Anne Murray: In Colony Farm park, habitat compensation risks disrupting wildlife

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      Fish and birds are both vital to our environment, so why is a Metro Vancouver park choosing salmon over grassland birds? This odd situation provokes important questions about compensation for wildlife habitat lost in development projects. Who is checking if compensation works? Why disturb and replace a rare habitat with a completely different one? Where is the accountability?

      Colony Farm Regional Park is a natural oasis on the Coquitlam River, squeezed between the Lougheed Highway and Mary Hill. The park is known for its old field grasslands and shrub habitats, which are home to many different wildlife species. These grasslands are similar to the open prairies that traditionally occurred throughout the Fraser delta, kept from succession by First Nation burning regimes and seasonal flooding in low-lying areas. It is a habitat which provides food and shelter for small animals such as Townsend’s voles as well as the numerous birds that prey on them, including short-eared owls, northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, and even great blue herons. Colony Farm is also rich in song birds, including many unusual species.

      Old field grasslands are now a rare habitat in the Lower Mainland as their value went unrecognized by planners and developers. Occasionally, money to rescue them has been found. For example, when Vancouver International Airport expanded in the mid 1990s, 350 hectares of grassland habitat was lost, triggering compensation that allowed the acquisition and stewardship of old field habitats in Delta. Colony Farm also received stewardship money, because it had old field habitat.

      Knowing the ecological value of old field habitats, Burke Mountain Naturalists were surprised and concerned to learn that Colony Farm grasslands has been chosen as the site of a $2.2-million salmon habitat compensation. Tidal channels will be constructed and riparian vegetation planted as compensation for lost stream habitat in Burnaby and Coquitlam, a consequence of the Port Mann Bridge construction. According to naturalist Elaine Golds, “The fish channel work will be a major disruption in the largest piece of protected old field habitat in this part of the Lower Mainland.”

      Some of the habitat being destroyed by the Port Mann construction was itself the site of compensation work from the previous highway widening. In other words, a rare habitat with value to several species at risk is being dug up as compensation for a stream habitat, that was a compensation for an earlier habitat loss. Who is keeping track of these projects? Furthermore, why can a Crown corporation put their habitat “creation” project in an existing conservation area with excellent pre-existing habitat? Creation of new habitat should mean just that: taking an area without wildlife values and natural vegetation and restoring it to meaningful wildlife use. Alternatively, compensation could mean the outright purchase of new protected areas.

      The idea of mitigation and compensation became popular with U.S. and Canadian fisheries departments in the mid 1980s along with the “no net loss” policy for salmon habitat and wetlands protection. The application of compensation has been spotty at best. According to a 2005 evaluation, record-keeping, compliance and enforcement were poor and inadequate data was collected for assessment. For other species, such as the migratory birds for which the Fraser lowlands are renowned, there is no legislation to protect habitat and no consistent planning and policy to compensate for its loss.

      Compensation needs very strong oversight. In most cases, provincial and federal agencies do not have the will, funding, or legislation for planning, monitoring or enforcement. Poorly conceived and executed compensation projects seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Artificial marshes have washed away, eelgrass plantings have converted to marsh, and projects have ended up appealing to the wrong species. An earlier salmon channel project in Colony Farm park, in 2004, for example, appears to be less successful than hoped in attracting salmon. In many cases, discussion prior to the project with local environment stewards, familiar with the actual habitats, would have resulted in much better planning and success rates.

      The lack of accountability in wildlife habitat compensation is disturbing and unnecessary. It is time the process became much more transparent. Why don’t industry and agencies at least begin talking to naturalists, stream stewards, and environmentalists who know their own community and ecosystems? This means starting a real conversation, not the feeble exchange at a typical open house. It could make for much more effective projects, and prevent the loss of yet more wildlife from our beleaguered landscape.

      Anne Murray is 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.