By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News
Although the cause was reported to be inconclusive, the investigation into the birds deaths at the Birds of Prey Centre produced recommendations to help mitigate the risk of West Nile Virus in Coaldale.
The investigation had been launched following the bird deaths at the Birds of Prey Centre in August 2018. Due to the symptoms the birds exhibited and the cluster of bird deaths, staff at the centre determined the cause was West Nile virus, although this would need to be confirmed by lab testing. As there were stagnant pools of water in place of a wetland drained during the Malloy Basin construction, they believed this was where the mosquitoes carrying the virus originated from.
The town was informed of the outbreak, asked that the centre clarify their language — in that that they suspected it was West Nile virus until test results confirmed that it was West Nile in their communications to the public on the matter — and filled the ponds with running water.
The test results came back positive for WNV in November 2018, and the centre announced the discovery in late December.
In response, the town called for an investigation into the bird deaths, and in April announced that they had retained Solstice Environmental Management to conduct a review of the events contributing to the bird deaths at the centre, as well as performing an assessment on how to best manage WNV in Coaldale and the surrounding areas.
Presenting their findings to Coaldale town council in a special July 29 meeting, Kirk Strom and Dr. Dee Patriquin of Solstice Environmental Management reported that ultimately, they were unable to confirm the originating cause of the west nile outbreak, as no water testing had been done, as per Alberta Health Services’ recommendation, and there were many possible sources where mosquitoes carrying west nile could have come from in the vicinity.
As such, Patriquin, a senior environmental scientist with Solstice, said there was no evidence that linked construction on the Malloy Basin Project to the bird deaths.
“In this specific case, we can’t pinpoint an actual vector or source of transmission. There are a variety of different possibilities and unfortunately, this area of the province is in a high risk zone (for west nile),” said Patriquin.
“Alberta Health and the provincial wildlife disease specialists all recommended getting the birds tested first, to know for sure that that was the cause of death, and that would give a little more certainty and a little more rational for testing the ponds themselves. Without that bit of information, it would of been still supposition to what happened to the raptors.
“The construction activity was coincident with the outbreak of west nile in this specific incidence. What we found were the water levels were being manipulated, but the lower water levels were happening on the centre lands, they were likely happening in the surrounding areas as well, and that’s part of the challenge in this case; there could have been many different sources for mosquitoes that could carry west nile virus.”
Although the report could not identify the cause, it did make some recommendations aimed to help mitigate the concern of west nile in the future.
The report noted that a lack of communication between the town and the centre had likely contributed to the events, noting that the centre had observed the centre’s lease ponds were drying but did not inform the town until after the bird deaths in late August, and that the town staff had not known about a connecting white pipe that provided water to these ponds, a knowledge gap which was credited to a high staff turnover at the town in recent years.
The report suggested bettering the storm water management of the lease ponds to reduce future risk of stagnation and potential mosquito production, implementing best management practices for raptor health management to help mitigate the risk of west nile for the birds at the centre and for the town to implement mosquito control measures, such as removing or addressing shallow water sites, aerating or filtering water, introducing predators such as tree swallows, bats and dragonflies to feed on the mosquitoes and larvae or implementing the use of pesticides such as BTI, which the report said was a safe option to use around other animals and dissipates from water bodies after 24 hours.
“The risk of west nile is an ongoing future concern, and it highlights the need for preventative action, informed citizens and organizations, and everybody pulling together to implement the mitigation measures that they have control over.”
Coaldale mayor Kim Craig said he was “generally satisfied” by the report.
“One can speculate at what the causes were and deliberate, but having an actual independent report done kind of answers some questions, even though it didn’t make a conclusive determination of the factor, but I feel comfortable that the Malloy Drain Phase 2b project was not necessarily the contributing factor it might have been earlier report to be,” said Craig.
“The loss of the raptors the last season is a regrettable occurrence, and the town still feels sadden by that, and we want to continue collaboration between the town and the Birds of Prey to ensure they can continue operating for years to come, and not have to endure the distress of those kinds of occurrences.”
Council had unanimously passed motions to develop an implementation strategy that incorporates the report’s recommendations and considerations, prepare a communications protocol with Alberta Health Services and other agencies to raise public awareness for risks and prevention and make the report public, and to set up an annual or bi-annual meeting with the Birds of Prey Centre to stimulate two-way communication about any needs that may arise.
Council will be considering possible mosquito mitigation methods during their fall budget deliberations, and Craig stressed council’s desire to better communications with the centre.
“Over time, relationships are good, bad. I think with any relationship there’s good times and bad times,” said Craig.
“Hopefully the bad times are over and we can move into a more productive, collaborative union moving forward, so that a very important piece of Coaldale’s tourism industry can continue.”
Referring to the issue of the white pipe, which connected the town to the ponds under the control of the centre, Craig noted that the report did say there was a gap between the centre noticing low water levels and them informing the town.
“Had we received earlier warning that they were experiencing low water levels, within the ponds they are in direct control of, then we might have been able to research and find that mysterious white pipe and the valve and turn it on in a more timely fashion,” said Craig.
“Regrettably, the corporate knowledge didn’t transfer.”
However, Colin Weir, Alberta Birds of Prey managing director, rejected that assertion that they should have reported the low water levels, saying that they had been told that the water levels would be going back up during construction that summer by a town employee in fall 2017, and he wasn’t aware that the employee had left the town.
“He told us the water would be turned on, we were just waiting for it, we never heard (back),” said Weir.
“The new staff that came on didn’t know about this water aspect and the communication that was going on with us at all.
“That change in staff and that gap with the changeover in staff probably, that was quite a significant factor to an absence in communication.”
This year they have had good communication with the town in regards to water flows.
However, Weir expressed concern over the amount of weight given to the Malloy Basin Stormwater project in the report.
Although the report said there was no evidence to link it with the bird deaths, Weir said that with a major project like that, the flow of water will be interrupted and they should have anticipated consequences downstream.
Referring to a part in the report which stated that while construction required coordination with the St.Mary River Irrigation District to raise and lower water levels within the Malloy Drain system and associated ponds, much of the work occurred without coordination with the centre, which may have been in part due to the lack of awareness by Town staff of the linkage between the ponds in the Malloy Drain system and at the centre.
“It’s just basically a pretty small part of the report, but it basically sums up the, 98 per cent of what the problem is right there.”
Weir also disagreed the report saying there was no evidence of shallow, stagnant water in the northwest pond or the town’s west and east ponds, and the only stagnation present was in the ponds located on the lands the centre leases from the town.
“I don’t think that’s the case; I think there was stagnant water everywhere on the site at different, varying times in the summertime,” said Weir.
“We don’t have any control over the flow of water, and so just in general, I think that our role in what happened out there is pretty, pretty minimal.”
Weir said that the centre has not had any bird come into the centre in the past 12 years that had already been infected with WNV. The centre will be putting together a reply to the town regarding their disagreements with the report.
“We’re quite pleased that the town took the initiative to commission the report and look into the circumstances that happened in the past as well as look at possible recommendations for improving things in the future, so that a repeat of the situation won’t happen again,” said Weir.
“But just in general, we think there are a number of things in there that maybe could have been enlarged upon a little bit more, and there’s definitely some things that are just maybe on the vague side.”
The report can be viewed at https://www.coaldale.ca/about/news-public-notices/town-coaldale-releases-independent-study-mitigate-spread-west-nile-virus.
To learn more about West Nile Virus and what precautions are necessary to reduce its risk, visit http://www.fightthebite.info.
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