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Endangered turtles to be moved to accommodate lake dredging

Burnaby is moving ahead with plans to dig endangered Western Painted turtles out of the mud beneath Burnaby Lake this winter although waking the fragile creatures from their winter naps could put them in even more danger.

The search for the endangered turtles with sonar and ground-penetrating radar will begin early next month, Enkon Environmental's Niko Zorkin said in an interview. Enkon is contracted by the city of Burnaby to administer the digging project.

Once the turtles are located, a diver will uncover them, move them gently into a cooler and then transfer them to their temporary home on the shore.

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The city is relocating the turtles to clear the way for a $20-million project to dredge the lake, removing 250,000 cubic metres of mud, in part so that it can once again hold professional rowing competitions.

But the turtles will not be able to handle the rude awakening, said Ron Brooks, a biologist at the University of Guelph. Dr. Brooks co-chairs the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada that advised Ottawa to place the species on the endangered list. The committee last reviewed the species four years ago.

"This is like saying we have the last population of Whooping Cranes and we're going to move their nests," he said, adding that the relocation plans were unprecedented.

Waking the turtles may force them to burn extra calories at a time when their metabolism has basically shut down, Dr. Brooks said. "These animals all live on the edge of death," he said. "When they have to expend a lot of energy ... it's very costly."

Biologist Vanessa Williams, the researcher in charge of tracking the locally endangered species, said that Burnaby Lake is the only nesting site she has seen, an indication that the 100 or so turtles may form the last viable population in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. Ms. Williams said the city should wait until spring and use trawling nets instead.

But ecologist and fellow turtle expert Robert St. Clair said he thinks the turtles will be fine. He studied Western Painted Turtles under the ice in northern B.C. and he said "they're pretty tough."

Mr. Zorkin said he will have no trouble keeping the temperature safe. To prepare for the move, Mr. Zorkin said he has consulted with experts in the U.S. where Western Painted Turtles are considered hardy enough to keep as pets. "They'll even FedEx them there," he added.

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A two-member crew was working on Burnaby Lake last week with fish traps, testing techniques for the most efficient method for capturing the creatures. Crews began working on the lake weeks ago, Mr. Zorkin said. They have not yet found any turtles.

They were searching in the middle of the lake, where the likelihood of finding the turtles was zero, he said. The crews were using new equipment to verify the turtles were not at those spots, he said. They will be searching in more likely spots in the week beginning Jan. 4.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said dredging was slated to begin in September, before the turtles began their winter naps. The project was halted after the provincial environment ministry required further measures to protect the turtles.

The delay may have increased the cost of the project by as much as $1-million, Mr. Corrigan said. "The ministry had already gone through all necessary documentation about our approach on wildlife in Burnaby Lake," Mr. Corrigan said in an interview. "We were appalled, at the last minute, they put barriers in our way. … It goes beyond ridiculous."

However, Jennifer McGuire, regional manager of environmental stewardship for the province, said Burnaby city staff were aware that further work was required after the environmental assessment was completed. The city was required to meet conditions for permits and develop a turtle management plan, she said.

Approval of the environmental assessment is not sufficient, she said. "There were other authorizations that the developer needed in order to proceed," she said.

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Under the conditions imposed in order to obtain a permit, the dredging crew are required to contact the provincial Ministry of Environment once five female turtles or a total of 10 turtles of either sex are captured, so that they can reassess the situation.

With a report from Robert Matas

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