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Stumps from an old clear cut on a mountain side near the Fairy Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island on May 26, 2021.

Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Logging operations for Teal-Jones near Port Renfrew, taking place amid blockades and mass arrests, are facing new scrutiny as the Ministry of Forests launches a search for the location of endangered wildlife during the critical breeding season.

The ministry is now dispatching its own biologists to hunt for western screech owl nests in old-growth trees, after independent biologists and birders confirmed sightings on either side of the contested logging operations at Fairy Creek. The owls are federally listed as threatened, and under the B.C. Wildlife Act, all active nests are protected, which means it is illegal to disturb the birds while they are nesting.

If a nest is found in an area where Teal-Jones is logging, it would mean at least a suspension of operations. In April, the federal government ordered Trans Mountain Corp. to halt work on a section of its oil pipeline expansion project in Burnaby for four months to protect hummingbird nests. And, in 2020, the B.C. government created a new wildlife habitat area of 511 hectares in the Campbell River forest district after confirming the presence of a tiny, rare amphipod in limestone caves near the town of Tahsis.

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“It’s looking for a needle in the haystack and hardly ever have we been able to find nest sites, even in the best of conditions,” said David Muter, assistant deputy minister for Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The ministry has approved logging operations by Teal-Jones in what is defined as Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 46, and under normal conditions, the company would be responsible for ensuring its operations are not threatening endangered wildlife.

However, the continuing protest has put old-growth logging practices under a spotlight.

The RCMP have made more than 130 arrests since May 18. With active logging, significant police activity and hundreds of supporters of the blockades in multiple locations, these are not the best of conditions to find the elusive nests, which are usually hidden in the cavities of old-growth trees.

The province has little information about western screech owls. In 2013, it estimated there were 750 to 1,500 breeding pairs across the province, but could not say how many may be left on Vancouver Island. The province also cannot say what kind of disturbance can be tolerated by the owls. Logging companies are asked under “best practices” to delay any harvest within 500 metres of any sighting locations until after breeding season, which runs from March 15 to Aug. 15.

“We’ve already notified Teal, we know that they’re not undertaking any activity near the sightings, but we’re telling them, treat these [reported sightings] as though there is a nest there, and we’re going to be working with our experts to develop best management practices,” Mr. Muter said in an interview. His staff will be doing extra diligence now, he said, because there are confirmed reports of species at risk.

“We know we have got to protect the nest sites, so we’re going to figure out a better way to do this with them just to make sure, absolutely sure, that we are protecting everything and that they’re following all these rules.”

Biologist Royann Petrell, a professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia who specialized in habitat restoration at the faculty of applied science, has recorded multiple sightings of the western screech owls in the area since April, when she first camped at one of the blockade sites.

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“I heard the owls for the first time. I didn’t think it was any big deal: there were two other species of owls, I was quite thrilled to hear three different species of owls in one place.” She posted her observation on an internet birding site, which is how she learned of the potential significance.

She returned with recording equipment and has now charted 11 sightings in TFL 46 – including one incident where a male screech owl attacked her computer. She planned to return on the weekend with a team of birders and other biologists, to make a concerted effort to find nests of the owls, as well as endangered northern goshawks.

Dr. Petrell said she is skeptical that their work might halt logging operations, but she said she hopes it will help raise public awareness about the endangered species that rely on old-growth forests for survival.

“The best outcome would be that more and more people become aware of this,” she said. “The regulations don’t make a lot of sense for preserving the wildlife, but with awareness comes action and demand for change.”

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