Author Archives: Penny Pepperell

About Penny Pepperell

Penny Pepperell is a writer and environmental activist who follows science, nature and politics in the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay: kayaker; grandmother; long distance swimmer; birder and opera lover. Buffleheads are her favourite ducks. Buffleheads are shy ducks who pass through Georgian Bay on their way north in the spring. The males have striking black heads with large white patches that look like giant ear phones. The females are a more subdued grey/brown with what looks like a white smudge of flour across their cheeks as if they've been making bread. They nest in holes bored by Northern Flickers, another of Penny's favourites.

Asian Carp: is it too late to keep them out? A major report on the options

They might be here or they might not be here just yet: Asian carp, the silver and bighead kind, 60 lb. monsters that can suck up 10% of their body weight in a day, stealing food from other fish.  They could fundamentally change the aquatic character of the Great Lakes.

Jumping Asian CarpLast spring, a single water sample taken from Lake Michigan showed detectible remnants (environmental DNA) of silver carp. Subsequent samplings turned up nothing. It may have travelled to Lake Michigan attached to a boat, or a bird, having eaten a carp may have defecated in the lake, or indeed this may have been evidence of a really bad fish now in the Great Lakes.

If it did signify a real fish, it may have come to the Great Lakes via the Chicago Area Waterways Systems, (CAWS), five waterways, 128 miles long, connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. However in a recently released white paper, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said emphatically, “There is no evidence that Asian carp are bypassing the [electric barriers in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.] Nor is there any indication that Asian carp are in the vicinity of the barriers. The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan.”

But given the findings of this same white paper, this isn’t particularly reassuring. It found that fish are being transported across the electrical barrier via “vessel-induced residual flows” created by barges. The recess area between two barges provides the dominant transport mechanism. Of the 72 samples taken, 44 included at least one school of fish passing through the barrier; and of this group of 44, 61% saw multiple fish slipping by. Research is ongoing.

asian-carp_face2(If silver and bighead carp get here, they may likely find a comfortable home. Last October Lisa Borre reported on a finding of grass carp in the Sandusky River, a Lake Erie tributary: only one-year old but with the potential to become spawning adults. Analysis revealed they were native to the river.)

The potential invasion by this really bad fish is the subject of a widely-anticipated study of what might be done to stop them. Issued on Monday by the Great Lakes and Interbasin Mississippi River Study (GLMRIS), it delineates eight options for reducing the risks posed by 13 aquatic nuisance species (ANS) including silver and bighead carp, for either the Mississippi watershed or the Great Lakes. The threat of invasives goes both ways. Which of the eight proposals is chosen is the prerogative of U.S. lawmakers; the study does not provide recommendations.

Here is a brief description of Plan 5, the Cadillac option, the most expensive at $18,389,000,000, not including annual costs.

It would address the risks posed by all thirteen ANS.  It would include nonstructural measures such as the removal of nuisance species, chemical control, controlled waterway use, inspection and cleaning of watercraft before and after entry to a water way. (These are common to all the options.) This part of the plan could be implemented immediately.

Plan 5 would provide a physical barrier between the water bodies at four locations in CAWS. To remedy the stagnant and other water quality impacts at the barriers, three of these locations would see treatment plans installed that would take Lake Michigan water, treat it and discharge it into CAWS. Water quality in Lake Michigan would see a definite uptick as sewer and storm water flows would be confined to CAWS. To address the risk of flooding two new reservoirs and conveyance tunnels would be built.

Whatever the plan and whatever the costs, a successful outcome is not assured. Prevention is regarded as the best defense, but as the GLMRIS authors make clear, “‘prevent’ means the reduction of risk to the maximum extent possible, because it may not be technologically feasible to achieve an absolute solution.”

Furthermore, aquatic pathways exist along the entire 1,500-miles between the basins, and these aren’t addressed by the engineering marvels proposed for CAWS.  And then there are the non-aquatic methods of crossing the watersheds including waterfowl migration, fishing, accidental and unregulated fish stocking.

Costs and timing pose real stumbling blocks. The cheapest option, Plan 2, wouldn’t include any water regulating structures or barriers, would only keep out five ANS not including Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and would cost 68 million. From there, the Plans go all the way up to almost $18.5 billion.

