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Endangered bird sighting drives home need for further protections at Green Lake

More brush-cutting along protected shoreline prompts warnings from RMOW 
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Two American white pelicans spotted in Whistler on Green Lake last month, marking the first-ever recorded sighting of the endangered species in Whistler.

The first known sighting in Whistler of a red-listed, endangered bird species drives home the need for further protection and education around the ecological importance of Green Lake, conservationists say. 

On Friday, April 22, local birder Dea Lloyd was crossing the boardwalk at Green Lake when she spotted “two gigantic, stunningly white birds gliding down the water.”

As she soon discovered, those birds were American white pelicans, considered endangered in B.C. due to their “small, extremely localized, and vulnerable breeding population,” noted the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia. Known to have only one nesting colony in all of B.C., located at Stum Lake, it was the first recorded sighting of the species in Whistler, according to Karl Ricker, local naturalist and former organizer of the Whistler Christmas bird count. 

Known to winter as far south as Central America, it’s likely the pair of pelicans were using Green Lake to rest and refuel—as several migratory bird species do—before the final leg of their journey to the Chilcotins. 

“A sight like these birds reminds us life is so much bigger than us,” Lloyd said in an email. “Here is a species heeding a deeply engrained, millennia-old biological imperative to circumnavigate the globe to find the best conditions to mate and raise new life. To think of everything these birds have seen and done in the weeks before they decided to touch down on a lake in Whistler is mind-boggling.”  

The sighting is another example of the biodiversity on display at Green Lake, home at various times of year to more than 200 of the estimated 269 bird species in Whistler, Ricker told Pique last spring. Providing vital wetland habitat to dozens of bird species, migratory birds use the small delta at the southeast end of the lake—known colloquially as the “Fitz fan” and one of only two sandy deltas remaining in Whistler—as a crucial stopover point. A variety of ducks, sparrows, warblers, thrushes and vireos use the delta for breeding, while shorebirds such as the killdeer, the spotted sandpiper and the America pipit often build their nests right in the sand, making them difficult to spot and easy to trample. 

And yet, for all its ecological importance, Green Lake continues to suffer the effects of Whistler’s popularity. A 2007 master’s thesis study determined then that Whistler had lost more than three-quarters of its wetland habitat to development, a figure that is bound to be higher 15 years later with the addition of the Nesters bus depot on valley-bottom wetland, extensions to the Valley Trail alongside Alta Lake and Millar Creek, and the natural degradation of riparian areas that comes with an explosion in visitor numbers. 

“That doubling of tourism over the last decade has mostly been in summer, which is when the landscape is exposed and when people want to be by the water,” said Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment. “That means the pockets of wetlands in these riparian areas, the ones by the rivers and lakes, are incredibly important to retain in as natural a state as we can, because we have so little space for the species that rely on that habitat.” 

Barriers to enforcement 

The human-caused stresses to Green Lake can mostly be traced back to two issues: clearing of shrub, bushes and trees along its shoreline, which provide vital cover and nesting habitat to a variety of birds; and disturbances along the Fitz fan, commonly caused by off-leash dogs, illegal campfires, and people crossing over to the fenced half of the delta, which is closed to the public. 

In recent weeks, dozens of clearings have been spotted at various places around Green Lake’s shoreline, designated as protected riparian areas and enforced by local bylaw officers and the Conservation Officer Service. Pique toured the sites and noted significant, deliberate cutting of bushes and shrubs as well as alder, willow and some cottonwood trees. The illegal clearing prompted the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) to issue warning letters explaining the regulations to homeowners located near the path between Nicklaus North Golf Course and the mouth of the River of Golden Dreams. “However, we were not able to locate a witness to obtain a statement … that would support issuance of bylaw notices,” a municipal spokesperson said in an email.  
Green Lake’s shoreline-adjacent areas are divided into municipal parkland, where any vegetation cut without permission would “presumably be non-compliant with the Parks Bylaw,” a municipal spokesperson said, while the area owned by the Nicklaus North Golf Course would be subject to development-permit guidelines that, through provincial legislation and covenants, would add further protections. 

But the prevalence of the issue dating back years is proof that whatever restrictions are in place aren’t having their intended effect. 

“This is a perfect example of where the legislative tools we have and the mechanisms for enforcement are not enough to prevent the environmental degradation that is supposed to be designed out by these regulations,” Ruddy said. “The big issue being … bylaw has to catch people in the act or they have to have some form of proof of who it is. That is challenging in situations like this, which is why this has happened for many years and there hasn’t been any enforcement against it—which we’d obviously like to see change.” 

Education is one approach, of course, and one the RMOW has relied on by installing extra signage by the Fitz fan, along with “multiple patrols throughout the day” in the area, the spokesperson said.   

But education doesn’t necessarily equate to compliance, despite our best intentions. 

“Looking at the overall picture, there’s a lot of bad actors when it comes to environmental [degradation] and going against bylaws, just in general, everywhere,” said local ecologist Bob Brett. “Unfortunately, the bad actors tend to get what they want and tend to get off with doing bad stuff and they’re told not to do it again. It’s just a fault in our system that we assume that people will hear it’s the wrong thing to do and won’t do it again.”