• Protecting Water and Farmland in Simcoe County

Endangered Species Act Review Threatens Two Great Wetlands

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In Council Watch
Feb 17th, 2019
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John Bacher at DeCew Falls

John Bacher at DeCew Falls, St. Catharines. 

By John Bacher

After becoming leader of the Conservative Party of Ontario, Ontario Premier Douglas Ford announced his election campaign with an ominous promise. This was that “If I have to hop on that bulldozer myself…we’re going to start building roads in the Ring of Fire.” Ford promised to make a 5,000 square kilometer stretch of James Bay Lowlands – now a vast water strong and carbon sequestering wetland: a source of riches “comparable to the oil sands of Alberta.

Ford is not climbing on the bulldozer in a literal sense. What he is doing however, is igniting a review of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act which will end on March 4th. To influence what is happening go the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, website and comment through the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) Registry.

One of Ford’s revealing initiatives is to remove “Climate Change” from this Ministry’s name. One of the areas threatened by his review of the Endangered Species Act, the James Bay Lowlands, sequester 12 megaton’s of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas contributing to human induced climate change, every year.

The review consultation document now available through the EBR is full of negative comments about the Endangered Species Act imposing onerous restrictions on business. There is little to say about the value of saving species from extinction and regional extirpation.

The most disturbing specific proposal is would increase the harm caused by the creation of exemptions for hydro, forestry and commercial development carried out in 2013. The consultation paper has a suggestion to adding changes that would politicize this process through exemptions based on ministerial discretion. In terms of a practical achievement that could be won through a campaign abolishing this loophole, inserted several years after the act had been passed through onerous public consultations is the best that can now be achieved.

Ford’s review threatens two great wetlands of fundamental regional significance to Ontario. One is the best example of the still relative intact ecology of vast Hudson Bay Lowlands, still beyond the limits of commercial logging and roads. Another is the biggest wildlife refuge for the landscape of southern Ontario, dominated by agriculture.

In northern Ontario, the review threatens the Hudson Bay wetlands. It is the third largest such complex remaining in the world, and a colossal carbon sink. It is the largest contiguous temperate wetland complex in the world.

The other great vulnerable reservoir is the Minesing Wetlands. It is the biggest remaining wetland complex in southern Ontario’s landscape dominated by agriculture. The Minesing wetlands have become a refuge for species in the landscape being wiped out here such as the American Bittern, Least Bittern and the Lake Sturgeon. It is a place big enough for previously extirpated species such as the Bald Eagle, and the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly to return.

The Endangered Species Act current protects Ontario’s greatest threatened wetlands, by safeguarding their highly visible and spectacular indicator species. The forested peat wetlands of the James Bay Lowlands are the only success story for the Threatened Woodland Caribou. It is an iconic species on the Canadian Quarter. The James Bay Lowlands where Ford longs to drive the bulldozer is the only part of Ontario that has seen populations of Woodland Caribou actually increase in the ten years the Act has been in operation.

The Endangered Species Act has helped to hold back the very roads that Premier Ford is so keen to take a ceremonial opening ride upon. Despite considerable protests from sports fishermen and recreational hunters it has served to close roads which threaten the caribou’s habitat.

The Minesing Wetlands is guarded by another charismatic species. It is the Endangered Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly.

Minesing’ vernal pool wetlands are the only place in Canada where the Endangered Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly survives. The nearest American population is located in across the waters of Lake Huron in Michigan. Its presence is helping to slow down sprawl in Midhurst by being a concern in the reviews being undertaken through an environmental assessment.

The Minesing Wetlands is already being damaged from pollution laden sediment from adjacent agricultural operations. This causes parts of the wetland to be marred by a growing ring of ominous dead trees. While the presence of dead trees, long associated with two great heronies is normal, what is happening is a warning signal. The expansion of zones of snags and the failure of living trees to succeed them is a sign of ecological degradation. Over time the snags themselves disintegrate and an artificial lake full of exotic invasive species replaces the former wetlands.

A new wave of tree killing pollution may be unleashed by the planned explosive growth of Midhurst. An increase in population for this community from new development for over 12,000 people would unleash a flood of storm water into Willow Creek, which drains into the Minesing Wetlands. Such pollution would threaten an important indicator Species At Risk, the Lake Sturgeon. Minesing has became the last healthy population of this species, which once gave Ontario caviar, in the entire Lake Huron/Georgian Bay Basin. It is also a refuge for the Wood Duck, Trumpeter Swan and Sandhill Crane.

