Monthly Archives: November 2013

What on Earth Do We Think We’re Doing? Adventures in Saving the Critters

Last week I wrote about the abject failure of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to enact the Endangered Species Act. A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report. But maybe this failure—because other jurisdictions may be experiencing the same difficulty, even if they might be doing a better job of it—points to a larger failure. Instead of saving critters we could be just managing extinction.

A wonderful book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem looks at whether or not our conservation efforts are simply a way of atoning for messing up the planet.

Caring for the planet may not be the same thing as doing it any good.

Mooallem is wryly funny, authoritative, forgiving, undogmatic; and seriously thoughtful about our pathetic absurdities, exposing the fine line we cross between making fools of ourselves and being heroes.

Don River

“We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms.”

We have our favourite charismatic alpha faunas, like polar bears. We’re tranquillizing them, and then delivering them by helicopter, swinging in a net from a cable to some place far away from Churchill, Manitoba, (self-proclaimed capital of the polar bear world.)

“Making polar bears dependent on us for their very survival in such a hands-on way can feel like just as much a defeat as letting them die out. It would mean conceding that their ecosystem is irreparably broken, and that we have to be responsible for them in perpetuity.

“In Florida, manatees were huddling around coastal power plants, warming themselves in the outflowing plumes of hot water, and volunteers were kayaking into the Gulf of Mexico to ladle out seas turtles that were floating belly-up, stunned by the cold, then rushing them to triage centers and bundling them into blankets.”

Whooping cranes are being trained to follow ultralights along a migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida. At great expense and effort a few hardy volunteers head upwards in their flying machines, a Cessna acting as a spotter followed by a large entourage of motor homes. It takes weeks and weeks to do this and close to perfect weather conditions.

“Wild cranes can fly the entire migration in as little as a week, swirling up to eight or ten thousand feet on columns of rising, warm air and coasting for miles, the ultralights can’t keep up with birds at such altitudes and must stay closer to the ground, forcing the birds to flap the whole way.”

We’re  teaching birds how to fly, badly.

Once the whoopers get to Florida, they go shopping, to the dismay of their handlers. “In a world of Costco regional distribution centers and Krispy Kreme drive-thrus, we are asking them to block it all out, to see the Wal-mart retention pond as a slum instead of a providential new form of habitat in a changing world, and to see the corn piling up outside an ethanol plant not as food but as a ‘waste product.’”


Our herculean efforts to save particular species are supposed to be saving the hangers-on, the also-rans, the ecosystem that supports them, but in many cases the habitat is just gone. So simply leaving it alone won’t cut it either.

We would have to look back 12,000 years to the Pleistocene era, before humans slaughtered the big mammals with a Clovis point on their spears to find all the keystone alpha species resting comfortably atop of the food chain. Since then we have been trying a “Pleistocene rewind.” Since then we have been at the mercy of “environmental generational amnesia,” our tendency to calibrate our standards of what’s environmentally acceptable to how we saw things in our childhood. But if you measure declining environmental health from only one generation to the next, it doesn’t look as bad as it really is.

“There are calls to stop blanket vilification of invasive plants, to accept that weeds are not going away, and to realize that they can be parts of equally bio-diverse ‘blended’ ecosystems rather than only blights on the ‘native’ ecosystems we feel such nostalgia for.”

Mooallem seems to be aiming for getting our outrage right and then sitting back and accepting the inevitable, that we’re not getting anywhere.

But how can we not think that by carefully capturing a wasp with a glass and a dry cleaner’s cardboard and then releasing it outside, that we’re both, wasp and human, better for it?  Yes, we seriously messed up the planet but we sincerely want to atone for this. Anyway, what the alternative?

Wild Ones is a great storybook apart from being an exploration of our deepest humanity.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, Penguin Books, New York.

To see a polar bear be transported by helicopter, watch:!/videos/player/wild-polar-bear-release

A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report on Ontario’s Handling of Species at Risk from the Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller

If we hadn’t had our collective head stuck in the Rob Ford saga last week, perhaps more of us would have picked up on the special report on the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) by the Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller. Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence: A Review of Ontario’s Weakened Protections for Species at Risk describes: gross over-use of discretionary powers; procrastination; finger-pointing; shielding MNR policies from public input; and scandalous exemptions from the rules for the very proponents most likely to put species at risk.

The environmental commissioner reports directly to parliament. This is not a hackneyed political appointment, and Gord Miller is very good at his job.

Railway bridge with graffiti

It’s not possible to overstate the commissioner’s concerns when the title page reads, “wildlife preservation is a catastrophic, heart-breaking disaster.”

Chief among MNR’s failings is that through regulation, the prohibitions outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) no longer apply to a large number of activities that have been directly responsible for imperiling wildlife in the past. They include forestry operations; hydroelectric generating stations; aggregate pits and quarries; ditch and drainage activities; exploration mining; wind facilities; infrastructure projects; and that’s not the complete list.

