Wetlands, wildlife and birds discussed at Keystone science panels

DSC06577Wetlands work drew measured praise, while wildlife and bird studies were found lacking at Keystone Center science panels held at the Consortium Library on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, May 6 and May 7 to review portions of the Pebble Limited Partnership’s (PLP) Environmental Baseline Document (EBD). The two-day session covered wetlands, wildlife, trace elements, and threatened and endangered species.

Panels were structured to allow a dialogue between contracted scientists who had written portions of the EBD, independent scientists who reviewed specific chapters, and members of the public, who could ask questions in person or by email.

Summary of Day One

Wetlands

Consultant Christopher Wroble, of HDR, presented an overview of studies conducted to identify wetlands in the mine study area and the transportation corridor. Scientists determined that 33.4 percent of the mine study area and 16 percent of the transportation corridor study area consists of wetlands or water bodies. These determinations were based on characteristics including vegetation, soil and hydrology.

Wroble explained the methodogy and results of the studies in detail, and showed a sample image from the database where the data on vegetation and soils are contained.

Independent reviewers Larry Gough, Ph.D and Robert Naiman, Ph.D. had praise for the wetlands study, with a few clarifying questions. Gough, an emeritus Research Botanist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the study was well done and showed that the consultants were objective and competent. Naiman, an expert in aquatic ecology and watershed management, said that the scientists used established protocols and methods and did an excellent job.

“I know how complicated and how much effort went into these kinds of investigations,” said Naiman. “You are creating an accounting sheet of what you have out there in one point in time. It takes tremendous effort, but now the hard work begins.” He went on to explain that the types of characterization and inventories produced for the EBD do not reflect related issues, such as water quality, and resistance or resilience to disturbances that come with development. “These are outside the scope of the original objectives, but the hard work is to assess these.”

Another point that could be considered, but which was outside the scope of studies, was brought up by audience member Phil North, who recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He cited published work from the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve that shows how wetlands relate to fish on the southern Kenai Peninsula. “They’ve specifically gone that next step – not just talking in theory about how wetlands function, but how they affect fish,” he said. “They’ve turned the management of winter habitat on its head. The assumption before their study was that deep water is the important [fish] habitat. They’ve shown that groundwater is the important habitat.”

Charlotte McKay, with PLP, said they are meeting with several agencies to settle on a methodology for determining the functional assessment of wetlands (basically, what purpose wetlands serve in the environment). “There are multiple methods you can use, all with different strengths and weaknesses.”

McKay indicated that, in terms of relating wetlands to fish, PLP-contracted fisheries scientists have been working on expanding their studies into winter habitat and that they would work on a way to integrate those studies with the wetlands functional assessment determinations.

Other audience members asked Wrobel questions ranging from the accuracy of the wetlands mapping to issues of invasive species, and whether the consultants conducted a targeted search to find occurrences of rare plant species listed in the Alaska Natural Heritage database. On this last point, Wrobel explained that while there were no targeted studies, researchers did look carefully in unique habitat areas for rare plants, and that those areas were well-documented through the course of the fieldwork. “There’s always a joy, and there are bragging rights, with finding rare plants,” he said.

Wildlife and birds

Authors of the wildlife and bird studies faced strong criticism from reviewers.

Terry Schick, a senior scientist with ABR, had presented findings on “Birds, Amphibians and Habitats,” detailing the methods used to identify shorebirds, land birds and woodfrogs. as well as the types of wildlife habitats present.

Reviewer Falk Huettmann, Ph.D., wildlife ecologist and professor at UAF, and Robert McFarlane, Ph.D., who has fifty years’ professional ecological experience, both questioned whether the studies were accurate in how they presented the “abundance” of bird species. Schick replied that the data are really indices, rather than exact measures of abundance. Falk noted that in ABR’s technical summary, the data was clearly presented in terms of “numbers of abundance.”

McFarlane was even more pointed with his comments: “As I was reading the data on the birds, I could say the document is adequate as a list of species that are present. It is not adequate for any type of study you might want to come back to some year in the future to ask, ‘Have there been any changes?’ For birds as a whole, all that we have are what we call 'presence or absence' data. We can’t do too much with that. Reading the report was very frustrating to me. The methodology was not clear. You keep talking about using point-count methods and I say, 'Why? These methods have been outdated for 25 years.' ”

Schick explained that they were not given the budget to produce enough data to do another type of analyses. He felt that their studies did provide a relative abundance measurement to compare among species, but McFarlane did not agree.

“Reading the document…gives an impression of scientific rigor that is not there. You’re saying one thing but your numbers don’t back it up.” He suggested that Schick could tell PLP that more data is needed. “If there are abundance estimates on everything else (like caribou), then say, ‘Why aren’t we doing it for birds?’ Tell your client you want abundance estimates of birds and that we need to have more data. I see this as a major weakness in this particular chapter.”

Brian Lawhead,also with ABR, presented a summary of the EBD chapters on wildlife, explaining that they included 13 mammals that are "species of concern": wolf, red fox, river otter, wolverine, brown bear, moose, caribou, arctic ground squirrel, beaver, northern red-backed vole, tundra vole, and snowshoe hare.

Andrew Baltensperger reviewed these chapters, but focused on his area of expertise: small mammals. (Todd Bryan, of the Keystone Center, noted that the organization had not been able to find an independent reviewer who could speak to the large mammal studies. He cited issues with timing and federal cut-backs, but said that Keystone would follow up in order to get written comments from interested scientists.)

Baltensperger had a number of comments, however, particularly in regard to the studies' dismissal of dozens of other species that did not fall into the categories of "concern." There were four criteria used to determine if a species fell in the "concern" category. These included threatened species, conservation concern, economic value and ecological value. But Baltensperger suggested that "biodiversity" should be a value on this list. "The number of species occurring in a region has very broad implications for the stability and functionality of the ecosystem," he said. "To presume we know all the effects of any one species, or whether it is replaceable by another species, is naïve."

Lawhead explained that they were limited by what type of data was needed for permitting. "Doing a lot more work for all these species…wasn’t in the realm of possibility given the mandate of priorities for this project."

Baltensperger said that even though it is not mandated by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), one of the best values of these types of studies is to use them to see how things have changed over time. He would like to see a small mammal study that would survey for the 23 species of small mammals that were not included in the EBD studies. "These could be important indicator species...they are important for other species, and they are some of the cheapest and easiest set of taxa to study."

Reviewer Dr. Peter Albers finished up the day's dialogue with a few discussion points, including a concern about how PLP will deal with the fact that the studies will be ten years old by the time construction might begin. "That's a pretty long time span. Maybe you can revisit this study when you get a mine plan, footprint, etc., and look at a subset of what you did before so that you have something relevant. If you don’t do that, you’re stuck with 10-year-old data over a huge area. Just try to go to court and prove that the effect you think you’re having is really happening." Albers recalled the Exxon Valdez oil spill studies that have been designed with involvement from industry, the state, tribes and other groups. "Pebble has a great opportunity here to be a good example. If you do it right you'll be a good example of monitoring mine operations from beginning to end."

About the Keystone Center science panels

The Keystone Center is a nonprofit organization that was contracted by PLP to conduct a dialogue on the proposed Pebble mine. Keystone’s stated purpose with the science panels is to “help stakeholders make sense of Pebble's environmental and socioeconomic baseline studies and determine whether the studies are credible and sufficient for their intended purpose.”

Keystone organized science panels in October 2012 and May 2013, and also is preparing a comprehensive report that will include responses from all independent scientists who participated in the review process. This report will be posted at www.keystone.org when it is complete.

Read a summary of Day 2 of the Keystone panels

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