Plan 5 would take 25 years to complete, that means bighead and silver carp wouldn’t be dealt with until 25 years had passed, and the clock hasn’t started ticking yet, which leaves us relying on the fine tuning of the existing electrical barriers that USACE is researching now.

Scientists take comfort in the fact that we know so much more about Asian carp than we used to. And no one doubts there is a great deal at stake. Still, we’re getting awfully close to replacing discussions of how to keep them out with how to control them once they’re with us.

The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study:

Summary of Fish-Barge Interaction Research and Fixed Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) Sampling at the Electric Dispersal Barrier in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Asian Carps Reproducing Naturally in Great Lakes Tributary by Lisa Borre

Asian Carp face-2: photographer Kate Gardinr; Jumping Asian Carp: photographer

What’s Coming at the Bufflehead and a Year-End Wrap Up

Happy New Year Everybody.

Coming to this blog this winter and spring:

Water levels in the middle Great Lakes, in particular the expected U.S. and Canadian governments’ response to the International Joint Commission‘s recommendations, possibly the most important development in the decades-long effort to address the decline in water levels. Also expected soon is a report from the Council of the Great Lakes Region on the economic impact of lower water levels. This should provide a handy way to quantify what is at stake.

Bull rushes snowIn the meantime, you might want to check out three blogs on water levels in the archive that are as current now as they were a few months ago: October 28th; November 6th; and December 4th.

Birds and other critters, including Asian carp, with again, an emphasis on what the studies show. If you missed my blogs the first time round, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written on frogs, ravens and crows, wolves and moose. And don’t miss my review of Jon Mooallem’s excellent book on our all-too-human, funny, heroic/pathetic efforts to save the critters we love, sometimes at the expense of critters we love a little less. Check out these postings on Oct 28th; November 6th and 20th; and December 18th.

Science and politics: not a healthy mix due to cutbacks and ideological meddling, but alas the situation is worsening as the federal government’s reach is expanding to include other targets. This is truly alarming stuff. Stay tuned. If you feel the need to catch up on the muzzling of Canadian scientists or find out exactly how badly served species at risk are by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, check out the postings on October 28th; November 13th and December 11th.

snow capped sumackBut let’s not start the year on a sour note. Scientists and environmental groups, writers and ordinary folks are doing some excellent work tracking government shortfalls while looking after the animals. Our knowledge base is exploding and with it our sensitivity to, and our daunting appreciation for all that we might have to do to give the natural world a fighting chance.

The Bufflehead will resume its regular weekly postings on January 8th, 2014

Cheers everybody

It’s the Habitat: What’s happening to our Frogs

In the mid-1990s, children in Minnesota were horrified to find the frogs they were catching had missing legs, horror-movie features, extra legs, and missing eyes. After that, these misshapen critters started showing up seemingly everywhere across the U.S., less so in Canada.

This past November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of the 10-year study of amphibians, 48,081 individuals representing 32 species of frogs and toads at 462 wetland sites. Its purpose was to address “the broad spatial distribution and temporal dynamics of amphibian abnormalities that have hindered efforts to understand the extent of the problem.”

one leg frog

Amphibians are the most imperiled class of vertebrates on earth. Amphibian Ark, a coalition of conservationists, estimates that 165 species have gone extinct in recent years. Malformations and mortality rates seem to be on the increase. Their permeable skin and shell-less eggs make them extremely vulnerable to the environment, and because they never venture far from home, they’re close to perfect bio-indicators of local conditions.

Various reasons for their decline have been suggested, but people have fastened on climate change, ultraviolet radiation seeping through the thinning ozone layer and damaging the molecular structure of just about everything.

The FWS study actually turned up surprisingly few abnormalities: only two per cent when the results were averaged over the U.S.; only 22 cases of extra limbs .6 per cent of all the abnormalities recorded;  and one-third of the 675 collection events yielded no abnormal amphibians at all.

Two per cent or fewer abnormalities is considered within a normal range. Malformations can result from predation and parasites. Even dragon flies nibble on frog larvae.

However the hot spots—the Mississippi Valley, the Central Valley in California and south-central and eastern Alaska—revealed serious abnormalities, shortened or odd-shaped limbs and missing eyes, at rates close to 40 per cent in some years, other years nothing. (Bravo for this long-range survey: a smaller sampling might have come to wildly different conclusions.)

