Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Ontario Nature “Along the Snake Fence Way”

By Gretta Bradley

“Along the Snake Fence Way”, is not high art. It probably falls into the category of young adult literature really. It doesn’t require much of the reader. But the author, Vicki Branden’s use of a snake is intentional. If she had substituted cute baby pandas, our horror would have been absolute and it would have been a very different story. Not only would the story have veered into the ridiculous, but the author would have lost an opportunity to ask us to think about our relationship with the natural world. A boy in the story sits down by the fence to watch a snake basking on a rock in the weak spring sunshine admiring its beautiful markings and iridescent sheen.  As if a switch has been flipped, the boy is jarred out of his reverie with the arrival of older boys, rocks in hand, intent on “snake bashing.”  Now in dangerous social territory, the boy chooses to take a stand for the snake, and suffers for it at the hands of his bigger counterparts. Standing up for creatures that others deem as not worthy of concern is not for the faint of heart.

Dr. Anne Bell, Director of Conservation and Education for Ontario Nature, and guest speaker at the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalist lecture series; “Naturally Special Places” spoke this evening on the topic “On Guard for Nature- Ontario Nature’s Fight to Uphold our Endangered Species Act”. Ontario Nature’s stated mission is “to protect wild species and wild spaces”.  Constant vigilance of the Province’s efforts to implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has occupied a significant part of the organization’s resources. Dr. Bell warned that, unfortunately, according to the 2015 report on Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy, progress to date is not encouraging.  There has been no improvement for more than 2/3rds of Ontario’s species at risk. Forest and wetlands along with 22% of Ontario’s species at risk are in decline and some of our rare ecosystems are without protection.

Dr. Bell pointed to poor implementation of the ESA as a contributing factor. The government ministry responsible for the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), has been cited in a recent report released by Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner (ECO), as just “going through the motions”.  The ECO called for meaningful enforcement of the ESA for the protection of our most vulnerable species.

Before launching into the main topic of her talk, Dr. Bell wanted us to know that going to court is a last resort for Ontario Nature. Typically, they fulfill their mission through conservation, education and public engagement. They own and manage 24 nature reserves. They promote citizen science by engaging hundreds of volunteers to gather information on Ontario species. They work with farmers, aggregate producers, and forestry companies etc. to promote sustainable business practices. Ontario Nature also engages youth through their Youth Summit for Biodiversity.

Dr. Bell pointed out that it is their role as environmental watchdog, promoting the creation of strong laws, policies and regulations, which sometimes takes Ontario Nature into the courtroom. In 2007, the Ontario government passed what would be the gold standard of legislation for the protection of endangered species, the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, in 2012, the government brought forward an omnibus budget bill that contained amendments that would significantly weaken the ESA. Mobilizing their Nature Network members and many other environmental groups resulted in the government deciding to remove the amendments from the 2012 budget bill.

The victory was short lived as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry circumvented the process that required the approval of the Ontario Legislature by putting forward a regulation under the ESA requiring Cabinet approval only.  The regulation hobbles the effectiveness and contradicts the very intent of a law passed by our elected representatives. Harmful industrial activities have exemptions from its provisions in the forestry, early mining exploration, aggregates, hydro, wind facilities, drainage works, infrastructure, and residential and commercial development sectors. Additionally, it sets a lower standard of protection and drastically reduces government oversight of activities harmful to vulnerable species.

Unwilling to stand on the sidelines, Ontario Nature, with CPAWS-Wildlands League, found themselves in court. The outcome they sought was to have the regulation deemed illegal and of no force and effect.  Ontario Nature’s lawyers would argue that a regulation couldn’t be inconsistent with the object and purpose of its enabling statute. The intent of the ESA is to protect and recover species at risk. The intent of the exemption regulation according to the MNRF appears to be increasing administrative efficiency and reducing burdens on businesses engaged in activities that might harm species at risk and their habitats.  Additionally, Ontario Nature argued that the Minister failed to fulfil a legal requirement to determine whether the regulation would have a significant adverse effect on each the 155 species that would be impacted by the regulation before recommending it to Cabinet.  In the end, the court agreed with the government’s arguments that the Minister did not need to consider impacts of the proposed regulation on individual species, and that the purpose of the Act included the promotion of economic development.

Bloodied but not down, Ontario Nature recently won the right to appeal the decision, something that has never been granted to any environmental group with respect to the ESA. The Ontario Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case spring or summer of 2016.

Not for the faint of heart.

