Category Archives: Nature

Why the Fair Elections Act is Bad for the Environment

Hockey SticksHarry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer for B.C. and author of a recent report on voting, testified before a parliamentary committee that 520,000 people might lose their right to vote under the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23. The impact this will have on those who have been disenfranchised has been lost so far in the loud condemnation of the bill as has the effect this will have on the environment.

Increasingly nature is dependent upon our protection. A tree is not simply a tree. Its health depends on the quality of the soil, the air, the water and the room we provide it in which to grow. It’s home to thousands of species from the bugs in the ground to nesting birds and the predators who steal the eggs from the nests, all of which have to be safeguarded within a policy framework.

This is a deceptively simple idea. To see the world this way you have to be truly engaged with your political and natural environment. Nature used to be considered an imposing backdrop that could absorb the abuses that people threw at it. We had dominion over it back then, although we rarely took any actual responsibility for our actions.

Sumack, Blue SkyFinding a fix for climate change and habitat destruction will require buy-in from a lot of people—assuming we ever get around to actually doing anything about them—because protecting the environment is going to cost us.

Disenfranchisement encourages political disengagement and passivity, reducing the disenfranchised to mere taxpayers and consumers. A person who has been deprived of the right to vote doesn’t have any responsibility for what the government does. Even if this government or any government, were to attempt to do something serious about climate change, without buy-in it would fail.

Critics of the Fair Elections Act have identified students and First Nations as two groups who are particularly vulnerable to being disenfranchised by this bill. Young people don’t need any encouragement not to vote. They’re engaged in their preferred social media silos, busily establishing their online communities, worried sick about jobs and as a result are less attached to places and the politics of those places. The doorbell doesn’t work, home phones are archaic, and who reads mail? But if they don’t engage politically, they’re unlikely to feel a degree of ownership or engagement for problems facing the environment. They’ll stay stuck in the ether complaining about the mess, instead of grappling with what to do about it.

Two lumpsAnd disenfranchising First Nations is a seriously bad idea. It might look tempting to a government bent on removing all possible impediments to ramming through development proposals in the North. Just sayin’. But it could have grave consequences.

Unlike many young people, First Nation communities have a deep attachment to the places where they live but at the same time they feel estranged from Canadian institutions. This is not a good basis for cooperation on issues to do with managing the environment, and disenfranchisement will only weaken the threads on which negotiations depend, on such things as the Arctic and pipeline routes.

Of course not getting the signals straight on the environment is a layer on top of the moral reasons why disenfranchising First Nations by erecting cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles to their voting is appalling. They only got that right as recently as 1960, when Prime Minister Diefenbaker saw to it that they could vote without losing their treaty rights.

It looks like almost 60% of Afghanistan citizens voted in recent elections, risking violence, possible death at the hands of the Taliban who threatened to blow up their polling stations. Oh the heart-rending irony of it, if Canadians are going to sink back into their comfortable chairs and view the world through a flat screen until this particular kerfuffle passes.

The Harper government proposes treating Election Canada in much the same way as it has the Department of Oceans and Fisheries: reducing its authority by breaking up its responsibilities. (DFO is having its powers to protect fish signed over to the National Energy Board and the Nuclear Safety Commission. I’ve covered these issues in previous blogs: “Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again,” March 3rd, 2014; and “Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda,” February 2nd, 2014.)

The Fair Elections Act would have Elections Canada’s investigative powers assigned to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which answers to the cabinet.  Both Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and Yves Cote, commissioner of elections agree that this move would impede investigations and compromise the commissioner’s independence. In testimony to a parliamentary committee, the commissioner said this would slow down investigations, create communication problems and goes against the principles established by regulatory bodies such as the Canada Revenue Agency, the Competition Bureau and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Harper government is also putting an end to the use of the voter identification card as a legitimate means of establishing one’s address, a necessary condition for voting; 400,000 people used it as part of a pilot program in 2011. When you put this up against some of the bill’s 39 so-called legitimate means of establishing one’s identity such as a letter from someone who works in a soup kitchen, this is crazy. Harper wants to invalidate a communication piece from Elections Canada to voters in favour of a long list of other identification forms that have nothing to do with elections or voting.