Garden furnitureBut there’s a codicil: all the sites studied were in U.S., refuges where amphibians are provided protection from man-caused environmental stressors—except of course ultraviolet radiation and climate change. So the study doesn’t tell us why exactly amphibians are doing so poorly in less pristine environments.

One of the chief causes of malformations and high levels of death in amphibians, although it doesn’t explain all the cases, is the parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, or flukes. This flat worm, after reproducing asexually in snails, dispels 40 to 1,000 larvae every night per snail. Once released, they head straight for a frog, toad or salamander where they target their limbs, forming cysts there, obstructing their growth, sometimes causing their deaths or simply rendering them lame and more susceptible to predators.

The infected amphibians are eaten by birds (especially herons), which then become the second home for the flukes, and a place where they sexually reproduce. Their eggs are expelled in the bird’s feces, which if they land in water, they hatch and seek out snails, burrowing into their shells and setting up home again. R. ondatrae thrive in algae- rich farm ponds, so the increase in amphibian mortality may be related to an increase in nutrients.

Garden furniture 2The Canadian Journal of Zoology reports that infected amphibians have been found along the migratory flyways in the U.S., as you might expect given that the dispersal agents are birds, but curiously enough, the flyways in Canada haven’t turned up infected amphibian populations—a mystery for a future gap analysis. (This is not to suggest that R. ondatrae aren’t found in Canada, they are.)

A recent study in Illinois connected the decline in amphibians to the invasive European buckthorn, now evident in two thirds of the U.S. This rampaging ornamental plant releases a compound that is toxic to amphibian embryos, killing off populations of Western chorus frogs and the African clawed frog in particular, but it is also suspected in the high mortality rates of other amphibians.

A Canadian study has drawn a line between pesticide use and amphibian mortality. In Minnesota, a field study has linked UVB penetration in a pond to a depth of 10 cm. and the percentage of malformed frogs there, but light penetration in water is affected by shading from trees and aquatic plants, and by the amount and quality of dissolved organic carbon. So UVB doesn’t rank very high as a cause of amphibian mortality. However it could be acting on natural and manmade compounds that then make them toxic to frogs. The potential combination of biological, physical and chemical substances is limitless.

Garden hoseIt’s useful to know that amphibians are doing more or less O.K. in pristine environments like U.S. refuges. By inference, we’re left with contaminated environments, squashing them under our tires, interactions with invasive species, chemicals, nutrient runoff, any or all combinations of these factors plus outright habitat destruction as the real stressors. We can deal with these issues at the local level, unlike climate change.

Too often climate change induces a paralyzing stupor; it makes us feel bad and block us from taking on the challenges we should be fighting. For frogs everything is local. These critters don’t have enough room, and we too often mess with what room they do have. We can stop that.

Localized Hotspots drive Continental Geography of Abnormal Amphibians in U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Mari K. Reeves, Plos One;jsessionid=3F631910F949681EE6E7DE18549F0331

Ribeiroia ondatrae causes limb abnormalities in a Canadian amphibian community, C.D. Roberts, T.E. Dickinson, Department of Biology, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology

USGS, Science for a Changing World. Malformed Frogs in Minnesota: An update

Frog Deformities: North Temperate Lakes: Long Term Ecological Research from Lakeland Times, John Bates

legless frog photo credit: Scientific American, USFWS/Fred Pinkey

Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

It hasn’t gone away. The muzzling of scientists by the Harper administration continues to represent a scandalous challenge to Canadian democracy. Good news though: the abuses have been solidly documented in a survey of federal scientists, and in a report to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who as a result, has launched a formal investigation.

scaly branchTo recap some well-know cases: Nature published “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011”, an article by Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick that documented a hole two million kilometres wide that allows harmful ultraviolet radiation to escape. When a journalist contacted the federal media relations rep for an interview with the author (as protocol calls for) a spokesperson wrote back, “While the interview cannot be granted, we are able to provide additional information on the paper…you may attribute these responses to Dr. David Tarasick.” These “responses” however did not originate with the author but instead with the assistant deputy minister. The bureaucrats only relented in their walling off of the author two weeks later, after the media had moved on to other stories.

