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While climate change threatens sensitive ecosystems around the globe, the little pocket of forest and wetlands known as Morrison Creek is well buffered. But most of the land is zoned for heavy industry

Morrison Creek Headwaters lies in a 22-hectare parcel of protected land in B.C.’s Comox Valley, home to four species of salmon and the endangered Morrison Creek lamprey. Photography and video by Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The Morrison Creek lamprey might be beautiful only in the eyes of a biologist. But the jawless fish, with its gaping, disc-shaped mouth and eel-like silver body, has become a preoccupation even among those less susceptible to its charms, because it is found in only one place on earth: an unusual, drought-proof stretch of wetlands on Vancouver Island.

This species of lamprey has evolved since the last ice age, surviving even dry spells like the one that has left many of the island’s rivers parched over the past few months. That longevity is a result of a special hydrological feature of its home: the creek is constantly replenished by freshwater springs that bubble out of the ground, a gift from the glacier-fed Comox Lake.

While climate change threatens sensitive ecosystems around the globe, this little pocket of forest and wetlands is well buffered. But most of the land is zoned for heavy industry and owned by a multinational logging company.

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One of the valley's unique lampreys, as shown in a handout photo from Morrison Valley Stream Keepers.

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Biologist Tim Ennis is leading community efforts to stop development that would endanger the lamprey and other species.

“It’s a magical thing, here,” said conservation biologist Tim Ennis, who was running his fingers through one of the small, eternal trickles of water that nurture the wetlands.

Mr. Ennis, the executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, has been involved in a 20-year-long community effort to protect the Morrison Creek lamprey, which faces extinction if development is allowed.

His goal is just weeks away from being realized. The owner of the headwaters of Morrison Creek, Manulife Investment, has offered to sell a 289-hectare parcel to the land trust. The deadline to close the deal is the end of December, and a network of conservationists has raised most of the $4.75-million purchase price.

British Columbia is home to the greatest amount of biodiversity in the country, but the provincial government and Ottawa have been unable to reach an agreement on securing new protected areas. Where there is progress, it is being achieved by First Nations and non-profits, and sometimes both together, while government talks grind on.

Many of those non-profits are land trusts like the one Mr. Ennis runs – organizations whose primary business is buying private land and protecting it from development. The 148 that currently exist in Canada have collectively assembled more than half a million hectares. They often use seed money from government, which is matched by private contributions.

Their work fills a gap left by halting government action. Canada, along with the other Group of Seven countries, has committed to conserving or protecting at least 30 per cent of its lands, inland waters and coastal and marine areas by 2030. As an interim step, Ottawa has set a target of 25 per cent by 2025, but it has a long way to go.

Less than 14 per cent of Canada’s lands and waters are protected, and on average the country is adding 0.8 per cent annually. That pace does not put Canada on track to succeed.

A spring replenishes Morrison Creek; mushrooms sprout from a Douglas fir cone; Mr. Ennis gestures toward the forest landscape around the creek.

Morrison Creek has long been eyed for protection by local conservationists, and the status of its unique lamprey is a rallying point.

Formally known as Lampetra richardsoni, the fish has been listed as endangered for two decades. The federal government issued a legal order to protect the lamprey’s critical habitat from destruction in 2019, which established a narrow protected area on either side of the water where it lives.

Still, the lamprey, which is “extremely susceptible to habitat loss” according to the federal protection order, is on the decline.

There is constant development pressure in the surrounding urban area of the Comox Valley. A small portion of land near the creek has been protected as parkland, but the land trust’s purchase of the Manulife lands would secure most of the rest of the lamprey’s habitat.

Mr. Ennis was wearing tall waterproof boots to lead a tour through the land he hopes will soon be preserved. The boggy terrain keeps away people for the most part, with their dogs and loud voices, “and so it ends up functioning as like a wildlife refugium,” he explained as he sloshed around the edge of a beaver dam.

Development in the Comox Valley has left few remaining large pockets of nature. “So it’s really important as a way of keeping wildlife in our communities alongside us,” he said.

A mix of tree species form the canopy over the headwaters, where a sign alerts people to the valuable salmon habitat and claw marks on an alder show signs of bear activity.

Morrison Creek is dense with wildlife. Including the lamprey, it is home to 14 species at risk. Red alders lining a well-used wildlife trail are scarred by the claw marks of black bears, and the landscape is shaped by beavers. A mink peered at a visitor from its shelter in a riverbank before swimming past the carcass of a Coho salmon that had finished spawning. The reliable streamflow has made this a highly productive salmon habitat.

Of all the creatures, Mr. Ennis has a soft spot for the lamprey, which grows to no more than 15 centimetres. “Lamprey are a particularly old lifeform, and seeing how it can evolve into a completely different kind of lamprey in this one place is really a testament to the stability of the hydrology in this ecosystem,” he said. “I think they’re quite beautiful. They are a long very sleek silver fish, and I think quite elegant when you watch them moving in the water.”

The local K’ómoks First Nation call the Morrison Creek headwaters qax mot, meaning “lots of medicine” in their traditional language. Mr. Ennis noted that the conservation effort will ensure the K’ómoks people can access the abundance and diversity of medicinal plants in the area that have been effectively locked up by private land ownership.

The Comox Valley Land Trust has partnered with the BC Parks Foundation to raise the money for the real estate transaction. The foundation’s chief executive, Andrew Day, said the pandemic has increased the public’s appreciation for nature, and that this has helped drive fundraising efforts.

“There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill and gratitude for the natural areas we live in. And a tremendous desire to give back,” he said. “But also, there’s just a much higher level of global awareness, particularly in B.C., about climate and our diversity loss. People want to do tangible things about larger issues, and protecting land in your area where you live is a very concrete thing that people can do.”

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