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NOTE: To support conservation work for species-at-risk: consider becoming a member of Ontario Nature, or, write to Provincial and Federal MP’s about legislation for species-at-risk. 

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Ordinarily Extraordinary

NOTE: The following article by MVFN Program Chair Gretta Bradley reflects on a 2015 MVFN presentation by Almonte native Dr. James Coupland. His presentation “Pesticides and Pollinators: What’s Happening Down in the Pasture?”  highlighted the importance of a healthy, biologically diverse landscape and the wild pollinators on which this depends.

By Gretta Bradley

The B-ee is iconic. As if spilling from a Chiclet box, the alphabet sprawled across the top of the blackboard gave us our first insights, as children, into this important pollinator. The letter “B” was represented by that smiling yellow and black bug with impossibly small wings. “Worker bee”, “busy as a bee”, and “honey bee” were already part of our growing understanding of this cheery, sweet, industrious insect. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock when we came into contact with the pointy end. But we would eventually learn that in its flight from plant to plant it was, in fact, enabling plants to reproduce.

Now, modern agricultural practices such as pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change have come crashing headlong into this fundamental biological process, posing a serious threat to biodiversity.

Dr. James Coupland, co-founder of FarmForest Research and an authority on Integrated Pest Management (including the use of biological control systems) began his MVFN presentation “Pesticides and Pollinators: What’s Happening Down in the Pasture?” by asking us to think differently about seemingly ordinary places like meadows and pastures, with their meandering streams and low bogs. Explaining the concept of ‘Ecosystem Service’, Coupland helped us to look at the issues around our embattled pollinators and the role they play through a new lens.

The ‘Ecosystem Service’ approach looks in detail at nature’s products (e.g. food crops) and processes (e.g. tree roots draw water into the soil, filtering harmful bacteria, replenishing the water table and municipal water supplies) and determines their worth to our economy. We have traditionally resisted putting a number on our biodiverse natural spaces. Placing a monetary value on an ecosystem and the services it provides challenges the idea that they are “free”. However, as we have depleted these resources and disrupted the processes that support our quality of life and that of the natural world, putting a number on their value helps us to understand, in a very concrete way, that these things have not been without cost. Assigning a value allows ecosystem services to be accounted for, and damaging or destroying them clearly has a negative impact on the bottom line. Assigning value allows governments to make policy decisions based on measurable outcomes that allow for accountability. Wetlands offer a dramatic example. It is estimated that they are worth $2.64 trillion U.S. or $14,785 per hectare per year to the global economy.

Having established a frame of reference, Dr. Coupland turned to the role and value of a diversity of pollinators. Although the Rufous and Ruby-Throated hummingbirds, the Silvery Blue, Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, and Monarch butterflies, Hummingbird Clearwing moth, Paper wasp, the Hoverfly and Checkered Beetle are all pollinators, it is the 4,000 species of bees in North America, and 20,000 species of bee worldwide that are considered to be ecological keystone species for pollination. These species are at the very centre of a viable, functioning ecosystem. Lose them and we risk the collapse of those systems. And scientists are now really worried about collapsing wild bee populations. Our food supply (fruits, vegetables and other crops) as well as that of many birds and most other mammals will be severely impacted. Dr. Coupland used the environmental service model, to reinforce the scope of the challenges ahead. Pollination has been valued at $195 billion for global agriculture. Pollinators are now in decline-both in numbers and diversity, and bee-dependent plants are also declining. The cost of pollinator decline will be high and we ignore the problem at our (and those species with whom we share the planet) peril.

Carefully avoiding an overly simplistic explanation of a complex problem, Dr. Coupland discussed the possible culprits for our pollinator crisis. He warned against seeing the problem as having a single source. The research that promises the greatest potential to produce solutions looks at impacts caused by interaction of a variety of factors characteristic of a species under stress. Neonicotinoids (and other pesticides), fungicides, parasites, pathogens, and reduced plant diversity (some pollinators feed on only one type of plant) are all at work in ways that are not yet fully understood. More research needs to be done. That does not mean that efforts are not underway or that steps have not been taken. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned in the EU for 2 years and some will probably be removed for sale in Canada in the next few years, and companies are moving to ‘biosafe’ products. As individuals, we can plant pollinator friendly gardens/lawns, support efforts by organizations to protect and set aside wild spaces, and educate others and ourselves as to the importance of preserving our wild bee populations and their habitat.