The Fair Elections Act is a very daring reworking of Canadian democracy. It is of a piece with the Harper government’s prorogation of parliament, its omnibus bills, limiting debate in parliamentary committees, invoking closure and the sort of behaviour that got it found in contempt of parliament, the only government in the Commonwealth ever to be so humiliated.

Everything You Need to Know about the Fair Elections Act, Globe and Mail

Don’t Undermine Elections Canada, National Post, “We the undersigned…”

Andrew Coyne: The Tories were Right to be Nervous. Marc Mayrand shredded their Fair Elections Act almost line by line, Andrew Coyne, March 11, 2014,

“We Believe this Act will Prove to be Deeply Damaging to Electoral Integrity within Canada” We the undersigned… March 19,2014

Current Voter Identification

CBC News: Do you have the Right ID to Cast a Ballot in a Federal Election? Laura Payton, March 29, 2014,

Huff Post Politics, April 7, 2014, Fair Elections Act: Public Prosecutor Not Consulted on Planned New Role

CTV News, Elections Commissioner Wants Power to Compel Testimony from Witnesses, April 2, 2014,

Correction: A correction has been made regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers in the third to last paragraph. My regrets.

The Intelligence of Chickens and the Great Chain of Being

Rushing waterThe February issue of Scientific American includes a delightful article by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski on the intelligence of a creature we usually encounter at the supermarket: featherless, cut in pieces, lying prostrate on a Styrofoam tray and covered with a slick sheet of cellophane. By now, we’re used to the idea that the critters out there are way more intelligent and social than we used to give them credit for, but chickens?

If we’re going to credit chickens with social awareness, cunning, a language and complicated dating behaviour, then this is the definite proof that the Great Chain of Being rather than stretching up to heaven is lying dangled on the ground in a great heap.

But to return to chickens: it has been known for some time that the natural chicken world is rather harem-like with an alpha rooster maintaining order over his “girls” by showing off what a good provider he is. His courtship strategy involves swinging his wattles from side to side and bobbing up and down over a food source while saying “doc doc”. Should his rivals seem inclined to move in on his intended, he will peck them.

From there, things can get complicated as was discovered by Carolynn L. Smith, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sidney Australia. The male who has been sidelined by the alpha rooster can still get the girl if he can perform the bobbing dance convincingly while omitting the accompanying “doc doc” sound—that would attract the attention of Mr. Big and his pecks.

Sinkhole(We know of other avian strategies to undermine the dominance of the alpha male. A young red-winged blackbird will take advantage of his feminine-like absence of colouring to move in on an older male’s territory. This ploy is not unknown to humans of course. Literature is full of tales of men disguising themselves, sometimes as women, to get past the gate.)

Nicholas and Elsie Collias of the University of California correlated 24 different chicken calls to distinct events/crises/opportunities in a chicken’s life, events such as a new food source, flying predators, ground predators, rivals, love interests, threats to offspring and so on.

Scientifically establishing the connection between these momentous events and their corresponding millisecond chicken sounds proved more difficult until the advent of audio and 3-D video recorders and high-resolution television sets. Using these tools, Chris Evans and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia created a virtual reality for these birds including virtual companions and virtual predators, and then recorded the chickens’ responses. Think of this as a Truman Show for birds.

Carolyn L. Smith clinched it when she came up with a contraption made up of the hooks and cups she cut off from bras (black only) that she used to fashion backpacks for her chickens. Called Chicken Big Boy 2.0, she used them to record all the fleeting sounds her chickens made and link them to events. That’s how she stumbled upon a purpose for the rooster’s wattle that had baffled other researchers. It exaggerates his head shaking, female alluring, come-and-get-my-food behaviour.

The research team concluded that these chicken sounds did in fact constitute a language of sorts that was understood and acted upon by other chickens. Even more surprisingly, they tailored their communications to particular audiences. A rooster might raise an alarm if his sweetie was in danger, but remain silent if the danger, an eagle say, might threaten his rival. Lying by omission is definitely a higher order of malfeasance than pecking some guy’s backside, while screaming, “Die, you feathered dick head!”

Similarly, mom chickens exercised discretion about sounding an alarm depending upon whether or not they had chicks about, saving their vocal chords for when it matters.