It is appropriate that one of the leading defenders of the Minesing Wetlands has become Danny Beaton, a Mohawk of the Turtle Clan. Beaton reveres this region as the “Peacemaker’s World”, the birthplace of the founder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. That a member of the Turtle Clan has become such a towering figure in the battle to save Minesing from a deluge from sprawl is appropriate. Turtles have now become one of the alarm bells that have been triggered by declines monitored by the Endangered Species Act.

Recently the Midland Painted Turtle was designated as a Species At Risk under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. While vanishing throughout most of Ontario, including another threatened wetland, the Thundering Waters Forest of Niagara Falls, painted turtles are still commonly seen in Minesing. Long before this species was designated in 2018, Minesing was greatly appreciated by Beaton as a refuge for other turtle species. These include the Snapping Turtle, Wood Turtle, Blanding’s Turtle and Musk Turtle. All these turtle species would be threatened by residential development near Minesing since they are vulnerable to pet predation.

Beaton has travelled the world, including the Amazon, to alert attention to environmental dangers. He recently, helped by Mohawks teachers in the region, went to the Hudson Bay Lowlands to study environmental threats. This journey was appropriate since the water contained in these wetlands, ecologist John Riley has found, approximates that of the entire Great Lakes. Beaton in his journey to the Amazon warned native communities not to have their traditional territories despoiled for corporate resource extraction.

Ford in his lust to build roads in the pristine James Bay wetlands is following the call of not only mining companies but an influential lobbying organization the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. (OFAH) While it has sometimes championed legitimate environmental causes, notably protecting the Great Lakes from invasive Asian carp, the OFAH has advocated roads in the James Bay wetlands, and denounced the Endangered Species Act’s regulations to protect Woodland Caribou habitat for blocking them.

According to the junk science put forward by the OFAH, to quote from their website, “Restrictions on development in Crown Forests are limiting the productivity of industries that sustain Northern Ontario communities..” It takes the view that, “Many opportunities will be lost due to a reduction in public access in public accountability to crown land that occurs only” through “forest access roads.”

As opposed to the junk science view of the OFAH that favours roads through caribou habitat, the Recovery Plan for Woodland Caribou of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, (MNRF) takes a very different view. This accurately reflects the history of Woodland Caribou’s decline throughout our continent. It notes that, “Generally woodland caribou require seasonal ranges in order of tens, hundred, or thousands of square kilometres of undisturbed or little disturbed boreal forest.” The plan notes that Ontario’ has lost fifty percent of Woodland Caribou habitat since 1880, and that it is advancing at a rate which threatens to wipe the species out by the end of this century.

The Recovery Plan for the Woodland Caribou clashes directly with the junk science positions based on Northern Ontario boosterism of the OFAH. It notes that roads within Woodland Caribou habitat are “linear corridors” which serve to “fragment existing habitat tract and impede Woodland Caribou movements, distribution and survival.” The Recovery Plan notes that the presence of Woodland Caribou is a “good ecological indicator of a healthy boreal forest.”

The James Bay Lowlands where Woodland Caribou populations area expanding is also one of the few areas in the province, where the species survives in sufficient numbers to assist in the subsistence economy of the native Creek and Ojibway communities of Northern Ontario. He found no need to spread such warnings in the Ring of Fire region. One of the reason that for the past decade the Ojibway and Cree have not been enticed to endorse road to mines schemes our collective memories of the consequence of past industrial assaults on their lands. Their communities listen to their elders who recall how hydro dams built in the 1930s caused rivers to dry up. Now these waters are threatened by toxic leakages from chromite and nickel mines.

Beaton’s warnings make him akin to prophetic figures like Sitting Bull who sought to protect the Great Plains from the ravages of European agriculture in the 19th century. This reality is shown by the Hudson Bay Lowlands now becoming a bastion of habitat for the Snow Goose, as the birds have retreated from former nesting areas on the Great Plains. Now more than five million Snow Geese live in the Hudson Bay lowlands, in such abundance that hunting restrictions have been abolished.

It is to be hoped that Ford’s planned bulldoze drive into the Ring of Fire will end up as a modern day version of Custer’s Last Stand. Hopefully, an awakened public will force a retreat comparable to the one experienced regarding clean water legislation and the Green Belt.

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