Avifaunal Study of the Highland Valley Mine Operating Area: Highland Valley Copper
The Highland Valley Copper (and molybdenum) mining complex is set in the beautiful Thompson-Nicola region of British Columbia, where the Thompson River flows between hills and desert adjacent to several major British Columbia provincial parks. Its neighbouring communities include popular outdoor recreational destinations including: Logan Lake, Kamloops, Ashcroft and Cache Creek. The Operation and has a long record of sound environmental performance recognized by numerous awards; its protection of the natural environment is not only a key policy priority, but an extension of the culture of this region.
Accordingly, Highland Valley Copper (HVC) Operation has undertaken studies of vegetation, aquatic environments and even winter use by moose. To focus more intently on its biodiversity goals, HVC’s most innovative project to date is a three-year formal documentation of the bird community’s response to mining and reclamation activities.
In 2005, HVC retained an environmental consulting firm to collect information including bird habitat, disturbed vs. reclaimed land species use, breeding evidence, diversity, abundance and ecological roles. This inventory phase came to a close at the end of 2007, resulting in a total of 10,592 observations made of 46,212 individual birds.
Findings were both interesting and surprising: researchers documented the use of the property by 192 species of birds, which surpassed the initial predictions for this high-elevation site. It was discovered that species moved between the native and altered habitats, but in general, 72% of them were observed using habitats resulting exclusively from mining disturbance and reclamation. Most of the species visit the site for summer breeding, pass through during spring and fall migration, or are winter visitors. Reclaimed tailings ponds and an abundance of newly-formed wetlands, with associated riverside habitats, are responsible for much of the variety in bird life. Reclaimed dry tailings and rock dumps have been converted to grasslands, which are well-used by virtually all of the species that can be expected in such habitats at higher elevations.
While the actual numbers of birds in some species groups was estimated as having declined as the region became more industrialized, overall biodiversity has remained comparatively robust because some species that favour mining and reclamation habitats have actually “migrated in” to the area.
In order to replace cavities lost during the conversion of forested habitats to grasslands, the Operation has established a nest box program that successfully attracts both Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows; this initiative produced higher numbers of young per nest than a similar program in Kamloops. From a sustainability perspective, the potential to supplement these boxes with zero-maintenance, high-longevity cavities is being examined.
With these positive results from the inventory program, future monitoring activities will indicate how well the habitats continue to function and sustain the diversity of bird life. This data will guide HVC’s reclamation initiatives in creating the habitats necessary for healthy and growing bird populations, and the study itself has also served as a public information piece to explain reclamation activities, ecosystem restoration and subsequent wildlife uses to interested residents and visiting outdoor enthusiasts.