Concern for the status of biodiversity in old growth forests on Vancouver Island reached new heights this summer when Dr. Royann Petrell discovered that the Caycuse-to-Port Renfrew area was home to a previously-undocumented population of Western Screech owls, Megascops kennicottii.
The discovery of this threatened species raised red flags for Dr. John Neilson (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, retired), particularly after the release of the Nahmint ruling which found that BC Timber Sales was issuing logging permits in old growth areas without carrying out due diligence biodiversity surveys for endangered and threatened species.
Neilson discovered that no information could be found for the controversial Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek area which was set to be logged. Neilson sought permission to access the area from the Pacheedaht parties and the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD). He contacted me to organize a group of biologists and naturalists and carry out a series of short surveys to document the area’s potential species diversity. We set up an iNaturalist page to capture and upload whatever information might have been previously collected on species at Fairy Creek. In May there was only one report (a red-legged frog, Rana aurora).
The area was then, and continues to be, the subject of a logging controversy. Nevertheless, we were able to carry out three short surveys.
To date, the surveys have yielded 319 species, 16 of which are “vulnerable” species of concern. The list was completed after a mere 20 hours work, during which access was obstructed by the RCMP, with helicopters being constantly flown over the area to harass protestors. That also harassed sensitive faunal species.
Setting aside the importance of identifying species at risk, this project raises some important questions about the ongoing government-sanctioned destruction of biodiversity in BC. The Fairy Creek area is less than 100km from Victoria, that is, from the offices of both the Ministry of Environment and FLNRORD, yet no records of these endangered species seem to have existed before the licenses to clearcut and destroy these habitats were granted.
It is not clear how well-staffed ministries who are responsible for both the inventory and the protection of species at risk could apparently have been so unaware of the state of species richness under their care.
This is not just a “Fairy Creek” problem. This would appear to be a pervasive problem across all of BC. We talk of biodiversity, while destroying untold hectares of forest habitat without carrying out species inventories to determine what is to be lost. To protect the interests of the logging industry, this government, like others before it, delays the passage of a Species at Risk Act that would protect biodiversity. In fact, FLNRORD is currently designing protocols to protect some species at risk, in consultation with the forest industry.
Perhaps of greatest relevance among the 16 species of concern found was the lichen Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis (Old-growth Specklebelly). This blue-listed endemic, which is considered extremely rare, is the subject of a special agreement with the government of Canada “to secure long-term protection for the known populations and habitats of old growth specklebelly.” This lichen is specific to old growth and is known to be extremely sensitive to disturbance.
Specklebelly special directives
Very special forestry restrictive directives apply throughout the West Coast for this species. BC Timber Sales guidelines call for a minimum 200-metre setback from any population identified. On the plus side, its bluish thallus with a pinkish underside makes it one of the easiest lichens to identify. BC Timber Sales provides its clients and licensees with identification cards for that purpose. On the down side, the find is in a cutblock in which Teal-Jones put its roads right through the population, trisecting the distribution and providing for no setbacks or protections whatsoever.
The population found at Fairy Creek is a new population of Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis (Old-growth Specklebelly). It was found in a Teal-Jones cutblock by Natasha Lavdovsky, a young artist interested in lichen dyes, on trees cut by Teal-Jones. This lichen is extremely special because it is associated with very old well-established old growth forests.
BC has very few populations of this lichen, most consisting only of 2-10 individuals. At last count, Lavdovsky found about 55 trees with 12-20 individuals per tree. This is, or rather was, Canada’s largest population of this rare species.
It is now fully endangered by Teal-Jones’ activities and lack of due diligence, and by FLNRORD’s outright negligence. A formal complaint against Teal-Jones has been lodged with BC Forest Practices Board. In the interim, much of this rare population could join the approximately one-half of the ancient forest Teal cuts on Southern Vancouver Island that gets turned into pulp, garden mulch, or some other low-value product.
It might be possible to rescue this population if FLNRORD cared for species at risk and for biodiversity. In fact, the species-at-risk portfolio has no place in Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development. This is a ministry in perpetual conflict of interest. It cannot serve the interests of forestry companies and protect biodiversity in British Columbia.
Governments come, governments go, but it is business as usual in BC.
Loys Maingon is the BC Director of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists and lives in the Comox Valley.