Eagles' nest delays highway construction

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A pair of lovebirds have stalled road construction along a stretch of the Sea to Sky Highway connecting Vancouver and Whistler.

Two bald eagles have begun a nest in a Douglas fir next to Highway 99, in the middle of a $32 million project to widen the highway in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Conservationists say they fear that blasting in the area may cause the birds to abandon their eggs and last week called for the roadwork to be halted.

"We're all aware there is a need to widen the road, but our position is firmly that the rush to widen the road shouldn't be done at the risk of important wildlife species, especially the majestic bald eagle," said Jim Cuthbert, a biologist and spokesman for Nest Environmental Stewards Team, a group dedicated to protecting the eagle duo.

Cuthbert said the pair have been seen recently performing romantic rituals -- such as feeding each other raw salmon -- that would indicate that eaglets may soon be on the way. But so far, no nesting activity has been verified.

Blasting was scheduled to begin yesterday on the section of road that runs parallel to the nesting tree, with the work coming within 210 feet of the nest at its closest point.

Ron Ahola, project manager for the highway, said those plans were put on hold after Cuthbert and other NEST members met directly with the construction team and showed them photographs of the birds.

Under provincial legislation, active eagle nests are protected from disturbance during nesting season, which runs from February through mid-August.

The construction crew and conservationists are now playing a waiting game.

Ahola has agreed to stop major construction within 1 kilometer of the nest at least until June 30 -- the date when eggs, if there are to be any, will be apparent. Should there be eggs, blasting cannot start until Aug. 15. If not, the roadwork will resume in the beginning of July.

Ahola said the wait will not mean a delay in the completion of the first phase of the project, a 4 ½-mile section that began in January and is scheduled to wrap up in the fall of 2006.