Browsing the archives for the Vegetation tag.

MNR Proposal Abdicates Responsibility for SAR

Green Reality, South March Highlands

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR)’s current regime for managing approvals for permits affecting Species-At-Risk (SAR) is already flawed and the proposed changes described in the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry (EBBR 011-7696). make the situation worse – not better.

The current regime is based on providing a process for approving an activity that might harm SAR, or SAR habitat, that is based on an emphasis that mitigates impacts.

  • This is based on a false presumption that mitigation is always possible.
  • Most permit applications are granted if the mitigation for the SAR in question is relocated to a different ecosystem (i.e. moved, transplanted, or seeds replanted).

The existing Approvals process completely ignores the ecosystem implications of a permit by focusing too narrowly on the SAR in question and not on its relationship to the ecosystem it resides in and contributes to.

No vegetation or wildlife (or humans) exist in isolation of other living things.  Each has an impact on the other and within a natural ecosystem, these impacts are beneficial, balanced, and necessary for the whole – otherwise the ecosystem would be different.  Ecosystem change is usually caused by a dis-balance caused by an external event such as human activity, disease, fire, flood, or invasive species.

Instead of (a) requiring a burden of proof that mitigation is possible and (b) ensuring that broader ecosystem effects are included in this process, this proposal makes matters worse by continuing the MNR’s policy of ecosystem piecemealing via regulation.

The breadth of exemptions in the proposal is unreasonably broad because it includes all already approved or planned activities that might damage habitat.

  1. Encompassing all activities is unreasonable in scope.
  2. The proposal does not take into account the fact that approvals (such as a PTTW or CoA) have been granted in the past by agencies without regard to impact on SAR.  These agencies granted their approvals under the expectation that the MNR would fulfill any SAR-related approvals. If the MNR abdicates responsibility, then there is no consideration for SAR under any prior approval granted by any provincial ministry.
  3. The definition is so vague as to allow virtually any activity to quality – for example proposed plans of subdivision approval that have not yet been approved under the Planning Act.  This would remove what little protection exists for all 22 SAR documented in the South March Highlands.

The MNR’s rationale for grandfathering so many activities & exemptions is so dubious as to completely lack credibility.  How will the grandfathering and creation of so many exempt activities that damage habitat contribute to the overall benefit of SAR?

While it is apparent that the MNR seeks to shrink its job in the face of insufficient funding by McGuinty, the creation of so many exemptions will create an unsustainable workload for the MNR to manage the enforcement of compliance with.  Any alleged violation would require considerably further substantiation and validation of prior approvals by other agencies.  In my view, not performing such validation would constitute environmental negligence on the part of the MNR.

The proposed exemptions would also create two classes of SAR (existing and new) which has no reasonable basis in the Crown’s primary obligation to protect all SAR.  This also creates a legal liability for the province in view of recent Federal Court ruling on the fiduciary obligation of the Crown to provide such protection.  Protection of critical habitat is a duty – not a government discretion.

The Federal Court ruling sets a precedent that all levels of government must follow.  In Ontario, this duty is also enshrined in the Environmental Bill of Rights.

The proposed changes amount to abdication, not modernization, and should be opposed.   The Coalition to Protect the South March Highlands, Carolinian Canada CoalitionOntario Nature, and the David Suzuki Foundation have already expressed their opposition to this.

If you also oppose this, please make an individual posting to the EBBR.  Type in the 011-7696 Registry Number in the search box.  Search for and select the proposed change to bring up a description of it.  From there it takes less than 5 minutes to click on the Submit Comment button on the right side of the screen and to fill out the form or to cut and paste your comment.

Feel free to use any or all of the above via cut-and-paste if you wish.

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Winter Kill in the South March Highlands

Green Reality, Legislative Gaps, South March Highlands

There are laws to protect nesting birds in Ontario, but incredibly no law protects nesting mammals!  This post uses tabs, so be sure to click on each one to see the entire article.

