Remote islands suffer storm damage

  • Mar. 18, 2011 9:00 a.m.

By Heather Ramsay-Winter storms have flattened forests on two islands off Moresby Island, devastating areas that scientists have been researching for more than 20 years. Keith Moore of Laskeek Bay Conservation Society said that sometime since last fall, strong winds caused extreme blowdown events on Reef and Limestone Islands, where ancient murrelet breeding grounds are found. Mr. Moore said the storms have knocked over 80 percent of the trees on half of Limestone Island, where Laskeek Bay’s main focus is monitoring seabird colonies. On Reef Island, French scientists from the National Centre for Scientific Research have also been researching the impact of deer on the forests for more than 20 years. Scientist Jean-Louis Martin recently arrived on Haida Gwaii to begin a new season of fieldwork only to find out the shocking news. Reports from a pilot who flew over the area were confirmed by two men who travelled to the islands in Moresby Explorers inflatable boats on March 4. “They came back and said the camp at Reef Island is destroyed,” said Mr. Martin. The camp, which is on the north side of the island consisted of an aluminum tent on a platform that had been erected in 1997 and a small (approx. 10 x 14 foot) cabin that provided work space and was powered by solar electricity. A small system of footpaths connected the camp to study plots, some of which dated back to 1989. The two scouts also walked the trails on Limestone where it took them two hours to cross 500 metres of ground – usually a 10 minute stroll, said Mr. Moore. A large portion of the seabird breeding colony, small burrows on the forest floor, was flattened by the storms. Laskeek Bay scientists and volunteers monitor the birds by tagging chicks as they scramble out of the forest and into the sea where they join their parents after two days in the nest. These monitoring stations are now unreachable due to the fallen trees. The blowdown has also destroyed wildlife trees where the group has monitored songbirds and other wildlife for many years. Luckily, the camp on Limestone was not impacted. “It’s just a natural disturbance, but for Laskeek Bay, it means we are back to year one,” said Mr. Moore. For now, Mr. Martin is in shock. But he came here with five researchers and is expecting three others in the coming months. They have been funded, brought equipment and committed to address several research questions, working into the early fall. Their key concern is how deer are able to flourish, while plants, bugs and bird-life dwindles. Also in jeopardy is the work of world-renowned seabird biologist Tony Gaston of the Canadian Wildlife Service. His work was to begin in early May at the ancient murrelet colony on Reef Island. He planned to retrieve geolocators from birds that return to the colony each year. The devices would tell scientists where the birds go when they are not on Haida Gwaii said Mr. Martin, something that no one knows much about at present. Project Limestone, with Haida Gwaii high school students participating in the work on Limestone, is also up in the air for this year. The scientists are now collecting the relevant permits and will send crews to Limestone to make the trail network and Limestone camp safe. “We’ll use Limestone as a stepping stone to salvage what is salvageable,” said Mr. Moore. The groups are also reassessing their research questions and trying to determine if there is an opportunity for new knowledge out of this destruction. “How does a seabird deal with it? These are normal events on coastal islands,” said Mr. Moore.

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