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Scientists scramble to catalogue wildlife ahead of B.C. dam decision

Royal BC Museum botanist Erica Wheeler examines plant life on an island in the Peace River, an area that BC hydro will flood when the Site C dam is built.

Tristan Brand

A group of about 30 scientists have their gumboots on the ground in the Peace River Valley this week cataloguing animal and plant life, some of which may never have been recorded before, in an area that will be drowned if the Site C dam is built.

Construction of the controversial $8.8-billion BC Hydro project, which was approved by the province last year, is slated to start this summer but may be delayed by a series of court challenges by conservation groups and First Nations.

If the project does go ahead it will flood one of the last remaining, free flowing sections of the Peace in B.C., creating an impoundment between Hudson's Hope and Fort St. John.

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In an effort to record what's there before it is lost, scientists from across Canada have descended on the threatened valley to do what is called a "bio-blitz."

David Langor, president of the Biological Survey of Canada, said he expects some rare and perhaps previously undescribed species of insects and plants may be found in the survey.

"That's always a possibility," said Dr. Langor.

"We won't really know that until we have those data … but there's a possibility we will encounter species along that stretch of river that we have found nowhere else and perhaps that might mean they exist nowhere else."

The focus of the study is on the 5,550 hectares of valley that will be flooded if the Site C dam is built.

"That's one of the reasons that brought us into the region. We recognize that this is a fair stretch of land, some 70-odd kilometres long of the Peace River Valley that will be flooded, and it will be nice to see what's there before this [dam] goes ahead," Dr. Langor said.

"There seem to be unique things that are cropping up in that area that we should be aware of as we are making decisions about land use in the future."

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Dr. Langor said as a scientist he is not taking sides in the argument about whether the Site C project should go ahead.

"Everyone's going to have their opinion about that. Some people will feel … that we perhaps shouldn't destroy the only populations of species. Others will say … sometimes for a greater good you have to make some sacrifices," he said. "We don't want to get too political with this. We just want to provide the data and provide advice to the best extent we can without being biased."

Dr. Langor said the bio blitz, jointly organized by the Biological Survey of Canada, the Royal BC Museum and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, is a five-day effort that, despite the large size of the research team, will leave much of the valley unstudied.

"I would imagine within this general area there are many, many, many thousands of species, particularly when you talk about insects and fungi and things like that," he said. "You know with 30 people there for the week you are only scratching the surface."

Phillip Henderson, a registered professional biologist with Strix Environmental Consulting, based in Langley, B.C., said he'd joined the effort because he wanted to collect specimens of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), plants which appear not to have been studied in environmental surveys conducted by BC Hydro.

"We're looking at everything, but a lot of these organisms, the rare ones, are difficult to determine in the field unless they are very distinctive," he said. "So most of us are gathering samples and then we'll go back [to the lab] and make a final determination using a microscope and technical references."

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Mr. Henderson, reached on his cellphone Wednesday on an island in the Peace River, said one of the sites he inspected this week was a tufa seep, where cascading pools of water have formed in a limestone formation.

"Those areas are pretty significant in terms of the flora they support," he said. "We collected a lot of species there but I can't name them. I have to go back and ID them with a microscope. There is potentially rare stuff there."

When asked how he felt about the valley being flooded, Mr. Henderson replied: "I'm kind of reluctant to express feelings. I'd rather be more objective. [But] I'd rather this remained [undammed]. It's a pretty impressive area."

In its environmental impact statement BC Hydro acknowledges the Site C dam will drown fish and wildlife habitat, old riparian forest, tufa seeps and "some occurrences of rare vascular and non-vascular plants would be lost."

BC Hydro states, however, that the effects of the project "can largely be mitigated through careful project planning, comprehensive mitigation programs and ongoing monitoring during construction and operations."

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