Nature lovers are asking B.C. Hydro to delay the destruction of a wetland used as a nesting ground for a rarely-seen bird.

Watson Slough is a popular birding site, with trails maintained by Ducks Unlimited and listed as a "hot spot" by the National Audubon Society.

It is also scheduled to be logged this month as B.C. Hydro prepares for the Site C dam project and eventually flooded as the dam is complete.

"I really hope they don't go ahead now," said wildlife biologist Mark Phinney in a phone interview as he and other wildlife enthusiasts hiked through the slough to mark World Wetlands Day. "There's no need to do that just yet."​

Watson Slough

Watson Slough is listed as a tourist destination by several provincial guides due to the range of birdlife found in the area. (Donald Hoffmann)

He's concerned about species like the yellow rail, a secretive wading bird that nests in the wetland.

"There's relatively few known locations in the province where they actually nest, so it's really quite important," said Phinney.

'Species of concern' would lose nesting ground

The yellow rail is listed as a "species of special concern" under Canada's Species at Risk Act and red-listed provincially because it is found in very few places in the world. It is considered particularly sensitive to human development.

Yellow Rail

Yellow rails are known to be secretive birds that only sing in the middle of the night, making tracking their presence very difficult for researchers. (Audobon.org)

The yellow rail isn't the only creature to use the slough — over 120 bird species have been sighted there over the last few years, along with mammals and some rare plant species.

"They are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet," wrote science columnist Torah Kachur for a feature on the importance of wetlands to biodiversity.

"Wetlands are the world's nurseries."

Watson Slough is unique to the Peace River region. It contains the area's only "marl fen" ecosystem, created by lime-rich marlstone seeping into a wetland, as well as several uncommon "tufa seep" ecosystems.

watson slough

Watson Slough falls within Site C's flood reservoir, marked by the blue lines on this map from B.C. Hydro. (B.C. Hydro)

Although BC Hydro has committed to working with Ducks Unlimited to offset the destruction by building new wetlands, both marl fens and tufa seeps are impossible to recreate.

This prompted a federal and provincial joint review panel on the project to call the effects of Site C on wetland as "permanent and irreversible."

An alternative to Site C known as Site 7B would have preserved Watson Slough but it was rejected as being more expensive while producing just 24 per cent of Site C's power.

The Peace River Regional District has asked B.C. Hydro to put off the logging for as long as possible while the dam is constructed.

B.C. Hydro spokesman Dave Conway said the Crown corporation is reviewing the request.

He also said if logging is done, the wetlands in Watson Slough will be protected with a 15-metre machine-free riparian zone and a 100-metre buffer on the marl fen.

Phinney hopes all logging is delayed.

"This area's awfully small and could be cleared quite efficiently in a week or two at most," he said.

He hopes the yellow rail can get a few more breeding seasons in before losing one of their few known nesting grounds.

"Every year counts for them, every year they can raise another family and help the population."


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