However, Joanne Edgar at the University of Bristol in England discovered something like the opposite when she discovered that a mother hen becomes distressed at seeing her chicks exhibiting signs of distress, even in cases when there wasn’t actually any cause for it. This is an example of empathy, as well as getting all worked up about nothing.

Further research conducted by Giorgio Vallortigara at the University of Trento in Italy has indicated that young chicks can distinguish numbers and grasp elementary geometry. Given a triangle with two sides, the chicks could mentally supply the missing side. What evolutionary value this might have, is not explained, but perhaps the evolutionary value of triangles to us humans still remains to be explained.

If these researchers had presented their findings at a European university in the Middle Ages, they would have been burned at the stake, not simply because their ideas would have seemed outlandish, but because they would have been regarded as deeply heretical, guilty of spreading egregious falsehoods about the Great Chain of Being.

StepsThe Great Chain of Being has its origins in the works of Plato and Socrates around 400 BC before Christianity grabbed on to it. It assigned a place in a hierarchical order to every being in the universe beginning at the bottom with stones and metals before proceeding upwards through plants, animals, humans, and angels, all the way to the highest perch occupied by God. The higher up the chain, the more noble and intelligent, more “spirit” and less “matter” one had. And every one of these divisions would have its own sub-orders, and sub-orders within them: lots of stuff for monks to quibble about.

The highest order of birds were birds of prey, hawks and owls, followed by vultures and crows, then worm-eating birds such as robins and ending with seed-eating birds such as our poor fried, roasted, poached, breaded and Saran-wrapped chickens.

Challenging these rankings, such as ascribing a form of intelligence to chickens, or actually even thinking about this, was received as telling lies about God. It led to disorder that reverberated along the chain. Shakespeare’s King Lear was mad, which reflected a disorder in the state, which was a function of a child ruling a father and subjects ruling a king, which also found expression in disturbances in the heavens, meteoric disturbances. We understand these references to be metaphors now but in the Middle Ages, they were taken much more literally.

The Great Chain of Being is so deeply ground into our brains that it didn’t have to be cited directly to justify the subjugation of one order by a higher order. The domestication, captivity of, and cruelty to animals just seemed like the natural order of things. The same rationale was applied to slavery and the subjugation of women and on it went. This explains why the theory of evolution was so threatening. It suggested that beings weren’t fixed on the rung of a ladder, and that they had once been something else before being what they are now.

The chain is long-ago stuff we no longer “believe” in, but it’s still stuck inside us and can be yanked back into consciousness whenever it suits our designs. Until science comes to the rescue and pushes it back down again.

Wikipedia, The Truman Show, 1998

Virtual Chicken Experiments Solve Mystery of Why Roosters have Wattle

Scientific American: Brainy Bird, by Carolynn “K-lynn” L. Smith and Sarah L. Zielinski, February, 2014

Wikipedia: Great Chain of Being

Two Stories about Wolves that Say a Lot about Us

We never seem to let up on wolves. They’ve been a wet nurse for Romulus and Remus, a sexual predator in Little Red Riding hood, but more often just cattle-rustling thieves. We’re still into mythmaking but now we’re spinning our tales from stuff we pick up from biology and ecology, stuff we find psychologically affirming. Where once we saw demons, now we see critters in need of rescuing. Two wolf stories recently in the news illustrate this point.

DM show shot 2This past February in the depths of one of the harshest winters in 20 odd years, Isabelle, a lone female left her enfeebled wolf pack on Isle Royale in Lake Superior and set off across an ice bridge for the mainland in search of a mate, maybe food. And there she died on the shores of Minnesota leaving behind on the island a pack comprised of six or seven adults, including possibly only one potential breeding-age female plus three pups, all that remains of a peak population of 50 wolves.

Seventeen years earlier, a solitary alpha-male had made the reverse journey from the mainland to the island where he took over a pack, drove another to extinction and eventually came to dominate the gene pool, resulting in debilitating back deformities affecting virtually all his descendents.

