Study says golf course would threaten rare plants, birds at Cape Breton's West Mabou Beach

Opponents of a proposed golf course at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park in Cape Breton say the area needs protection, because it includes unique ecosystems and rare — and endangered — plants and birds. (Submitted by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - image credit)
Opponents of a proposed golf course at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park in Cape Breton say the area needs protection, because it includes unique ecosystems and rare — and endangered — plants and birds. (Submitted by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - image credit)

Ecologists say a proposed golf course in West Mabou Beach Provincial Park would threaten rare plants and birds.

The resort developer Cabot Cape Breton has two 18-hole courses in nearby Inverness, N.S., and is eyeing the park for a third.

The company first indicated an interest in the area in 2018, but met with stiff resistance.

That's when the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society decided to get involved, said Chris Miller, the Nova Scotia chapter's executive director.

"We anticipated that the golf course developers would take another run at West Mabou Beach provincial park, so we pre-emptively did some field work there to document the biodiversity," he said.

A 2019 study by Alain Belliveau of Acadia University, commissioned by the society, found the unique sand dunes and wetlands contained at least 17 rare plants and animals, including four birds that are listed under the provincial Endangered Species Act.

Submitted by Chris Miller
Submitted by Chris Miller

"Where you have rare ecosystem types, you're also going to get rare species, so in the case of West Mabou Beach provincial park, there's several different types of rare species in that relatively small geographic area," Miller said.

Developers should look elsewhere for a new golf course, he said.

Bob Bancroft, a retired provincial biologist and president of Nature Nova Scotia, agreed.

The Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs courses in nearby Inverness should be enough, he said.

"They've already got two golf courses there," Bancroft said. "They can survive without a third."

Nature Nova Scotia is one of several environmental groups that has just launched a court case seeking a judicial review of new federal species at risk regulations.

Bancroft said the rules used to identify an entire beach as protected when endangered species, such as piping plovers, are found.

CBC
CBC

This year, the government changed that to reduce the protected area to the nesting site, something that will be difficult to enforce, said Bancroft.

That's a problem, because nesting birds typically move around depending on the tides and use the entire beach to forage for food, he said.

West Mabou Beach is under provincial jurisdiction, but Bancroft said it is one of the few places left that is safe for endangered birds.

"They should leave that protected beach alone, because the piping plover quite frankly need it and so do a variety of other species that are also on an endangered species list."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Nova Scotia has a piping plover recovery plan that says about 40 nesting pairs remain on 17 beaches across the province, but are threatened by coastal erosion and human interaction.

Cabot Cape Breton has not yet submitted a formal proposal to the government, but recently approached several local community organizations seeking support and offering grants if the proposal goes ahead.

The company has declined interview requests, saying it is having conversations with the community first.

Supporters of the golf course say the area needs economic development.

But Miller said development at West Mabou Beach would set a precedent and open up other protected spaces.

"It's just jam-packed full of interesting ecosystems that have important species, so any incursion into that park is of significant concern to us and we're really concerned about the precedent that that creates, that it essentially could mean open season on all parks and protected areas in Nova Scotia," he said.

Submitted by Alain Belliveau
Submitted by Alain Belliveau

"There's other places where golf courses are more appropriate that aren't our provincial protected lands."

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's 2019 study found 10 rare birds, four of which are listed in Nova Scotia's Endangered Species Act:

  • Piping plover (endangered)

  • Bank swallow (endangered)

  • Canada warbler (endangered)

  • Olive-sided flycatcher (threatened)

  • Boreal chickadee

  • Red-breasted nuthatch

  • Greater yellowlegs

  • Northern harrier

  • Ruby-crowned kinglet

  • Swainson's thrush

It also found seven rare plants and lichens:

  • Scaly pelt lichen

  • Marsh grass-of-Parnassus

  • Veinless pelt lichen

  • Least moonwort

  • Soapberry

  • Canada germander

  • Loesel's twayblade

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