Case number two: Environment Canada scientists attending a Montreal conference, International Polar Year 2012, were shadowed by media relations contacts who sat in and recorded their interviews. If approached by a journalist, the scientists were required to brush them off, referring them instead to a media person. This is the sort of practice one would expect in Russia.

Case number three: University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler were provided with a package of scripted answers to expected questions from journalists on the subject of their paper on contaminated areas around oil sands developments.

Bark Dec 7, 2013

These are hardly isolated cases as has been made abundantly clear in a survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and conducted by the Environics Research Group. The scientists surveyed included those with responsibilities for the safety of our food, water, drugs and health products, the air, environment, children’s toys, scientific innovation and the economy.

“Faced with a department decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 86 percent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department,” reads the report.

Half the scientists surveyed reported being aware of actual cases in which the environment or the health of Canadians has been compromised as a result of political interference with their scientific work. Twenty-four per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Sixty two per cent think the best climate change science has not been translated into policies.

(U.S. scientists endure nothing like this; they have only to make clear that when they speak, they are not necessarily representing their government’s position.)

Last March, Canada’s information commissioner launched an official investigation into the muzzling issue based on a 26-page report with 100 pages of appendices detailing cases, internal government documents, information requests, interviews with former and current federal public servants, journalists, non-profit organizations and university professors. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic provided the document, which charges that current practices constitute a breach of the Access to Information Act.

If Commissioner Suzanne Legault agrees, she could “facilitate a solution”, which might involve mediation, or worst/best case, refer the matter to the Federal Court of Canada.

Commissioners report directly to parliament, free of the restraints of party politics, or so goes the theory, but all their power in tied up in influencing people. Their reports typically become the subject of hand-wringing editorials and that’s about it. If they’re especially good at getting heard, they might get blown off like the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The Harper administration is used to scathing reports; this is the same government that seems so nonplussed about having been found in contempt of parliament.

Sumack Dec 7, 2013

Imposing a clogged artery between scientists and the media; insisting that scientists be shadowed by media flacks; denying them permission to speak about their already published work; supplying senior-bureaucrat talking points for media interviews; insisting co-authors on federal research projects submit to the same soviet-style restrictions as federal scientists; and delaying, delaying, delaying, these media management practices seem curiously off-tempo with the speed of light exchanges on the wide open Internet.

But actually, the feds media protocol fits perfectly with the larger phenomena of seemingly huge piles of data accumulating in the ether while fewer and fewer people seem to have the authority to tell us what it all means. They’ve been laid off.

The Harper government seems particularly keen on constraining the climate change wonks from messing up its plans, but something else is going on. This particular administration is diminishing the authority with which science speaks — all that independent, peer-reviewed, evidence-based, cautious, heavy-on-the-qualifiers thinking of those conscientious people who always did their homework and got good marks in school.  Reducing scientists to squeaky wheels and whiners slots them as a special interest group with an agenda, and one that can be tossed off to appease their base.

Sometimes of course the best-laid political operative’s plans go astray. Muzzling the scientists when added to Canada’s knuckle-dragging performance on the climate change file has made us an easy target in the XL Pipeline debate south of the border. We’re iconic bad guys now with not a whole lot of credibility.

If we can describe federal scientists as canaries in the coal mine, part of the warning system in a political culture determined to stream-out evidence-based analysis, then we must be the frog in the pot, cooking so slowly we won’t know we’re intellectually compromised until it’s over.

The Bill Chill: A survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

Muzzling Scientists: A Threat to Democracy

Stop Muzzling Scientists: A petition

Getting at the Burr in the Water Levels Debate

It’s not sexy, but the distinction between restoration and multi-lake regulation explains why the issue seems to go round in circles. Get this straight, and you’ll have bragging rights just in time for your Christmas parties.