If you are looking for additional information, ask your local librarian for “Status of Pollinators in North America”, published by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Several printed copies are also available from the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists on loan, and a pdf of the publication can be found on MVFN’s website (just search for key word pollinator).

“Wild bees are our best pollinators. Without them, there would be few flowering plants to produce food, to provide habitat and to make the world beautiful.” ~ Dr. James Coupland

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Ontario Nature’s Battle for the Endangered Species Act

NOTE: featured photo by Joe Crowley: a Blanding’s Turtle, is THREATENED in Lanark County.  Another prominent at-risk species in Lanark County, is Rapids Clubtail dragonfly, ENDANGERED in Lanark County and found on the  Mississippi River in Mississippi Mills.  

submitted by Cheryl Morris for the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

On Thursday, November 19, 2015, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will host the third presentation of this season’s lecture series, reflective of the theme “Naturally Special Places”. This event will be held in the Social Hall of Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte Ontario at 7:30 pm.

The guest speaker for the evening will be Dr. Anne Bell, Ph.D., Director of Conservation and Education for Ontario Nature. She has entitled her talk “On Guard For Nature—Ontario Nature’s Fight To Uphold our Endangered Species Act”. “Ontario’s naturally special places provide habitat for over 200 species at risk. These plants and animals and the places they rely on for survival are protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA)”, states Dr. Bell. At-risk species include the Blanding’s Turtle, Gray Ratsnake, Eastern Meadowlark, Whip-poor-will, Rapids Clubtail dragonfly, and the iconic Woodland Caribou.

When it was introduced by the Ontario government in 2007, the Endangered Species Act was considered the gold standard law for species protection in North America. However, in 2013, the province introduced a “regulation” which exempts major industries from the law’s protective requirements. “Major industries” include forestry, pits and quarries, mining, and hydro and residential development. In many cases, industries were given a free pass to kill endangered or threatened species and destroy their habitat, as long as the harm was “minimized”. “This is a disappointing decision for Ontario’s endangered and threatened wildlife”, stated Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro. “The Endangered Species Act is intended to put species first—not to let their survival be balanced against competing industrial interests. That would tip the scale towards extinction.”

In an article submitted by Dr. Bell for Ontario Nature, she writes “Environmental protection is the key to a sustainable, prosperous future…MNR is proceeding with a “transformation” plan premised on weaker environmental standards and a dramatic reduction in government oversight of activities affecting our lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife…The government tells us we can’t afford to implement the ESA in the way it was intended. Yet what we really can’t afford is to sacrifice long-term economic, social and environmental health with short-term cost-cutting measures that undo important environmental protections.” The cost-cutting measures described by the MNR were preceded by severe budget cuts to MNR and Ministry of Environment. Since 1993, the ministries most responsible for managing and protecting ecosystem services—MNR and Ministry of Environment—had seen their budgets drop by 64%. They are the two most poorly funded ministries in Ontario.

In September 2015, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted Ontario Nature and Wildlands League the right to appeal the government regulation which would limit species protection by the ESA. The appeal will be argued by lawyers from Ecojustice, including Lara Tessaro, who states “The Court has signaled that our clients’ legal challenge to this regulation, which deprives endangered species of the law’s protection, is important to Ontarians”. During her presentation on November 19, Dr. Bell will explain the ins and outs of this legal challenge and provide an update on the case.

Please join MVFN for this very important presentation. Refreshments and discussion will follow the talk. There is a non-member fee of $5. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair, Gretta Bradley at .

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A ‘Naturally Special Place’

Press Story, October 1, 2015

By Gretta Bradley, Program Chair, Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

Most of us can identify with what the Wild Bird Care Centre in Ottawa does. As children, however misguided, we followed a powerful need to help a defenseless creature. Running into the house, we offered up the small life to our parents, carefully cradling it in our cupped hands. We marveled at it as it lay under a lamp in a bed of tissues. We would hope beyond hope that this time the bald pink bird would still be alive in the morning. The outcome was always the same. Without proper care, the tiny thing would not survive the night.

Fortunately, treatment is much more sophisticated than that which can be found in a Kleenex box and the prognosis for injured birds is much brighter. The Wild Bird Centre was the obvious choice for the inaugural talk of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2015-2016 speaker series, “Naturally Special Places”. Patty McLaughlin is one of those fortunate individuals who has taken a passion and made it her life’s work. She is well known to the younger members of the Field Naturalists as the guiding force behind the Young Naturalists. This evening she would speak about her work rehabilitating and releasing wild birds. The audience responded to Patty’s sense of humour as she introduced us to the unique cast of characters that inhabit the enclosures at the centre.

