport, such as the eagle trees, is usually only the first step. To discourage birds, most airports scare and chase them off with dogs, falcons, or firecrackers, lure them away by creating more attractive habitat elsewhere, or simply kill them.
Alpha Aviation is still attempting habitat management rather than culls, and has municipal and provincial permits to remove up to 71 cottonwoods, including the two eagle nests near the runway. The company obviously wants to operate with a good safety record and conform to regulations, and pilots are well aware of the hazards. Yet, with habitat diminishing around the delta, the wildlife pressure on the airport is becoming more intense.
This month alone, biologist David Hancock recorded around 1,000 bald eagles at the landfill. Hancock suspects poor runs of chum in local streams exacerbate these numbers. If more birds gather in the area, Transport Canada is bound to require yet more habitat and wildlife removal. Will this mean ducks, shorebirds, gulls, eagles, or owls culled? Will surrounding farmland and habitats be converted to other uses in the name of aviation safety? Ironically, an attempt is currently underway to lure snow geese away from Vancouver International Airport by providing alternative feeding habitat in Delta fields. The landscape is becoming very crowded with all these demands, and all too often it is nature that misses out.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.