A close-up shot from 2013 of a western screech owl in captivity. File photo.

Cumberland councillor worried about developer’s blasting impact on local wildlife

A Cumberland councillor is concerned with the potential impacts on nearby wildlife, from the blasting done by a developer.

Coun. Jesse Ketler wants the Village of Cumberland to uphold blasting restrictions from April 30 to July 30 for Coal Valley Estates’ phase 7 and 8 of development. Those months mark the nesting and breeding season for certain birds.

The blasting restrictions have been set on the developer since May 2017, when the Village approved an Environmental Protection Area Development permit for the Coal Valley Estates development.

The restrictions were based on a 2014 terrestrial assessment from Ursus Environmental, which recommended scheduling blasting and tree falling to avoid the peak breeding season for birds.

Earlier this month, the developer submitted an application to amend its development permit to remove the blasting restrictions. The developer had commissioned a report from Strategic Natural Resource Consultants in February that found birds in the area may be habituated to the noises associated with construction and blasting.

“Based on the observation average blast typical of this construction site, specific timing restrictions for blasting to protect nesting/breeding birds within the riparian greenway is not warranted,” reads a portion of the report.

Cumberland council voted against amending the development permit on April 9, rejecting Village staff’s recommendation to remove the timing restrictions on blasting.

Representatives from Strategic Natural Resources Consultant and McElhaney Consulting Services came to the subsequent council meeting, April 23, where they presented the data from Strategic’s report.

Biologist Cindy Hannah (who wrote the report) told council that decibel readings showed the blasting was no louder than typical construction noises.

“The techniques used to dampen the blast appear to mitigate any potential harmful effects in regards to breeding birds,” wrote Hannah.

But Ketler felt more information is needed.

“That blasting was occurring further away from the site and we’re right next to it now,” she said.

Endangered species

The animal at the heart of Ketler’s concerns is the western screech owl — an endangered species found along B.C.’s Pacific Coast and in the southern Interior.

While the owls used to be abundant on Vancouver Island, various factors have led to their population dwindling.

Read More: Researchers all ears in effort to save endangered western screech owl

“They’re a threatened species and estimates are their population has been reduced anywhere from 30 to 80 per cent on Vancouver Island in the last 10 years,” said Ketler. “Habitat loss is a huge part of that population loss.”

What’s unclear is if western screech owls are still in Cumberland.

While the Ursus report detected the owls’ presence in 2014, Hannah’s report said Strategic did three call playback surveys to try and detect the owls on April 16 this year and there were no responses.

The owl also uses pre-existing tree cavities as their nests, which make them hard to detect.

“Speaking to local biologists, there hasn’t been any populations of these owls identified in the Comox Valley — and they’ve been looking,” said Ketler, who also hopes the buffer zone for the riparian greenway near the Coal Valley Estates development can be expanded from its current 30 metres.

“This could be the only population of this owl in the Comox Valley and it would be a shame to lose it.”

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