There is an operatic symmetry—especially when you consider the death—to these to and fro journeys across the ice, both in search of a mate. These are odysseys undertaken across a forbidding landscape, Canis lupus versions of a polar expedition. The alpha male succinctly delivers a story of male over-reach, genetic domination that comes at a terrible cost, aggression gone too far. Isabelle could be painted as a mate-desperate, getting-on-in-years female or maybe as a plucky girl not willing to settle for the same-old, damaged goods on her home turf.

The other prominent story, somewhat more familiar, has to do with the wolves of Yellowstone Park that has been recently revived with a highly engaging YouTube video “How Wolves Change Rivers” with 3,300,000 views. You really must see this.

Using time-lapse photography, the video paints a picture of a miraculous “terrestrial trophic cascade.” It tells the tale of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in 1990s, which has kept the elk population in check, which has allowed the vegetation to be recover from over grazing, which has corrected the erosion problems on the river banks, which has led to different, more satisfactory river courses.

This is a powerful story about redemption. A creature once thought to be a killing-for-killing’s-sake psychopath is reconstituted as keystone species masterminding the return to health of an entire ecosystem. And because we humans made this happened, we also have been redeemed.

DM snow shot 3But a fall from grace quickly followed. A fulsome article in Nature with the requisite scientific bells and whistles, an editorial in the New York Times, which rarely steps out of the world of people to discuss animals, and a blogger writing for the Ecological Society of America, all debunked the assertion that the reintroduction of wolves to the Park has delivered the benefits claimed for it. Our keystone/alpha species has been cast into ecological irrelevance—or maybe not.

Kristin Marshall, an ecologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle Washington told Nature that, “the predator was gone for at least 70 years. Removing it has changed the ecosystem in fundamental ways. Wolves did meaningfully structure the Yellowstone ecosystem a century ago, but that reintroducing them cannot restore the old arrangement.”

Recent research suggests that willow shrubs did not do well whether they were protected from elk grazing or not. Where the plants have done well is attributed to beavers, another keystone species, having raised the water table to counteract the effects of drought. And to the extent that the elk population has declined, the debunkers question whether this can be attributed entirely to wolves. Grizzly bears and hunting have also been thinning out the herds.

Two things are being questioned here: one, the facts on the ground in the case of the impact on particular plant species; and two, the “terrestrial trophic cascade”, that predators have a crucial impact on the behaviour of an ecosystem. This top-down theory replaced an earlier notion of a bottoms-up cascade, that the health of plants determines the entire food chain. And not to be left out, some researchers favour the guys in the middle, grasshoppers, herbivores, and beavers, all of which integrate influences from the top and the bottom.

Despite the holes punched in it, the top-down theory is still viable, at least some people think. As quoted in Nature, “James Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the fathers of the trophic-cascade idea, says that the evidence for cascades mediated by changes in animal behaviour rather than by changes in animal number is ‘thin’, at the moment — and that many of the effects that have been documented are spotty and badly need to be rigorously mapped out. Still, he adds, ‘When all is said and done, and everyone is dead 100 years from now, [the trophic cascade] will be closer to right.’”

So the Yellowstone wolf may not have been relegated to some ecological trash heap, quite. He has been caught up in a turf war among ecologists who have learned to resist the anthropomorphic projections the rest of us happily wallow in every time we watch some spectacular National Geographic or Planet Earth extravaganza, porn for nature lovers.

Animals just used to be there. Now as a result of our actions we are put in the position of saving them, especially clever, team players like wolves, who make other species strong by preying on the weak among them. However, it goes without saying, don’t try this at home.

Ecological Society of America: Wolves Take a Blow to Their Rep, March 11, 2014

Detroit Free Press: Lone Female Wolf Found Dead after Crossing Ice Bridge, February 26, 2014,

YouTube Video: How Wolves Changes Rivers, by Sustainable Man, February 13, 2014,

New York Times: Is the Wolf a Real American Hero? March 10, 2014

Nature: Rethinking Predators: Legend of the Wolf, March 7, 2014

Photography: Doug McKenzie

Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again, an environmental journalist gets sacked, and PostMedia does something truly outrageous.

river bank ice 1Since my Feb 19th blog about the National Energy Board being poised to assume responsibilities for fish and fish habitat, I’ve learned that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is doing much the same thing, that is, it has signalled its intention to take over the protection of fish from the Federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO).