Protecting Birds

The Federal Migratory Bird Convention Act was passed as long ago as 1917 as a result of an agreement between Canada and the United States (the U.S. passed an identical act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, in 1918).  This law enables the Migratory Birds Regulations that further prohibit the destruction of nests for a wide variety of birds anywhere in Canada.  Penalties for violating the Act are stiff – up to $500 K for corporations and up to $100 K for individuals.

This effectively prevents the clearing of trees between April and the end of July in Ontario since it can be difficult to ensure that no breeding birds are nesting within a forested area.

In Ottawa, the City has published Standard Mitigation Measures that clearly sets out that no clearing of trees and vegetation is permitted between April 15 and July 31 unless a qualified biologist has conducted a pre-clearing survey within 5 days prior to the removal of trees.

Mammal Dens

In winter, most mammals either hibernate or den in a torpor-like state.  They will find dens (i.e. nests) for that purpose in trees, caves, fallen logs, or or create suitable dens in trees and other protected areas such as abandoned buildings.

Porcupine Den in South March Highlands

Hibernating mammals include bats, some species of ground squirrels, mice and several species of rodents,  some species of rabbit, skunks, chipmunks, woodchucks, ground hogs, etc.  Mammals that truly hibernate will slow their heart and breathing rates to conserve energy and allow their body temperatures to drop to near zero.  Many of these mammals will hibernate while pregnant so that they are ready to give birth by spring.

Many mammals that don’t truly hibernate will conserve energy by limiting movement by sleeping deeply and for long periods of time, but will wake up during warmer periods to find food.  Examples of these denning mammals include bears, raccoons, porcupine, some species of ground squirrels, shrews, mink, otter, fox, weasels, beaver, etc.

Some denning species will also slow their heart rates during sleep (but not as much as hibernating species), making them appear slow and lethargic when awake during winter.  Bears and raccoons are examples of species that do not truly  hibernate but come close to it.  Females of these mammals are also likely to be gestating over the winter so that they are ready to give birth when spring arrives.

Porcupine in Den

Vulnerable

Denning and hibernating mammals are as vulnerable as nesting birds.  If their dens are threatened, hibernating animals cannot be awakened to flee, and denning animals have no where to go during winter.

Many mammals have a limited range due to the territorial needs of others in its species.  For example a porcupine generally stays within a 100 m radius in winter and within 1.5 km in summer .  Most mammals will fight to defend their territory from invaders of their own kind.

Within it’s range, a replacement den may not be available and raw materials that could otherwise be used to construct a den (such as twigs, logs) are usually frozen or covered with snow.  This means that a displaced mammal is exposed to the elements.

Exposed Porcupine That Lost It's Den

The photo above was taken in Beaver Pond Forest shortly after tree clearing had begun in extremely cold temperatures.  Despite it’s protective fur, every non-hibernating mammal is vulnerable to cold during the dead of winter and can freeze to death without shelter.

Winter Clearing

The operator of heavy equipment, such as the one shown below employed by KNL to clear-cut the Beaver Pond Forest in winter, is not able to see if mammals are hibernating or denning and in any case is certainly not likely to exit the warm cab in winter to examine every tree prior to cutting it down.

Heavy Tree Clearing Equipment

The City of Ottawa’s mitigation guidelines state “Avoid the use of heavy equipment in wetlands and watercourses during the winter, when fish, amphibians and reptiles may be hibernating.” but is silent on the protection of mammals in winter when they are most vulnerable.

The City’s only mention of mammal protection is  ”Avoid vegetation clearing during sensitive times of the year for local wildlife, such as spring and early summer (when many animals bear their young).” which ignores the winter-long gestation period for mammals.

Winter Kill

The result of winter tree clearing is inevitably death.  Either via direct injury caused by crushing the animal when the tree is felled by heavy equipment, or by freezing to death from exposure as a result of being homeless in winter.

Female Porcupine Frozen To Death

Based on the acreage  of the Beaver Pond Forest (30 hectares), and the average number of Porcupines within a given area (12 porcupines / km 2), it is possible to estimate the size of the porcupine population prior to tree clearing in Beaver Pond Forest to be approximately 4 porcupines.  A field study conducted immediately after tree clearing completed, located 3 of those porcupines and found 2 of them dead – both females who were likely pregnant and less likely to survive without shelter.

