The proposed Highway 99 construction schedule north of Horseshoe Bay was disrupted this week to give biologists more time to discover if eagles that regularly nest in the area were in fact nesting again this year.
Blasting was scheduled but its illegal to blast within 1,000 metres of any active eagle nests.
Contractors for the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project were about to go ahead with blasting near the site after receiving the opinion of one biologist that the birds were not nesting. But last weekend local eagle watchers observed evidence of nesting behaviour. In light of that evidence, the S2S Highway Improvement Project will hold off highway construction in that area.
"This particular (nest) has been under some observation and theres been some question as to whether eagles are nesting in this location," said Peter Milburn, the executive project director of the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project. "We have determined, working with the biologist of record, that we would continue to monitor this until the end of June, which is the latest time that eagles would be nesting, and see what happens at that point. If they are nesting and raising young then I think the latest start date is Aug. 15 obviously we dont want to disturb them if they are nesting in that area."
The section of highway under construction is 7 km long, "so we can work around it," Milburn added. "For that area well be in a wait and see mode, take no chances with it, and in the meantime the biologists are on top of the issue."
While he stands by the original assessment by the biologist that the eagles were not nesting, Milburn acknowledged that many of the concerned citizens opposed to the construction do have scientific credentials as well, and deserve some time to prove their case.
Lawrence Ruskin of Lions Bay is one of the citizens that called attention to the nesting behaviour. He is head of regional black bear education group and has spent a lot of time observing the nest in past years.
"The eagles have been visited by lots and lots of people for years and years. Theres a lot of people who do regularly go to watch it although we do try to keep it a secret," said Ruskin. "You can look right down into the nest, its quite unique in that respect theres very few places where you can drive right up to an eagles nest and look right down on it."
The nest is located on the west side of Highway 99 in the woods below a pullout. That area will not be impacted by highway construction, but there is concern that highway construction and blasting during the nesting period will disturb the eagles, who may then abandon the nest. After about Aug. 15, the eagles and their young will usually leave the nest and construction can take place.
"All the literature suggests that the eagles would leave, and may not come back if there was a disturbance," said Ruskin.
Local Lions Bay biologists that have been working with Ruskin believe the eagles are nesting later this year because one of their young died in the nest the previous year. The eagles have been covering the dead eaglet up with sticks and moss, building a new nest on top of the old one.
On May 18, after being told three days earlier that construction was going ahead on schedule, Ruskin took a photograph showing the male eagle ripping up a salmon and feeding the pieces to the female, a strong indication of mating and nesting behaviour.
Ruskin and other citizens went to the media with their pictures and the story, and the highway builders have since delayed work on that section of the road in compliance with the laws.
If no evidence of eaglets or nesting is confirmed by the end of June, Ruskin says he would have no problem with highway construction going ahead. However he is fairly confident that there will be confirmation of young before long.
"Well know soon enough either way, but there are other biologists and scientists who think that were seeing the beginning of nesting. (To proceed with construction) would spoil it for everyone around here who watches these eagles, probably for a couple of years, and we dont want that."