Proponents of these activities don’t have to get a permit, only follow “functionally unenforceable” regulations. If these vague, province-wide terms are met, the ministry can’t say no, no matter how important the affected area or the possibility of unacceptable cumulative impacts on a species at risk or its habitat.

In the old days, proponents had to provide an “overall benefit” from their activities; now they have to “minimize” their impact. Mitigation plans and monitoring records? MNR doesn’t want to see them. As a result the ministry doesn’t know what’s going on out there, either with the species at risk or the proponents. If landowners have a hands-on understanding of what’s actually happening to the critters on their property, MNR isn’t going to know about it.

One of the rationales for the new regs, which came into effect in July 2013, is that MNR claims it costs $24,000 or 500 hours to develop an ESA permit, but that’s an average of only 12 cases, one of which was the building of Highway 69/400: hardly typical. Even if permits were actually this time-consuming and expensive, the ministry has only itself to blame, reports the commissioner.

Graffiti tree

“By failing to develop clear and consistent policies to guide the permitting process, MNR created an inefficient and ad hoc approach to permitting that was unnecessarily lengthy, convoluted, costly and extremely frustrating for proponents and other stakeholders.”

The ESA’s mandate is to identify species at risk, protect them and their habitats, and promote their recovery. Currently, Ontario has 215 species identified as at-risk with more imperiled species in the chute awaiting their designation by an expert committee. The act allowed for a five-year window for the ministry to come up with recovery strategies for critters not covered in the previous legislation. The commissioner’s report found that nearly half of these strategies have been delayed with “questionable rationales.”

In some cases, MNR claims it is waiting for the feds, which has its own at-risk list and commensurate requirements, before coming up with Ontario-appropriate plans. But checking the files, the environmental commissioner found the province often waiting in vain, either because the province had overlooked the fact that the feds had already dealt with this matter, or in other cases that the critters in question weren’t on the feds at-risk list to begin with.

Some species may not get a provincial recovery strategy until 12 years after they were first listed.  Other species are waiting 20 years for a plan for “population maintenance”, when in fact the legislation stipulates that what’s required is a plan for “population recovery.” The commissioner’s report characterizes this behaviour as tantamount to MNR disobeying the act.

The reliance upon generic regulations  rather than specific applications that must be read, understood, declined or approved means that, “every place no matter how unique or important will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk.”

Rescue Ring Don River

The public doesn’t know what’s going on. The requirement that the ministry post its permits online has been rendered moot by MNR’s selective no-permit-necessary policy. Although the public provided input on the regulatory amendments that established the rules for the new exemptions, a draft of the regulations was never posted, only a description.

“There is a clear trend of MNR deliberately shielding its policies on species at risk from public input,” reads the report. For example, MNR explained its failure to post its Best Management Practices with regards to woodland caribou on the Environmental Registry, by characterizing its BMR as  “technical information”, although it saw fit to consult a number of industry associations about them.

“MNR’s failure to post these policies [disguised as technical information] on the Environmental Registry for public consultation constitutes a shocking disregard for its legal obligations under the Environmental Bill of Rights and the process set out under the ESA.”

The environmental commissioner lays the blame for this crisis entirely at the feet of the ministry and not the act itself. “MNR has failed to do what is necessary to make the law work. The ministry has been stalling recovery strategies, crafting meaningless government response statements, delaying habitat protection, mismanaging the permitting process and deliberately ignoring public participation.”

The particular species designated as at risk are stand-ins for all the others who aren’t on the list—yet. When we fail them we are damaging the biodiversity of the province, making it more prone to collapse. When that happens, we’ll be the last to know.

The Forgotten Billions: Why Correcting the Water Levels Problem in the Middle Great Lakes Could Cost a Whole Lot More than You Would Think

An engineered solution to low water levels in the middle Great Lakes is going to cost much much more than has been publicly discussed. Whether the solution is a structure in the St. Clair River, or less probably in the Niagara River, we would still have to come up with a great deal of money to mitigate the impacts of changing water levels on the St. Lawrence River: for structures to restrict the flow; maintain adequate depths for navigation and environmental purposes; and for excavation to prevent flooding. We might need $120 billion to cover these costs, which is why some researchers have dismissed such a project out of hand.

Inutchuk and dog 2

Costs should tell us two things: what we might have to forego in order to do something and whether a project is worth doing at all.

The Upper Great Lakes Study Board wasn’t asked to look closely at mitigation for water bodies downstream of the St. Clair River, when it addressed the water level problem  in the middle Great Lakes, but it did review the literature, most pertinently the (1993) Levels Reference Study—Great Lakes St. Lawrence Basin. The Study Board’s review can be found in its final report, Chapter 8.6.3, “Lower St. Lawrence River Mitigative Requirements.”

The scary $120 billion mentioned above would cover the costs of addressing the adverse conditions associated with relatively extreme scenarios in the lower St. Lawrence; it would facilitate the all-important buy-in of those downstream for the regulation of water levels upstream.

