A pair of nature groups were able to get a recent report into caribou populations in the Prince George area admitted as evidence Thursday at hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
B.C. Nature and Nature Canada used the latest data as an aid to cross-examination during their questioning of Northern Gateway witnesses earlier this month, but wanted the report entered as formal evidence. Lawyer Mark Haddock argued the report co-authored by a scientist working for the provincial government should be allowed because it's "highly relevant" to the proceedings and is "the best available evidence available on these particular herds."
The pipeline, which aims to connect Alberta's oilsands with Kitimat, would bisect the range of some of the caribou herds included in the study.
Northern Gateway Richard Neufeld countered that the nature groups should have filed a motion to have the reports entered as late evidence prior to their cross-examination of Northern Gateway witnesses earlier this month and that by making their application now it could be "construed as a way to repair a cross-examination that went off the rails."
The report shows that the number of caribou in many of the herds in the region are in decline and includes a map showing where the pipeline would go in relation to the migration of the ungulates.
Environmental groups are concerned that the open area the pipeline would create would increase the risk of caribou being eaten by wolves and could lead to further population decline. Northern Gateway has said it believes mitigation measures like reforesting abandoned access roads will reduce the linear feature density and therefore the overall risk to the caribou.
NDP environment critic Rob Fleming was disappointed the government didn't that the initiative to enter the report as evidence itself.
"British Columbia taxpayer-funded scientists, our own scientists, produced reports about caribou and risks to wildlife, their information was not admitted as evidence by the B.C. government," Fleming said. "It was admitted by a third party organization, credit to them, but that's how the depth of ineptitude of the B.C. Liberals, that's how far it goes."
The National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel ruled that due to the significance of the report it will be allowed as evidence and that any prejudice to Northern Gateway could be easily remedied by allowing the proponent to ask expert witness Brian Churchill questions on the content of the report. Although Churchill didn't author the report, he did provide another report which analyzed its findings.
Neufeld did just that during the afternoon session at Columbus Community Centre, asking Churchill questions on the methodology used by the biologists. He wanted to know why in one section of the report they said they manually spotted 22 animals in the Bearhole Red Willow herd in 2012, but their predictive model said that only 21 were alive.
"If the model predicts less animals than you're counting, then it's wrong," Neufeld said during his questioning.
Churchill admitted that models aren't perfect, but said that the 2012 study fell within the margin of error.
"It's like people with budgets, they always think if you're over budget it's worse than if you're under budget," Churchill said in an interview. "But in fact budgets allow for being a little bit over or a little bit under. . . . It's one off, it's pretty darn close."
Although many of the questions during cross-examination involved the Bearhole Red Willow and Quinttette herds, Churchill said in an interview that he's more concerned about the impact the pipeline could have on the Hart herd.
"There's very little information about them and it's new territory for them," he said. "It would be some of the first big impacts in that part of their range."
The amount of open area per square kilometre acceptable for caribou also came back to the forefront. It was at the heart of some of the questions the nature groups had for Northern Gateway earlier this month. They wanted to know why the company was using 1.8 km/square km as its maximum threshold, contending it was too high and not backed up by science and suggesting some professional reputations of scientists were on the line.
Thursday Neufeld used a line of questioning to show where that number came from - a chart within a report by biologist Shawn Francis. In the context of the Francis report, the 1.8 km/square km was used as a threshold where action must be taken to mitigate the risk.
Neufeld said Francis and his co-authors "might have wondered what all the fuss was about" had they read the transcripts of the questioning by the nature groups.
In his answer Churchill pointed out that he wasn't the one who made the original statement about professional reputations.
"I never made those comments," he said.