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David Hancock, Ecologist Nov 21, 2021  –

British Columbia is in the midst of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy — everywhere — drought, forest fires and now floods. So many, many people have suffered but also there is tragedy for thousands of other mammals, hundreds of thousands of birds and millions of smaller creatures. All need understanding, compassion, and help.

The recent storms that dumped unprecedented water in our coastal regions have brought untold devastation to many entire communities, destroyed thousands of personal homes, private vehicles, and businesses, but also have destroyed thousands of acres of habitat that will no longer support either its winter inhabitants or the spring and summer residents.

So, what to do? Well, it is impossible to not be proud and impressed by the generous help neighbors and strangers have been performing this past week to their friends and total strangers. So wonderful.

An untold story is that of wild creatures who have likewise lost their key habitat components – food, spawning beds and their dead carcasses are not lying on the river banks to feed the eagles, gulls and waterfowl. How will their homes be replaced? Who will cry over their personal losses?

As an eagle biologist, I am thinking of what our 35,000 wintering bald eagles will do to find a food source for the next 5 months. The 15,000 years of learning to come south has now let them down.

WE have been destroying our salmon runs for 100 years, now removing our protein garbage from the landfills has removed their substitute for salmon. The eagles have adapted to scavenging our landfills as the salmon disappeared. The eagles entire northern food supply has historically been sealed under encroaching winter ice, so they come to our Fraser Valley — the most prolific non-freezing-up salmon rivers of North America. Now climate change has thrown them a curve. The food for the entire northwest northern eagles for four months of winter, has been overfished and diminishing over the past 80 years and now reached a climax. Our local river spawned out salmon carcasses have simply been swept downstream and seaward in the floods.

Already the river housing the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the world is now devoid of carcasses. The first few thousand eagles have already had to push on. But to where? Where are there another few hundred thousand carcasses awaiting scavenging? It is almost certain that many of the millions of dead chickens drowned and the hundreds of dead and drowned cattle carcasses of the Fraser Valley will be removed — to prevent water and human contamination. Normally the dying and still born calves are collected and transported to the Alberta tar sands to be burned. Another efficient use of oil! This waste will probably continue. It could feed the eagles. Historically road crews remove ‘road kill’ wildlife, dump it in local gravel pits, and many predators and scavengers finish the clean-up. We need to encourage more of this here to sustain the formally salmon carcass dependent eagles. I suspect we will continue to pay to have the dead agricultural waste shipped to the Alberta Tax sands. With the challenges facing farms to get back up and safely producing our next food market needs, little consideration will be given to the needs of our scavenging eagles.

I understand many of you will ensure your bird feeders, even the hummingbird feeders that have become the sole food source of these little beauties, will be kept full. However, the plight of eagles, first dependent upon scavenging our winter runs of spawned-out salmon and then over the past 80 years they have adapted to scavenging the hundreds of community garbage dumps for wasted protein, However, we humans now separate our garbage. The organic materials are placed in “green containers” to be made into soil. The salmon carcasses are diminished, the garbage cleaned up – and the eagles are left to wonder what happened to both their old historic food source and now their more recent food supply?

I wonder how a range of wild creatures, in particular the largest population of bald eagles in North America, will now find a substitute food supply for overwintering. And on what will they fatten up on for the 1500-to-2000-kilometre flight back to the tundra and boreal forest this spring? We have also decimated their spring herring spawns that supports the northern migrating eagles.

The eagles got over our ‘hate bounties’ paid by the US government for over 40 years, the DDT assault, their collisions with vehicles and electric lines, their continued loss of nest trees along our waterways, cut down for development and a better view, and now, the final insult. They have finally changed their image from “vermin“ to cherished icon of conservation and we take away their 6 months of winter food. Now they have moved into our cities to breed and give more joy and understanding to our slogan Super Natural British Columbia. But again, the rug is pulled out from under them.

This is no small rug. We humans, so quick to make a buck at any risk to neighbors or ancestors, have shunned 50 years of warning that ecological systems are fragile and can reach breaking points. We have disregarded scientific warnings of pollution and pending climate change, we have continued to allow, because it is immediately cheaper, to build houses on flood plains. About 95 years ago, the most productive wildlife habitat for ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds and cranes of all western North America was lost. I was not yet born when the skies over our Valley were so thick with birds that the sunlight did not penetrate to the ground for hours at a time as great flocks flew overhead. And of course, the predators and scavengers feasted. We then drained Sumas Lake to make wonderful farmland. Nature took it back this week — at least briefly and at great human cost. Will it also be a lesson learned?

This sad loss to so many families is beyond tragic. Will we respond equally to the losses to the eagles? They, and humans, have seen much of the salmon our rivers once produced disappear due to greed. We know how to save them and our rivers to produce even more salmon but greed prevents this. IT is always the dollar today and not the 10 dollars 5 years later. The J, K and L orca pods, who once numbered at least 295 members are now trying to sustain seventy animals. The largest gathering of big predatory birds in the world, our Harrison – Chehalis River winter gathering of bald eagles, may not be able to sustain themselves through to spring thaw. What will happen to the northern eagles that depend upon southern British Columbia to survive the winter? We need to understand and honour nature and reassess our destructive, uncaring ways.

A newscast last night prompted this note. Let’s not hear of the nonsense of bringing in more foreign truck drivers to deliver more oil. We need fewer people and less oil. Our overworked habitats across North America already cannot produce what is needed. This is due to overharvesting our forests and pushing agriculture practices that degrade our soils and to human overpopulation that tramples, cements over and degrades everything we touch. This is a wonderfully robust world but it does have limits and we keep pushing then to the breaking point. Again, greed greed, greed.

Poor agricultural practices remain the biggest contributor to pollution, destruction of living things and our major malpractices contributing to climate change. Do not let this disaster turn into more and bigger disasters to satisfy the greed of a few. Let us train our locals to more effectively and ecologically sustainably use our resources.

David Hancock
Hancock Wildlife Foundation
Surrey BC.