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Eagle count up from last year

Spawning channel at run-of-river hydro project may have helped draw eagles

The eagles are coming - and a run-of-river power project near Squamish may deserve some of the credit.

The most recent count, conducted in Brackendale on Jan. 3, found 956 bald eagles and three golden eagles in the area - 201 more than last year but still below the average, according to counter Karl Ricker.

"It's still way below the average," he said. "The long term average is 1,614 over 25 years."

The eagle count is done by dividing volunteers into groups to seek out birds in different areas of the Squamish River watershed. The groups are then sent out to count birds and report back to the Brackendale Art Gallery, where another volunteer sits at a computer and collects the data.

Ricker said there were about 50 counters on this year's expedition including two rafting parties who counted from the river.

The eagle counts began in 1986. A world record was established in 1994 when they found 3,769 eagles. But as Ricker tells it, that was nowhere near the number that had been found before or since.

"The number of eagles is dependent on the number of salmon carcasses lying around," he said. "That's what they're there for, rotting salmon carcasses, that's their favourite food at this time of year."

Ricker attributed the higher eagle count this year to a salmon spawning channel built at the mouth of a run-of-river power facility on Ashlu Creek. Such channels are sometimes built at hydro facilities in an effort to help the area's ecosystem recover. Once built, the channels have been known to attract predators such as eagles and bears.

Regional Power Inc. has promised a similar channel for its proposed project on the Ryan River near Pemberton.

Thor Froslev at the Brackendale Art Gallery opposes independent power production, meaning the generation of electricity by private companies. He did, however, admit that the Ashlu spawning channel, built by a private company, contributed to a higher eagle count than in recent years. But eagle counts are still below the average.

"We've had over-fishing for years and lots of logging, global warming and El Nino and everything," he said. "It's all contributed to less fish.

"We can't do anything about all that... but we can do something about the salmon farms, sea lice, which is killing the wild stock."

As for the golden eagles, Ricker said they normally live in high alpine areas and only rarely come down to the watershed. He said one was spotted last year but this year there were three.

"Golden eagles hang around alpine ridge-top areas," he said. "They're very few and far between. They're the dominant aerial predator through all our mountains but they have to have a huge range for each eagle to survive.

"Occasionally they do come down to the river to have a feast of salmon."

Ricker said the appearance of golden eagles could mean they're seeking a change of diet. It's also been snowing heavily in alpine areas, diminishing the birds' chances of finding food up high.

"There's heavy snow cover on the trees, it would definitely knock down their food finding abilities," Ricker said.