If this were an isolated event in an otherwise healthy approach to the environment, one might be tempted to chalk it up to rational planning, but environmental protections are involved in a multi-vehicle car crash right now, and this is yet another insidious example of how deep and wide Harper’s assault on science really is.

Other dismaying events, this one involving the private sector: PostMedia cut loose Mike de Souza, one of Canada’s outstanding environmental reporters,  when the media company took a truncheon to its Ottawa Bureau. This quickly followed a devastating article by Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar in the Vancouver Observer on a cozy deal PostMedia had struck with the petroleum industry to promote the primacy of energy (read fossil fuels) through all its media outlets. So count that as two dismaying events.

Now for the details.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has signaled its intention to assume powers under the Fisheries Act according to a CNSC and DFO Memorandum: Arrangements of this kind used to be described as conflicts of interest. But this one is touted as adding “clarity and consistency to decision-making” and “improving the efficiency and effectiveness of regulatory reviews” for nuclear facilities, uranium mines and mills.

Snow man with dog 2This conflation of environment/industry processes means fish have lost an advocate. Any clarity arising from this arrangement (but not transparency obviously) comes from burying  protections for fish in inter-office memos. And this handover is only one step away: DFO only retains its authority “until such time as CNSC is prescribed the person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Act authorizations.”

PostMedia, the Petroleum Industry and Mike de Souza: No one would position PostMedia in the left/liberal-leaning side of the spectrum, nonetheless its reporting on the environment has included the breaking of important stories, and leading the pack of responsible reporters was Mike de Souza.

De Souza’s employment ended abruptly on February 4th, when PostMedia announced the downsizing of its Ottawa Bureau and the melding of its remaining operations with that of the Ottawa Citizen. Reporters Andrea Hill and Tobi Cohen were also let go.

These firings happened to coincide with the Vancouver Observer publishing a stunning story about a collaboration between PostMedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to “bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation.” Was this timing a coincidence?

According to a power point presentation explaining the deal, the National Post’s publisher Douglas Kelly promises his paper will “undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”

How can any reasonable person be expected to not see this deal as contaminating the independence of the paper’s and PostMedia’s editorial content? It goes well beyond the usual project placement/advertising/marketing agreement that a party might strike with the advertising department of a newspaper.

We need more journalists and fewer media hacks. We need real journalists, whatever the political stripe of their employers.

Speaking of political stripes, pushing the environment, the economy and science through the funnel of resource-based development isn’t necessarily a natural for conservatives. Those great looming right-wing figures, Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich were both strong believers in supporting basic science and lots of it. This, plus other well–argued insights can be found in “The Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back,” an excellent article by Dak T. de Kerckhove in ipolitics.

“In the global context, it certainly appears that Canada was better positioned for innovation before the arrival of the Harper government. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Reports measure a country’s ability to provide a fertile ground for innovation. Canada was in the top ten of most categories in 2001 — and in third place in the overall measure of ‘Growth Competitive Index’. In the past few years we’ve slid out of the top ten and, in specific categories like ‘Quality of Scientific Research Institutions’, have seen a freefall from fourth place in 2008 to 16th in 2013. To make matters worse, last year we were ranked 27th for our ‘Capacity for Innovation’. By international standards, we’re increasingly failing to foster that fertile environment for innovation.”

De Kerchove’s point is that even within traditional, conservative, economy-minded terms of reference, Harper is not handling the science and environment files very well. These are keystone sectors, that would spawn wealth and well-being given some consistent support. If we took care of them, they would take care of us.

Memorandum of Understanding: Fisheries and Oceans and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Dec 16, 2013

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, PostMedia 2012 Energy Channel Sponsorship: Positioning Canada at the Forefront of EnergyCopy of CAPP- PostMedia Board Presentation

Vancouver Observer: February 4th, 2014, Presentation Suggests Intimate Relationship between PostMedia and Oil Industry Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar

Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back

Blow-Your-Mind Citizen Science Projects versus Keeping a Cottage Diary

The brave new world of citizen scientists is one of the more extraordinary outgrowths of web-based, app-based communications. The data flow generated by smart phones, webcams, telescopes, drones, robotic rovers, remotely operated submersibles and satellites is more than the scientists—those who still have jobs—can handle, and so they’ve gone trolling for enthusiasts to bring some rudimentary order to the gobs of stuff flowing out of their devices.

split branchSo if you’re yearning for more face time with your laptop, try out some of the classy citizen science websites out there complete with fancy graphics, National Geographic-quality photographs, tutorials, blogs, discussion groups and professional ad copy, but don’t be fooled. They’re advertising the Joe jobs of every science project—observing, transcribing, measuring, making lists and counting—nothing wrong with that!

