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BC Hydro scrambles to tranquilize and remove bears hibernating in Site C dam flood zone before waters rise

While construction of the megadam has been underway for more than eight years, B.C.’s public utility appears to be engaged in last-minute efforts to find grizzlies and black bears and relocate them to artificial dens — a plan one biologist says is ‘potentially deadly’ for the creatures

BC Hydro is scrambling to move hibernating bears out of the Site C dam flood zone so they don’t drown in their dens when reservoir filling for the contentious hydro project begins as early as this month. The bears will be tranquilized and relocated to artificial dens made of plywood and straw bales, according to a document obtained by The Narwhal. 

The public utility did not provide details about the bear-relocation plan in response to questions or affix a cost to the last-minute intervention to save black bears and grizzly bears in the Peace River Valley in northeast British Columbia. 

According to a BC Hydro fact sheet about reservoir filling, 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. 

The $16 billion Site C dam will create a 9,330-hectare reservoir — almost five times as big as B.C.’s capital city of Victoria. The dam, which will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, will destroy some of Canada’s premier farmland, habitat for more than 100 species at risk of extinction, and Indigenous hunting, trapping and fishing grounds. Floodwaters generated by the reservoir, which will destroy significant organic material, will also poison bull trout and other fish with methylmercury. Electricity generated by the publicly funded dam, which has been beset by huge cost overruns and serious geotechnical issues, will help power B.C.’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry. 

The B.C. government has not announced a start date for reservoir filling but a wildlife application permit obtained by The Narwhal says BC Hydro “plans to commence Site C reservoir filling in the fall of 2023.”

Bears hibernating in the Peace Valley flood zone will be tranquilized and moved to artificial dens
Black bears hibernate in dens during the winter. Females, called sows, emerge in the spring with their playful cubs. Photo: Pete Nuij / Unsplash

The permit, submitted to the B.C. government by RAM Environmental Response, the company BC Hydro has contracted to find and move the bears, requests permission “to trap and / or tranquilize and relocate bears” starting Nov. 1. It says BC Hydro “is proposing to conduct a capture and relocation program to move bears from the reservoir area ahead of reservoir filling, as well as rescue bears that are displaced during the flooding of dens.” 

According to the permit, the bear relocation program consists of two phases. Prior to reservoir filling, culvert traps or leg hold snares will be deployed in areas with high denning potential or where bears are identified. Bears captured awake prior to hibernation will be moved 25 to 30 kilometres away. Hibernating bears will be tranquilized with a jab pole and placed in the artificial plywood and straw bale dens outside of the reservoir area, within five kilometres of their den. As of Oct. 16, nine potentially active bear dens had been identified in the flood zone, according to the permit.

During reservoir filling, biologists will fly over the area in helicopters every two to three days over a period of two to three weeks to identify bears displaced from dens, the permit states. The bears will be captured and tranquilized before being loaded into helicopters for transport or placed in wheeled bear traps. Bears captured during reservoir filling will be moved to the plywood and straw bales structures. The artificial dens will be monitored in the spring to determine the success rate of the program and then destroyed to prevent re-use, the permit says. 

The permit notes “artificial dens constructed out of straw bales have been used successfully in the area in the past” but did not provide any details.

The $16 billion Site C dam will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries in B.C.'s northeast
The $16 billion Site C dam will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries in northeast B.C. BC Hydro has logged most of the valley in preparation for flooding, slated to begin as early as this month. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

B.C. biologist warns of ‘potentially deadly’ situation for Site C dam’s relocated bears 

Wildlife biologist Helen Davis, a vocal proponent for bear den protection, said she was “a little dumbfounded” when she received a call this week from BC Hydro asking for advice about constructing artificial bear dens. Davis built experimental plastic bear dens and hammered plywood roofs onto hollow tree stumps in an attempt to help Vancouver Island bears who lost denning habitat due to logging. 

“I don’t know that I offered much advice,” she said in an interview. “I was a little shocked. I sent them my published paper on building artificial bear dens.” The paper showed bears didn’t use the dens, although one bear denned in a modified tree stump. “We were trying to make structures that would appeal to wild bears that they would select and den in on their own,” Davis explained. “What BC Hydro would be doing here is removing bears from the inundation zone and putting them into artificial dens. So it’s not like the bears are selecting them … I think the big question is, ‘when you move a bear into an artificial structure, will it stay?’ ” 

If Peace Valley bears abandon the artificial structures where they’re placed, they likely won’t be able to dig a new den because the ground will be frozen, Davis said, “so then they’re kind of wandering around with nowhere to spend the winter and it’s obviously a potentially deadly situation for them.” She said straw bale dens might work if the structure is solid and won’t fall apart “and it’s going to kind of provide a nice, dry, warm spot for them if they stay.”