In other words, the winter tree clearing approved by the City and conducted by KNL killed at least half of the population of porcupines and possibly 2/3 of them (allowing for the possibility that there were only 3 at the outset).  Other mammals were undoubtedly killed too, however, porcupines are more readily found as they are less likely to be consumed by carnivorous birds and other mammals because of their quills.

So why do we have laws that protect nesting birds and not nesting mammals?

  • Why has Ontario not passed effective wildlife protection laws?
  • Why has the Canadian Wildlife Federation not pressed for protection of mammals?
  • Why does the SPCA not object to the winter slaughter of animals?
  • Why does the City of Ottawa authorize the winter slaughter of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians?
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McNamara’s Fallacy In Action

South March Highlands

The City of Ottawa has been warned by scientists, several times and in several studies, that TFD fragments the eco-system in the South March Highlands (SMH) and dramatically reduces the ability of the SMH to withstand change.

This warning is a well-considered and inevitable scientific conclusion, backed by years of research, that sadly cannot be scientifically quantified.  Questions like: How much further change can the SMH take? How much change is introduced by urban development? How long will the Conservation Forest survive, etc simply cannot be quantified.

So does that make the unmeasurable any less important to decision-making?

McNamara's Fallacy

Robert McNamara  was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and was obsessed with making decisions based on only what could be measured.  He also had a predilection to prefer only information that fit into his metric-based world view.  This led to increasingly absurd decisions by the US Government for many years until they finally withdrew from the Vietnam conflict.

Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich described a process he called McNamara’s Fallacy to explain why some of us have a tendency to under-value what cannot be measured.  The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has also referred to this tendency the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness“.

McNamara’s Fallacy is a process having 4 steps.

  1. Measure what can be measured.  This is fine as far as it goes.
  2. Disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value.  This is arbitrary and misleading.
  3. Presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t very important.  This is blindness.
  4. Say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.  This is madness.

TFD Fallacy

The Terry Fox Drive (TFD) extension is an excellent example of McNamara’s Fallacy in decision making.

Step1.  The City haphazardly commissions several piece-meal studies of the South March Highlands (SMH) area to identify existing ecological conditions and count species.  However, only easily studied vegetation is studied.  There are no comprehensive studies of fauna, insects and non-vascular plants.

Step 2.  Issues such as the size of eco-passages are ignored since the impact of the size on the effectiveness of eco-passages cannot be predicted (disregard what can’t be measured).   This leads to mitigation planned for TFD relying on experimental ideas whose effectiveness has no established scientific evidence at all (assigning an arbitrary value to them).

  • Instead emphasis is placed on having several smaller (measurable, so more must be better) passages instead of fewer, larger (more costly) ones. 
  • The location of these eco-passages is inferred from a 3-month winter study of wildlife movement because a summer study is too hard to do for the wide-variety of species affected.

Step 3. The long-term impact of losing ½ of SMH to development is never studied (too difficult to measure so don’t look at it at all).  The City has never examined its economic justification for TFD relative to its environmental impact (no cost/benefit analysis) because it is presumed that ecological value is unimportant (because it is difficult to measure).

Step 4. Councillor Wilkinson asserts that TFD can be ignored when promoting SMH as an NCC-owned wilderness park.  The the long-term effect of fragmentation of habitat and species kill-rate caused by TFD don’t exist (because they can’t be measured).

The reality is that the effect of TFD cannot be mitigated because it cannot be measured.  The very concept of mitigation depends on establishing an equal and compensating benefit to make up for the impact.  This is not possible when the impact cannot be measured.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle holds that where there is uncertainty regarding an approach that could cause significant harm, the uncertainty should be resolved before proceeding.

This principle is well established both in law and in medicine.  It is a statutory requirement in the European Union.  Perhaps it is also time for City Hall to apply it to the environmental assessment process too.

In the meantime, anyone that contemplates allowing TFD into the South March Highlands does so at great peril to the environment and to all the species that live in it.

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