A BC Hydro plan to move bears raises eyebrows

In this week’s newsletter, Sarah Cox explains what unfolded as she reported out a story about a plan to tranquilize and move bears away from the Site C dam flood zone
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An illustration of a giant bear within the Site C dam project area in the Peace River Vallley.
When you hear bears are going to be tranquilized, trapped and moved into fake plywood and straw bale dens, you simply need to learn more. That’s just what B.C. reporter Sarah Cox did last week. 

Here’s the deal: BC Hydro needs to fill a reservoir for its $16 billion Site C dam — and the public utility contracted a private company to find and move hibernating grizzlies and black bears to artificial dens away from the project’s flood zone.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Plans appeared to be moving quickly: a wildlife application permit submitted to the province on Oct. 16 said nine potentially active bear dens had been identified — and contractors were looking for more — while requesting permission to commence trapping and relocation as soon as Nov. 1.

When Sarah got wind of the situation, she started making calls and eventually obtained the permit document through the Wilderness Committee.

One biologist told Sarah the plan could create a “potentially deadly situation” for the bears if they were to abandon the artificial dens and end up wandering without a home in the thick of winter, with the ground too frozen to dig out another den. “I think the big question is, ‘when you move a bear into an artificial structure, will it stay?’ ” Helen Davis said.

For Sarah, who’s been following the saga of the controversial, overdue and over-budget mega-project since 2016, the bear plans served as a reminder of the gigantic impacts of Site C.

“The Peace River Valley that the Site C dam will flood is an incredibly biodiverse area,” she said. “It’s a meeting area for four ecozones. There are tens of thousands of migratory birds that nest in the future reservoir area. There are more than 100 species at risk of extinction that will lose habitat to this hydro project. It’s just a really, really important area for wildlife.”
A sign shows how high floodwaters from the Site C dam will rise in the Peace River valley.
The Peace River will rise 30 centimetres to 2.5 metres a day for up to four months and double or triple in width as tunnels that diverted the river to allow dam construction are slowly closed. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal
On Nov. 14, four days after Sarah’s story was published, BC Hydro announced reservoir filling won’t begin until 2024, as “the window to safely begin reservoir filling was coming to a close.”

BC Hydro told one concerned group it no longer plans to move any bears, this year or next.

“It is somewhat ironic,” Sarah told me, “that a project that has been in the works for over a decade and which will destroy important habitat for so many species is finally getting a lot of public attention because of hibernating bears.” 

For its part, BC Hydro still says the Site C dam will be fully up and running by 2025 and both the utility and the B.C. government say the project will be delivered within its twice-revised budget of $16 billion, almost double the original cost.

But given the track record, Sarah is grappling with more questions than answers. Will the dam really be online by 2025? And how can it stay on budget at a time when other major infrastructure projects, such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Coastal GasLink pipeline, face mounting cost overruns amid inflationary pressures?

After all, Sarah noted, “we haven’t had a budget update on Site C for almost three years.”

Through the winter and beyond, she’ll be watching closely and scouring through whatever documents come across her desk.

Take care and don’t be artificial,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Arik Ligeti headshot
P.S. Last week’s newsletter incorrectly described Kananaskis Country as being an hour east of Calgary. It’s actually an hour west of Calgary and we apologize for this shameful brain glitch 
Event invite: “The Narwhal presents: What does First Nations food sovereignty look like in the face of climate change?” Headshots and bios of guests: ​’Cúagilákv (Jess H̓áust̓i), lands-based educator and executive director of the Qqs Projects Society; Tyrone McNeil, Stó:lō Tribal Council president and Tribal Chief and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat; moderated by Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood, B.C. reporter, The Narwhal. Event date: Wednesday, Nov. 22, 12 p.m. PT / 1 p.m. MT / 3 p.m. ET. Button: Register Now. Background image is opaque, a person placing their hands in a basket of fruit.
A quadrant of photos featuring three Narwhal staff holding up Webster Awards. In each photo, seen left to right: Ainslie Cruishank, Lindsay Sample and Francesca Fionda.

Celebrating Webster wins

Tuesday was a big night for our B.C. team, attending the annual Jack Webster Awards in person for the first time. We were nominated in three categories — excellence in legal journalism, excellence in environment reporting and excellence in multimedia journalism — and we came home with all three awards!

Biodiversity reporter Ainslie Cruickshank won the award for best environmental reporting for her look at the efforts being made by non-profits, governments and First Nations to fight the invasion of European green crabs in B.C. waters. 

Our mining reporter Francesca Fionda won best legal reporting for her in-depth coverage of a court case that could change the future of mining in B.C. 

And our northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons won best multimedia journalism for his work breaking down the truth about pipelines crossing Wet’suwet’en territory — and charting their proposed paths. 

We’re thankful for all the people who trusted us to tell their stories — and for readers like you who give what they can to support our independent, in-depth journalism.

This week in The Narwhal

A Canadian Museum of Nature exhibit featuring a couple polar bears with blurry images of people walking by in the foreground.
It’s complicated: Canadian Museum of Nature rethinks its relationship status with Enbridge
By Carl Meyer
The museum says it’s ‘revising’ its fundraising policy while its former president defends taking fossil fuel money.

An aerial view of a stream flowing through peatlands and forest into a lake in the Ring of Fire in Ontario, an area where several federal impact assessments are underway
How a Supreme Court ruling could affect Highway 413, Ontario Place and the Ring of Fire
By Emma McIntosh
Three killer whale dorsal fins breach the surface of the ocean in front of a snowy cliff on the shoreline
Killer diets: orcas off Canada’s East Coast threatened by ‘forever chemicals’ in their food
By Anaïs Remili

What we’re reading

Up in the Arctic, photojournalist Dustin Patar — a Narwhal contributor! — tags along on an icebreaker journey to keep track of a changing northern climate. Check it out in The Globe and Mail.

Mammoth efforts to grow seaweed are springing up in the Philippines and beyond, Svenja Beller writes. These seaweed farms could feed us all – at a cost. Read it in the Guardian.
GIF of a baby bear peeking out from behind a tree.
When you hear about plans to relocate you to an artificial den. Tell your friends our reporting always keeps things real — and to sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates.
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