Davis cited one study of rehabilitated black bears in Colorado, which were released from holding pens into artificial dens covered with straw bales. About 70 per cent of bears that were released into the same dens used at the rehabilitation facility stayed all winter and emerged the following spring. All six cubs released in unfamiliar dens abandoned them within one day. A study of eight bears released in remote rock-shelter dens lined with straw found five bears with cubs stayed in the dens, while three without cubs moved immediately and found other dens within 1.6 kilometres. “Are there other dens available in the Site C area?” Davis asked.

She also warned “it could be dangerous for all parties” to move grizzly bears during hibernation if any are found in dens. 

A much better option would be to delay the flooding until bears emerge from hibernation, she said. “It’s quite unreal that after all of the work that’s been done for over a decade, we’re coming down to this being an issue at the last minute.” 

BC Hydro contractors searched for black bear dens around Watson Slough, a rare complex of wetlands in the Peace River Valley that was cleared for the Site C dam
BC Hydro contractors are searching for bear dens around Watson Slough in the Peace River Valley. They plan to tranquilize and move any hibernating bears they find, before the valley is flooded for the Site C dam. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Peace Valley farmer Ken Boon learned about the bear relocation plans this week from a RAM Environmental Response employee who went to the wrong property. Instead of turning off the highway at Watson Slough — a sprawling wetland, home to two dozen bird, plant and amphibian species at risk of extinction, that was cleared in preparation for reservoir filling — the contractor drove to the nearby property where Boon and his wife Arlene live on a small piece of their former farmland. Most of the Boon’s third generation family farm was expropriated by the B.C. energy ministry in 2016 for the Site C dam, which will impact dozens of valley farms.

“I don’t know if it’s a tried or proven method of relocating bears in dens or if it’s just an experiment, but I guess it’s just one more crazy mitigation measure for Site C,” said Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, which represents landowners affected by the project. 

He said the BC Hydro contractors didn’t have two known bear dens on his family’s expropriated property, in an area called Bear Flats, on their list. The dens aren’t occupied every year, but the Boons have often seen sows with cubs emerging in the spring. “A lot of times you don’t see them go in. But you see them when they come out,” Boon said. “They really hang around the den. And they’re pretty lethargic and not moving around too much.”

A bear without cubs hibernated in one den last winter, Boon said. “I don’t know if it was a different bear this time or just a sow that didn’t have cubs. I imagine those dens are probably first-come, first-serve.” 

He said he showed the contractors the two bear dens and they inserted cameras on poles. Later, Boon spotted a third den in the same area that the contractors had marked with ribbon.

Site C dam’s reservoir filling date not yet announced by BC Hydro

Green Party MLA Adam Olsen raised the issue of bear dens in the Site C flood zone this week in the B.C. legislature during question period, saying he’d learned 24 active bear dens were going to be flooded very shortly and people trying to protect the dens were struggling to find out when reservoir filling would begin. 

Olsen asked B.C. Energy Minister Josie Osborne when BC Hydro would begin filling the reservoir. 

Osborne said the government would share the information when it knew the answer. “Right now, BC Hydro is making a determination as to when they will be able to flood the reservoir and begin the work of activating the turbines and delivering clean electricity to British Columbia,” Osborne said. “BC Hydro is reaching out to communities, working with First Nations — speaking to people about what that means and what they can expect to see as the flooding begins.”

MLA Adam Oslen stands in front of a microphone holding his phone
BC Green Party MLA Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, is concerned about BC Hydro’s plan to move hibernating bears. Photo: Chad Hipolito / The Canadian Press

Boon said his family has heard nothing about reservoir filling since August, when he and his wife received a letter from BC Hydro saying the public utility was “targeting to begin reservoir filling for the Site C project sometime this fall.” 

In an interview, Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation on southern Vancouver Island, expressed concerns about the bear relocation plan. 

“We are displacing wildlife that is very territorial, and that even if we do save them from being drowned in their winter homes, the impact of that disruption in their lives is going to be dramatic,” he said. “They’re going to have to find new territories, they’re going to be interacting with other bears that also have territory. It’s more than just the fact that we want to save them from being drowned. We also have to recognize that their displacement is going to come at a cost as well.”

“There’s a very, very high likelihood that a generation of bears that were due to be born and nurtured into their life are either going to be very threatened or they’re going to perish. I don’t know if you’ve seen a bear cub, in its earliest days, and the sacrifice its mother has to make in order for it to survive.”

Olsen said the bear den issue is a classic example of how the government can rationalize decisions like building the Site C dam by claiming to mitigate “all of the potential nasty outcomes.”

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