“Measures to improve conditions in the lower St. Lawrence River would be required to gain system-wide political support for multi-lake regulation. …The Levels Reference Study found that improving conditions over the basis of comparison [simulated historical conditions] would be too expensive, with the costs of required excavation alone exceeding $120 billion.”

Mainland Pt lady in Monk's cowl 2

Having found this bar too high, the Levels Reference Study went on to look at the costs associated with mitigating any impacts on the St. Lawrence as a result of  the proposed regulation. These came in at between approximately $3.5 and $5.1 billion for excavation alone. The additional combined cost of control structures at all locations was about $400 to $900 million, depending on the design.”

The range of water levels  the Study Board looked at in 2012 as part of examining multi-lake regulation exceeded the  range the Levels Reference Study had looked at in 1993. So understandably the Study Board came up with higher costs for mitigation than had the earlier report.

The Study Board concludes its chapter by saying, “the costs to provide such mitigation could be greater than the costs of the combined structures and excavation required on the St. Clair and Niagara Rivers for the multi-lake plans reviewed.  Therefore, multi-lake regulation should not be studied again unless consideration is given to the requirements in both the lower St. Lawrence River and the upper Great Lakes.”

Note: whether an engineered solution to raise water levels falls under the rubric of water restoration (that the IJC recommended) or multi-lake regulation, (system-wide solutions that the IJC rejected) the same claim for mitigation could be made by the St. Lawrence River.

The International Upper Great Lakes Study: Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels, March 2012

In my next water levels blog: Restoration versus Multi-lake Regulation: Why Getting Them Mixed Up isn’t Helping the Water Levels Debate.

Ravens and Crows: Geniuses of the Bird World

In Yellowknife ravens have figured out that the streetlights turn on when it gets dark, so they wrap their wings around these light-sensitive lamps to get a little warmth.

We didn’t teach these members of the corvid family (crows, ravens, magpies, rooks and jackdaws) to do this or any of the other smart things they do. Apes and dolphins move over. Bonus: corvid population seems to be growing; climate change be damned.

old wood

An article in Scientific American Mind, “Crows Show Off their Social Skills” describes research by biologist Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University on the urban savvy skills of ravens in Seattle. They exhibit different behaviours depending upon whether humans are looking at them or merely walking by, eyes averted; they fly away when watched, less quickly when ignored.

Even better, corvids can distinguish between good guys and bad guys. John Marzluff of the University of Washington and his colleagues ventured into Seattle parks wearing two kinds of masks; those wearing bad-guy masks trapped the birds, the good guys didn’t.  Five years later, the researchers returned wearing their masks.  The crows who had been around for the original experiment not only remembered which of the masked scientists had trapped them, mobbing and shrieking at them, but had passed this information on to others.

“It’s one thing to learn from one’s own experience and another to observe what’s happening to other individuals and infer it could happen to you,” explains John Marzluff.  (We know from teaching our own kids this stuff what a difficult learning experience it is, and some of us never get it.)


“The similarity to human brain activity and the parallels in social intelligence in general are significant,” writes Harvey Black in the social skills article, “because they have evolved after our last common ancestor existed 300 million years ago.  That would make our species’ similarities a case of convergent evolution, when two vastly different organisms develop the same traits independently.”

Corvids are supremely good at caching food, remembering where they stored thousands of caches by memorizing their precise locations. This ability extends to recording where other birds have stored their caches, and engaging in surreptitious drops to mislead their rivals. (Considering we have a hard time remembering where we put our things, never mind those things we have deliberately hidden, corvids have it all over us.)

It gets better. Another Scientific American article, ‘Just How Smart are Ravens?” describes how researchers Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar designed an experiment to prove that ravens, the largest of the corvids are logical, meaning that they can study a problem and then in a few minutes, execute it perfectly (as opposed to engaging in random trial and error such as jabbing randomly at a key board in the hopes that this will somehow perform the function we want.)

The scientists presented ravens with a problem for which there was no equivalent in the natural world: a piece of meat hanging from a string from a branch.

“To get this treat, the bird had to reach down from a perch and grasp the string in its beak, pull up the string, place the loop of string on the perch, step on this looped segment of string to prevent it from slipping down, then let go of the string and reach down again and repeat its actions until the morsel of food was within reach.” Mission accomplished flawlessly. Check out the National Geographic video, noted below, to see this in action.

Ravens are scavengers, stealing food from predators that can easily kill them. They have to understand their adversaries’ reaction times and capabilities.  Corvids learn this by engaging in risky play activity, for example, by nipping them from behind to see what they’ll do. They have to think on their feet, observe, draw conclusions and pass on this knowledge to their friends and family.

For more on these fabulous birds, check out these great websites.

For the National Geographic video, “Perching Birds: Ravens and Intelligence”

For “Crows Show Off their Social Skills in Scientific American

For “How Smart are Ravens?” captured in ScienceBlogs and posted by “GrrlScientist” from a Scientific American article on the subject