A group of concerned Horseshoe Bay-area biologists and eagle watchers were handed a partial defeat this week with an announcement from the Ministry of the Environment that brushing and blasting could resume in an area of Highway 99 that is currently under construction.
The Ministry of Environment put a temporary ban on blasting within 1,000 metres and a ban on brushing within 500 metres after eagle watchers produced photos of what they believed was nesting behaviour on the part of two eagles, as well as photos that reportedly showed the presence of two or three eaglets within the nest.
The nest had been used to produce young successfully in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
After taking a closer look into the nest, the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project determined in late June that there were no eaglets or eggs within the nest, and therefore no need to continue with the ban.
However, a local conservation group, the North Shore Eagle Nest Environmental Stewards Team (NEST), submitted an application to the Ministry to keep the original ban in place until it expired on Aug. 15. According to NEST, any construction activity could drive off the eagles, possibly for good, while potentially preventing them from returning to the area to mate next year.
The Ministry of the Environment lifted the ban, but did keep some restrictions in place for the highway construction crew. Under the new order brushing can be conducted anywhere in relation to the nest, but blasting is only allowed when the eagles were away from the nest.
According to Peter Milburn, the executive project director for the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project, the partial lift of the ban will make things easier for the work crew.
"You can only work around an area for so long, so from where we stand its good to have access to the area to be able do the needed safety improvements there," he said.
"I think the contractor would start work in that area as soon as permitted because theyve been working around that area and they want to get in there and get the work done."
Although the original highway schedule was altered after the supposed discovery of the eaglets, the project on that seven kilometer stretch of highway is "on or ahead of schedule," said Milburn.
Rare frog discovery
While the ongoing saga of the eagles nest draws to a close, a new chapter in the ongoing battle to save the Eagleridge Bluffs area from highway construction got underway on Wednesday this time because of a frog.
According to the Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs which campaigned for a four-lane tunnel in the Horseshoe Bay area rather than an overland route a rare red-legged frog was discovered in the Larson Creek wetlands adjacent to the proposed highway work. The frog is currently listed as a vulnerable species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
The finding was confirmed by West Vancouver Environmental Protection Officer Elizabeth Kovics, and the coalition has requested that the Ministry of Transportation present an Environmental Management Plan for the species.
The discovery has also revived calls for the Ministry of Transportation to reverse its June decision to build a four-lane above-ground highway in the area rather than a four-lane tunnel through the side of the mountain. In making its decision, the government determined that the construction and maintenance costs of the tunnel were too high, a position refuted by the coalition and the City of West Vancouver.
"This does not mean that the tunnel is not the best option," said Bruce McArthur, a member of the coalition. "It means that the government of B.C. will not do the right thing, which is to protect and preserve the unique ecosystems in this area.
"The Coalition is committed to doing whatever it takes to save the bluffs and wetlands and therefore now advocates that the government consider other options, such as paving the existing railway bed or putting in a third lane on the existing route."
According to the Ministry of Transportation, measures are already in place to protect the wetlands, and any species discovered.
"This isnt exactly a discovery," said Milburn. "The habitat was identified in the environmental assessment process and so that was something that was considered by the Environmental Assessment Office when they granted the (construction) permit.
"For example, at another site further up we had a similar frog, I believe it was the Coast Tailed Frog. In that case there was a direct relocation of the frog and tadpoles, and it was done so they werent affected by the construction.
"So there are species that we take care of as we work through various zones. Its not out of the ordinary that well come across something."
The cost of building the 2.4 km, four-lane overland route is approximately $130 million, compared to $200 million for a 1.4 km tunnel.