To recap: for something like 15 years now, Georgian Bayers have been deeply concerned about “their” water rushing down the St. Clair River on account of the deep navigational channels that were dug there in the 1930s to 1960s. Water levels plunged. The Georgian Bay Association, the Georgian Bay Foundation and their supporters succeeded in getting the International Joint Commission to pay attention, a very considerable achievement; and that resulted in the Upper Great Lakes Study Board, the scientific arm of the IJC, looking at the impacts of permanently restoring water levels by some pre-determined amounts from 10 to 50 cm in Michigan-Huron-Georgian Bay. While this might be possible, the Board determined that this could negatively affect all the water bodies downstream and might exacerbate the threat of flooding should water levels rise naturally.

The Board then turned its attention to multi-lake regulation. By adding new structures, could water be shared around, not necessarily raised some  set amounts? This too had its drawbacks and tradeoffs: it would be very expensive, bureaucratic and might not work very well given the uncertainties of climate change.

Since the Board made these deliberations, the difference between water restoration and multi-lake regulation has been getting murky.  In fact, the IJC contributed significantly to this murkiness when it recommend a hybrid of the two in its all-important Advice to Governments, April 15, 2013, the culmination of five years and a $17 million study on water level issues in the upper Great Lakes. (We’re still waiting to hear back from the U.S. and Canadian  governments on this.)

Campbell dock 2

The IJC was very specific that it wanted the two federal governments to consider restoring 13 to 25 centimeters (5 to 10 inches) to water levels in Michigan-Huron, amounts  pegged to compensation for mid-20th century dredging episodes in the St. Clair River.

But at the same time, the IJC recommended that the governments focus on an option “that would not result in a permanent restoration change that could exacerbate future high water levels, but rather one that could primarily provide relief during low water periods.” Italics: mine.

Campbell dock detail 2

Now leveraging water up and down necessitates big decisions: how much; when to do it and when to stop; this is according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that  would most likely have responsibility for the construction of any kind of engineered solution. An internal USACE report on St. Clair Compensating Works dated May 2013. reads:

“Compensation structures constructed would most likely be of a static nature, meant to raise the upstream lakes back to their pre-dredging levels. There have been recent suggestions [the IJC’s Advice doc] of looking at flexible systems that could be removed or altered during high water periods. This would essentially mean that Lakes Michigan and Huron would become regulated. It would require the creation of a regulation plan for the middle lakes and a corresponding IJC Board of Control to oversee operations. As such, the scope of this GRR [General Reevaluation Report] would involve significant bi-national coordination and multi-level review, likely up to the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.” (Italics mine.)

Green and pink cabbage like flower

USACE is saying water level flexibility is the back door through which multi-lake regulation comes: flexibility necessitates regulation; and regulation becomes multi-lake regulation because how can you stop short of considering all the impacts on all the affected water bodies not just the middle Great Lakes?

The Study Board recommended against any new regulatory structures in the Great Lakes: given their expense and various uncertainties, they wouldn’t work very well; and the tradeoffs would be unacceptable.

The IJC wants to see compensation for dredging in the St. Clair River, flexibility without multi-lake regulation. That looks like a muddle to me.

The International Joint Commission Advice to Governments can be found at:

The International Upper Great Lakes Study: Final Report to the International Joint Commission, March 2012 can be found at:

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

Water Levels and a Major Report from UNESCO

Revisiting Adaptive Management

What to do about low water levels is mired in controversy. The talk has mainly concerned where best to site engineering structures to fix them, whether in the St. Clair or Niagara rivers or some combination of the two. Almost never talked about is adaptive management. The International Upper Great Lakes Study Board endorsed it, as did the International Joint Commission in its letter to the U.S. and Canadian governments, but among the Georgian Bay crowd it was denounced as the unacceptable do-nothing option.

Stranded dock, Bell Island

Compared to dikes, weirs, inflatable flap gates, and hydrokinetic turbines, all mitigation measures, adaptive management doesn’t look like The Big Fix.

It is about exchanging information,  stepping gingerly forward, assessing and regrouping. Still, it is gaining ground in the world community as the best way address the uncertainties of climate change.

A recently released UNESCO study entitled Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters, has come up with some pointers on how adaptation works after looking at how 34 countries have approached the subject. The Great Lakes wasn’t discussed. Still, UNESCO surfaced some relevant lessons and principles that should help us move forward.

Why adaptation might be a better fit than mitigation, at least for now.

UNESCO bases its argument for adaptive management on the “cascading uncertainties” resulting from climate change.  The Big Fix solutions require a high degree of certainty if they are going to  make a return on investment and not back fire.

