The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, but the famous raptor’s speed and protected status in British Columbia might not be enough to save a rare nest at a controversial Abbotsford gravel quarry.
The birds are on the province’s “red list” for threatened or endangered species, and the provincial Wildlife Act specifically protects the nests of peregrine falcons, along with five other prominent birds. Biologists believe only a couple dozen of the birds live in the Lower Mainland.
The provincial government expects to decide in the coming weeks whether a frequently used nest at the base of Sumas Mountain can be moved to allow a dormant quarry to resume operation. An environmental scientist working with neighbours opposing the quarry says the site is one of the most-valuable peregrine falcon nesting spots in North America.
But the operator of the quarry says mining is needed to protect the public because of the current state of the site, which was abandoned in 2012 when a stop-work order and a bankruptcy brought operations to a hasty end.
The province issued a mine permit to the operator earlier this spring, but the removal of the nest is needed for activity at the quarry to restart.
Neighbours have been raising concerns about the restart of the quarry for years, citing worries about water contamination from run-off on the site, hazards associated with blasting, and possible effects on the nearby Barrowtown pump station. But the issue on which the future of the quarry hinges at the moment surrounds the peregrine falcons.
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Those wishing to destroy or move a bird nest in B.C. must apply to the province for a general wildlife permit. But getting such a permit to remove a nest, the provincial website says, “is only available in special circumstances.” Proponents must provide a “compelling reason why the nest must be moved or destroyed” or provide an “explanation of why the proposed activity is in the public interest.”
Brent Palmer, who runs Mountainside Quarries, which is responsible for the site’s operation, is adamant that there is a public interest: the current state of the quarry poses a danger to anyone in the area. Palmer says massive rocks bounce down the cliff and into the public right-of-way, threatening the safety of anyone using Quadling Road, including those who park on the road to access a nearby boat launch.
“We’ve got rock falling off the edges of the pit onto the road,” he said. “Some of the rocks that has come down off that face are the size of small cars.”
Palmer said a flying rock has struck and damaged an RV parked nearby and that crews have scraped large boulders off the public road.
“It’s putting everybody at risk who uses that road. At some point in the future, this pit has to be reclaimed.”
Palmer said there is no way to fix the site without more mining.
“There’s no physical way to reclaim it because you’ve got to go further back. The only way you can reclaim a mine site or a quarry on that side is to step it down. What happens is you go back into the hillside to cut it down – you’ve got to make your roads coming up. As soon as you make your roads up to the site, which is benching it, then the site is becoming safer. Then when we’re at the top, we can work our way back down.”
Palmer said the peregrine falcons adopted the site only after the previous quarry closed, and that the nest hasn’t been regularly inhabited in the last five years. The falcons, he said, live on previously mined land shaped by humans during mining activity.
The operators have also promised to spend around $30,000 to build a protruding ledge on which peregrine falcons could nest after mining stops at the quarry, Palmer said.
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The opponents of the quarry – and there are many – disagree not only with the arguments being made by the mine’s operators, but with the underlying facts of those arguments.
Nearby residents sent the province a letter in September raising various concerns. The cause has attracted the support of the Burke Mountain Naturalists and Nature Chilliwack, which have each sent letters to the province asking them to refuse the permit, citing a need to preserve the site both for the falcons and a cliff falcon colony at the quarry.
The residents are working with Howard Bailey, an environmental scientist for Nautical Environmental, who has spent much of his career observing, learning about and working with raptors, including falcons.
Bailey says he usually works for – not against – mines, to help them comply with environmental regulations. But he is adamant that the Quadling quarry should not be restarted.
An avid bird-watcher and photographer, he has been interested in peregrine falcons for years, drawn to the bird’s spectacular hunting prowess.
“If you can watch them hunt or fly, they’re unbelievable,” he says.
Bailey said it is hard to overstate the importance of the Quadling peregrine falcon nest and the need to protect it. Contrary to the mine operators’ assertion that the nest has only sporadically been used, Bailey says he has personally photographed birds at the site each year since 2015. A second local photographer also attested to that.
The nests aren’t used continuously throughout the year, but birds camp out at nesting sites in the spring to lay eggs and rear their young. And Bailey says the Quadling nest has proven to be remarkably productive and uniquely situated.
Although peregrine falcons have seen a resurgence in North America in recent years, and are no longer listed as endangered by the federal government, they remain on the B.C. government’s “red list” of threatened species. Recent surveys of the province turned up just 36 adult birds of the anatum subspecies that is believed to frequent the Quadling nest.
Falcons like to nest on cliffs and there are a couple dozen historical sites in the Lower Mainland, Bailey guesses. But the problem is that most of those aren’t used regularly.
“Maybe six to 10 sites are occupied in a given year.”
Many birds end up nesting on man-made structures like bridges or cranes. Those structures can provide safety and good hunting spots. But, Bailey says, falcons raised in such nests inevitably look for similar spots to set up their own nests. The result is that a bird population can become separated from their natural habitat and natural behaviours.
“You don’t have a sustainable situation in terms of the population.”
The location of the Quadling nest is critical in that regard. There are nearly a dozen historical, but now unused, peregrine falcon nesting sites in the Fraser Valley south of the river. Only Quadling is regularly occupied.
“It’s the only site between Hope and the Port Mann Bridge that is active south of the Fraser, which means it’s sort of a nexus or a keystone breeding area,” he says. “If any of these sites are going to be recovered, the highest probability young to produce at these are going to come from this site. It’s a critical site.”
Bailey says there is evidence the location was used by falcons prior to the original quarry work. But the fundamental problem, he says, is that it’s not possible to mitigate or repair the harm caused by removing the nest. Once falcons are forced off the site, Bailey says it’s improbable that they will ever come back.
“It’s irreplaceable. That’s really the problem.”
He would like to see the property transferred to an organization that could turn it into a wildlife reserve.
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As to the safety aspect, opponents of the quarry doubt the danger the current site poses, as well as the need to operate a quarry to reduce whatever hazard exists.
The cliff face isn’t parallel to Quadling Road. A 30-yard stretch is within an easy stone’s throw from the cliff face. Most of the quarry’s walls, though, are set well back from the road.
Chris Kitt penned the letter sent to the province in September.
“I can tell you that I’ve lived there 15 years,” he said. “There’s never once been an issue of concern.”
Kitt says he’s wary of the provincial government’s ability to properly assess the merits of the case with the resources they have. And he doesn’t trust the mine’s operators – he sent The News a City of Abbotsford report about another mine operated by Morningside Quarries, in which a city inspector wrote that it didn’t appear Palmer was following approved plans.
Neither Kitt nor Bailey believes that a quarry is the only solution to any safety issues that plague the site.
“I’m no engineer so I can’t speak to safety issues,” Kitt said. “I can tell you that I’ve lived there for 15 years and [since the quarry shut down] there has never once been an issue of concern. It’s not like they need to do 10 years of mining to make that place safer.”
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In an email to The News, a provincial government spokesperson wrote that a decision is expected “in the coming weeks.”
The email says staff are considering the “known productivity” and history of the nest, the status of the local peregrine falcon population, the potential impact to breeding success, the “adequacy of the proposed mitigation,” and the “rationale for the proposed disturbance.”