Grrr. Wildlife falls prey to our insatiable need for natural resources

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Photo: flickr/PressedRat

Despite suspected ongoing impact to animals where the Mount Polley Mine breached several weeks ago, professional wildlife response teams can't get in to assess the area.

It is believed that chemicals still in the environment from the spill -- which released millions of cubic metres of potentially toxic waste into central B.C. waterways -- could impact millions of birds, among other animals in the area.

Exasperated responders say it is just a piece of a much larger problem that will only grow with the economy's reliance on natural resource development: wildlife has zero protection under Canadian environmental legislation.

"There's no regulation, there's no laws, we can't even get in the door to see what's happened to the wildlife," said Oiled Wildlife Society vice-president Coleen Doucette, who has been working to establish globally recognized standards in wildlife response for over 20 years.

"I don't think the Canadian public is necessarily aware of this."

The B.C. Ministry of Environment said in a statement that wildlife responders aren’t allowed into the area around the mine breach because there is still an unstable plug at the base of Polley Lake. Until it is dealt with, “no one can safety set foot in the debris flow area because of the danger of another release.”

“It is believed there are minimal implications to the wildlife population in the area,” the statement said, adding that wildlife biologists will eventually be allowed in.

An Environment Canada spokesman said in a statement Friday that the government is "currently assessing the matter with respect to federal environmental and wildlife laws within its jurisdiction, and has opened an investigation."

Investigations have consisted of extensive testing of water quality and aquatic life since the spill to assess the potential impact on people and the environment.

The Mount Polley Mine breach has set off alarm bells with regards to the catastrophic potential oil tankers and pipelines have to cause ecological disasters of their own. It also highlights the risk to wildlife, which Doucette said are not protected by any laws. Instead, only policies guide wildlife response, which means animals aren't being assessed. 

Doucette is concerned that it is too late, especially given the increasing reliance on oil transport. Protection of wildlife is not even part of the conditions around the approval of the Enbridge pipeline expansion project, she said.

"We've kind of run out of time with the amount of risk coming up," she said.

"As production grows, our risk grows. We really need to have programs in place and right now there's nothing. It just continues the cycle of pollution and mortality if we don't remove animals from the environment has a first step."

She said the current government legislation and tanker insurance in place in case of oil spills, or other environmental disasters, is pretty much "to clean up rocks. There's no legislation to clean up sea birds, marine mammals, any wildlife that's been impacted."

The Ministry of Environment confirmed animals are not protected under spill legislation, but said it is “looking to further enhance that as part of current work to develop and institute a world leading spill preparedness and response regime in the province.”

Although no hard statistics are available, she said, hundreds of thousands of animals are affected by oil spills alone each year in Canada.

After an incident occurs, there is a struggle between government and industry to decide who is financially accountable and oiled animals are often left to die and contaminate the area around them.

Former animal rehabber Marcy Potter said that when animals are oiled, they should be taken into care within 24 hours, but she has observed that the government doesn't see the value in helping certain species that are considered invasive.

"In the 2009 [Burrard Inlet] spill, the government said all the wildlife would be euthanized," she said.

"So probably the spill involved a lot of Canada geese and they just don't see the value in rehabbing them. Whereas we look at animals as individuals not just one big mass group."

Potter said she doesn't understand why wildlife always seems to get left behind.

"Burrard Clean is for the environment so they're able to get out [to a spill] quickly," she said.

"Then the government has to decide whether they'll work on the animals, whether they're worth saving. With all these new tankers, I don't know what they would do if there was a spill. It absolutely terrifies me."

Doucette said the Oiled Wildlife Society has been "desperate" for any kind of government help, including permanent facilities for cleaning affected animals -- there are currently none in the entire country.

Meanwhile, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and most European countries have "major legislation protecting wildlife."

"I think the glaring omission in Canada is that … because we're utilizing natural resources to build our economy there isn't a protection view," Doucette said.

"It's take as much as you can, as fast as you can, and wildlife is just something that gets in the way."

Cara McKenna is a freelance journalist based in Nanaimo, B.C.

Photo: flickr/PressedRat

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