The Eastern Screech Owl, prominently displayed on our promotional literature, belied its ‘owly’ cuteness. Described as the Houdini of the avian crowd, it is known among those who work with our cagy friends, for pulling maddeningly, puzzling escapes. Although clever escape artists, fortunately for staff their destination is usually predictable. My romantic notion of tenderly, nurturing a baby bird back to health, veered dramatically off script as Patty played video of springtime at the Wild Bird Care Centre. Images of hungry, demanding chicks are expected, but the noise! Nails being dragged down a blackboard at high velocity and maximum volume doesn’t quite capture it. It struck me that they were not particularly grateful creatures, clambering to be fed every 20 minutes. The average number of times an American Robin has to be hand fed until it is released is 1,350 times. Patty joked as she shared her release-day video ‘fails’ with the audience. She apologized as, instead of birds soaring into the treetops looking back only briefly as they took to the sky once again after months of confinement, they flopped to the ground not quite knowing what to do with their newfound freedom.

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The Wild Bird Care Centre, a ‘naturally special’ place.

Bird rehabilitation is not a DIY project. It is, in fact, illegal without proper authorization. The Wild Bird Care Centre operates under permits from both the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Canadian Wildlife Service. If you should find a distressed bird, visit the centre’s website There is information there specific to nestlings and fledglings, ducklings and goslings and adult birds. Check the website for the centre’s hours of operations and directions to the facility before you bring in a bird for care (if in doubt, check the ‘birds in distress’ information under the ‘HELP’ link, or call the centre). Finally, the Wild Bird Care Centre does it all without funds from governments or corporations. Memberships and donations fund the return of thousands of birds a year to their natural habitats. Should you wish to donate go to their website and click on the “SUPPORT US” button. Their “peeps” will thank you!

Photo 2 Barred Owl by Barbara AdamsA Barred Owl recovers at the WBCC. Photo Barbara Adams. Photo 3 red tailed hawk P. McLaughlin

A red-tailed hawk, another patient at the WBCC. Photo Patty McLaughlin





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View from the pasture – pesticides and pollinators

Submitted by Cheryl Morris for Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

On Thursday, October 15, 2015, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will host the second presentation of their 2015-16 natural history series: “Naturally Special Places”. This event will be held in the Social Hall of Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte Ontario at 7:30 pm.

Guest speaker for the evening will be Dr. James Coupland, Director of FarmForest Research, a research and development company based out of Almonte that serves the agricultural community across Canada, North America, and around the world, including research work in developing countries with very challenging climates. The presentation is entitled “What’s Happening Down In the Pasture? Pesticides and Pollinators”. Dr. Coupland graduated from Almonte District High School before studying at Queens University. He completed his PhD in Zoology at University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Coupland worked for 10 years as an invasive species biologist with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) based in southern France. FarmForest Research was established by Dr. Coupland in 1991 in Montpellier, France, and combines a broad technical and practical understanding of agriculture, biology, ecology, and entomology (the study of insects). The core area of the company’s expertise lies in solutions for invasive species of insects and as such, it is a leading authority on Integrated Pest Management including the use of biological control systems (biopesticides).

Many of our naturally special places are being degraded by pollutants, including pesticides. Our waterways and water pastures, especially, are increasingly threatened by runoff from towns and farms, with pesticides delivering a ‘knock-out blow’ in some of these areas. In Dr. Coupland’s words “Our Naturally Special Places are under threat and the inhabitants therein are especially under threat”. The talk will focus on the threats to pollinators living within these ‘special places’. Pollinators are components which are vital to maintaining the integrity of nature’s landscape for future generations. “Pollinators along with many other species worldwide are under threat for many reasons such as loss of habitat, changing weather patterns and environmental pollutants. In this talk, I will discuss the importance of pollinators to both the ecology of natural habitats and to crop production in Canada. The recent decline in native pollinators and the potential economic impact due to the reduction of both wild and domesticated bees has been the driving force for research into the causes of their decline”, states Dr. Coupland.

Our speaker will discuss what has been revealed thus far by this research and what else needs to be studied and implemented to reduce and reverse this alarming trend.

Please join MVFN for this informative and important presentation. Refreshments and discussion will follow the talk. There is a non-member fee of $5. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair, Gretta Bradley at .

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