The Bioblitzer 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY  JAMES HOLKKO - looking north Whistler Bioblitz participants prepare for the event's first-ever foray into the Pemberton area.
  • Photo by James Holkko
  • looking north Whistler Bioblitz participants prepare for the event's first-ever foray into the Pemberton area.

Bob Brett is standing on a railroad embankment near the Lillooet River in the Village of Pemberton's ample back forty. Half-heartedly holding an arm over his head, he makes announcements to a smattering of amateur naturalists, their local hosts, and some 50 professional biologists milling on the levee before him — most conspicuously clad in light-blue T-shirts emblazoned with the familiar red-and-yellow Superman logo in which the "S" is a stylized version of a sharp-tailed snake. The tiny endangered reptile, found here and nowhere else on B.C.'s mainland, is newly minted poster-child for the fortuitous convergence of coastal and Interior ecosystems responsible for Pemberton's unique blend of biodiversity, the very thing this cadre is here to examine.

Brett's unhurried, less-than-stentorian delivery has slipped the attention of an increasingly restless crowd. In a scene straight out of The Far Side, urchins and sprites in Tilley hats are on their hands and knees examining the surrounding ground and plant life, while half-pints with butterfly nets probe the forest's edge — and these are just the scientists. The group's handful of children is already halfway down the trail, parents in hot pursuit. Hopefully for Brett, not given to forcing a point, more than a few have banked the return times, meeting locations, emergency phone numbers, and vague directions to any or all of a riverside trail, more distant wetland, and its adjacent open-canopy Douglas fir bluffs. And if not? Well, Brett doesn't seem too worried. This may be the Whistler Bioblitz's first foray outside its home valley, but it's part of the eighth incarnation in as many years, and no one has disappeared yet. Besides, search parties would be hard-pressed to miss that Supersnake T-shirt.

Compact, energetic, and somewhere between wiry and wired, Brett talks like many of the guardians of mankind's knowledge vaults — in short bursts peppered with context-expanding tangents. Connecting dots of information and recollection in constant stream-of-consciousness updates, it can seem scattershot in the moment, but the big picture, when it emerges, is bigger and more nuanced than most. The kind of grasp of a subject you wish you had, for Brett always has a critical tidbit to donate to your cause — or the many he himself has spearheaded.

Having abandoned advertising work in Montreal for the outdoor life, Brett moved to Whistler to teach skiing, ultimately combining it with a back-to-school Masters in Forest Ecology from UBC in 1997. Riding the dual roller-coasters of professional biologist and ski instructor ever since, Brett was founding president of the Whistler Naturalists, which averages nearly a hundred members annually. Eschewing regular indoor meetings, the group instead runs numerous outdoor events: the Christmas Bird Count; a Breeding Bird Survey in June; bird walks on the first Saturday of every month; the popular Fungus Among Us each October; and, of course Bioblitz, where teams of visiting scientists and public participants fan out — and up — through Whistler's myriad ecosystems to document as many species as possible in 24 hours.

The idea dates to 2004, during the contract-driven Whistler Biodiversity Project he administered, and a conversation with Nanaimo-based amphibian biologist Elke Wind about the growing bioblitz trend. Brett loved the concept, and launched Whistler's first one in 2007. "With the help of dedicated co-organizers Kristina Swerhun and Julie Burrows, ours is now the longest-running running Bioblitz in Canada," he notes.

"To know nature and to keep it worth knowing," as Brett puts it, is a good synopsis of what bioblitzes achieve. Generating species lists and identifying previously unknown or particularly rare species can jump-start what's publicly understood about an area. Such documentation — historically obtained only sporadically, and scattered throughout the country in various repositories — is more important now than ever, since little basic inventory work is being done outside of development proposals, information that's most often incomplete, inaccurate, unavailable to the public, and obsolete when said development, inevitably, goes through.

"When more is known publicly about a property than a proponent knows about it, wiser decisions on preserving species and habitat can be made," notes Brett. "The whole idea behind the Biodiversity Project and Bioblitz was to generate basic information about ecological and wildlife values that could help guide decision makers."

After Brett started the biodiversity project, he'd collated all available species records for Whistler, finding maybe 500 that were known with some accuracy — mostly trees, birds, mammals, and fish; there was no lists of fungi, lichen, plants, mollusks, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies or other invertebrates. A decade later his efforts have added some 3,000 organisms to the local tally; 1,200 from bioblitzes alone (basically eight days of concerted effort), some of special interest, like spiders previously undocumented in North America, and many plant range extensions. Oh, and the sharp-tailed snake, which I'd inadvertently turned up while seeking other local reptiles at Brett's behest for his 2011 Whistler Bioblitz.

"That find closed the Bioblitz circle," recalls Brett. "Pemberton is a great example of a place that needs a bioblitz to jump-start its species list, especially with all the pending developments. It also made sense for us to offer different habitats for scientists because there are fewer and fewer intact natural areas in Whistler where you can take a group. The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District expressed interest in learning more about their Fulton Wetland property, so we bussed everyone out there to wander riparian, riverside and dry-bluff habitats."

Afterward, the group descended on Hugh and Jen Naylor's property for an outdoor lunch by Snowline Catering courtesy of Stewardship Pemberton, where Lil'wat First Nation representatives Lois Joseph and Lex Joseph (unrelated) welcomed them to their unceded traditional territory with much-appreciated songs. The weary crew ate, listened, and filled out their data sheets from what seems another successful Bioblitz.

Brett hasn't tabulated the results of his latest contribution to Sea-to-Sky knowledge yet, but he can say this much: once again, amazingly, no one was lost.


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