Despite sophisticated computer modeling, the UNESCO authors profess little confidence in any guidance climate projections might provide for water management; for example, you can’t draw a line from emission trends, through their impacts and conclude what sort of floodgates are necessary.

Red tree, Crothers Woods

According to the UNESCO report, precipitation and evapotranspiration are impossible to predict. Changes in mean temperatures are slightly more predictable, but extreme temperatures aren’t. And then there are “shifting means” (the upshot of skewed extremes) that are ignored in most climate models. Different models can produce vastly different results, and comparing average yearly temperatures is highly dependent upon which particular years are compared. Also changes in river discharges and runoff cannot be estimated because they are not consistent with changes in precipitation. Similarly, it is not known what impact extreme precipitation events have on the replenishment of groundwater.

The Upper Great Lakes Study Board uncovered similar uncertainties. After $17 million dollars worth of work, its highly qualified authors confessed to an imperfect understanding of net basin supplies; a compromised ability to predict water levels a month ahead; and a poor understanding of lake dynamics and inter-annual and decadal timescales. Again, runoff is the big mystery because of an incomplete gauging of the affected land area. The Study Board concluded that the “extreme extremes” expected by climate change are beyond any proposed regulatory plan. So it shelved structures in favour of adaptive management, which it hoped could effectively address risks related to extreme water level conditions.

Big Fixes carries carry big risks and exorbitant costs.  The UNESCO paper notes, “Adaptation requires flexibility in a domain dominated by long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs:” an apt description of the engineering marvels being bandied about for the middle Great Lakes.

The UNESCO report struck other notes that might be worth paying attention to in Georgian Bay’s water levels debate.

“Avoid skewing financing to specialty projects that might be easily labeled adaptation but do not necessarily maximize net benefits.” This might have relevance for the construction of the proposed engineering project in the St. Clair River, whose specialty project is raising water levels in the middle Great Lakes.

“Adaptation should not be undertaken in a way that focuses only on climate as a risk driver to the exclusion of other more dominant drivers of water risk, such as social, economic and political systems.” 

The complexity of actors and interests in the enormous regional economy around the Great Lakes necessitates a great sorting through if we are to live with changed climatic conditions. But assembling and studying the injuries inflicted on all these actors and interests by low water may not be the most helpful way of getting to the best solution. If the objective is to restore the old status quo, then the tallying up of the economic and environmental costs could be just a rationalization for building a “long-lived infrastructure with high sunk costs” of limited utility.

Adaptive management is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as a hopeless exercise to strip the change out of climate. But it is really about changing our behaviour in terms of our water and land uses to allow for a growing economy and a restored and possibly retooled environment. However, it carries its own set of risks and dangers. Adaptive management could be far less saleable politically than coming up with the money for dams and dikes and weirs. It may result in a shouting match  with the strongest, not necessarily the more legitimate voices getting heard.

Here’s a problem: marinas around Georgian Bay are facing economic hardships as a result of their boat slips being too shallow to accommodate their customers’ boats. At the same time wetlands are drying up, forcing its critters to relocate, putting them in conflict with human land uses, including marinas. The marinas are the keystone economic drivers in many small communities. The wetlands are important nurseries for all manner of aquatic life. In the adaptive management model, this is a problem for land and water use planners, not the hydrological engineers, the lesson being  we shouldn’t try to mitigate our way out of this dilemma with Big Fixes.

The UNESCO document talks about water security: ensuring we have enough water for our economic needs, not too much such that we have floods, and water quality sufficient for the environment and our health. The discussion is about getting to those goals in very changed circumstances.

“From a risk perspective, the long-term consequences of ‘normal’ (high probability, low initial impact) but recurrent and chronic threats to water security such as competition for water resources among various users or pollution deserves much greater attention from a risk perspective.”

So climate change is the opener. It is only the first step to assessing what our needs are and how we are going to deal with them. The danger is we will pursue solutions that won’t work but that everyone wants to believe will work. Getting to real solutions to our real problems is going to be much much harder than that.

Adaptive management is the sleeper issue behind the water levels crisis.

Water and Climate Adaptation: Policies to Navigate Uncharted Waters can be found at