Check into definitely one of more awe-inspiring sites and read about Galaxy Zoo Quench where 1600 people peered back in time to when the Universe was less than half its present age and applied their “pattern-recognition skills” to complete 120,000 classifications of 3002 post-quenched (snuffed out) galaxies plus 3002 control galaxies as captured by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Hubble Space Telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.  Phase Two is now underway.

But do heights make you giddy? How about joining a mid-ocean, mapping expedition via webcam videos? Mapping Seafloor Geology at Endeavour Ridge is compiling bathymetric data sets (underwater maps) to better understand the area’s dynamic geological history. By correlating geological features with select animals, you will contribute to an understanding of species distribution in one of the most extreme habitats on earth.

Sumach against snowHow about digging into climate change? Transcribe Arctic and worldwide weather observations recorded in ships’ logs going back to the mid-19th century. These will establish some useful baselines on which scientists can build their climate model projections to improve our understanding of past and future environmental conditions.

If history is your thing, you can dive into the Ancient Lives Project and transcribe and interpret thousand-year-old texts using an ancient alphabet keyboard. Your digital transcriptions will then be crunched together with other computer and human touches to turn them into intelligible scripts and later published in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series.

These sorts of project might provide a break from Monopoly and gin rummy at the cottage when it is too buggy to go outside.

If you want to collect your own data, check out some new apps being developed, some of which are mentioned in this Scientific American article at There’s a secchi dish app that enables mariners to participate in a global study of phytoplankton. This sort of data could throw some light on climate change impacts on the bottom of the food chain.

If you want to turn your kids into science bugs, try out mobile and web-based tools for data collection, for example the Marine Debris Tracker (self explanatory) and Project NOAH, a resource for nature exploration and documentation, for sharing sightings and helping to identify plants and animals and their locations. This could be useful for any number of (your choice of) missions.

Say you want to plant milkweed for the decimated monarch butterflies. Assuming you could find a nursery to supply you with seeds, you could get a movement going and record your plots using NOAH’s GPS coordinates.

The danger is you will end up poking at and being disappointed by the less-than-adequate intuitive functions of your app. Come to think of it, you don’t actually need a hand-held recording device to plant milkweed, you need a shovel. Just do it, in the company of someone you know in the real world in place on a member of online community or an avatar.

If you want to be a citizen of the great outdoors, think local. Take a look at a volunteer, not-for-profit group that focuses on ecological monitoring, environmental training and education. They follow a government certified protocol to monitor stream health at various sites. SOLEC, State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference recognized their strong commitment to improving the environment within the Great Lakes Basin with an award in 2011.

One of the oldest and most well-established citizen science projects is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 113th year, with over 500 local chapters, it is committed to grassroots conservation action.

The really big NASA-type citizen science projects look fascinating but Darwin got by with a notebook, a magnifying glass, a ruler and a pencil or two, the real tools of engagement. And if you thinking legacies, who’s to say your coffee-stained, yellowed science diary left on a cottage shelf under some old bird books won’t outlive the huge datasets captured in some time-sensitive software?

The act of observing makes you observant. Taking notes anchors you in a time and space. Writing a diary leaves a trail of engagements that give a person a life meaning and shape. If it was good enough for Darwin…

Who knew that the way to control an invasive species was to import another one, or two or three?

Canadian flag in snowBefore we became deeply worried about Phragmites australis, the feather-topped scrawny-stalked, wet-footed invasive, we were concerned about purple loosestrife. Lythrum salicaria, a pretty but aggressive plant that was masterminding a takeover of our wetlands.

A native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife most probably arrived via soil used in the ballast of ships and released in North America in the early 19th Century. Each plant is covered in flowering stems, which can spit out 2.7 million seeds a year that are then easily dispersed by water, wind and wildlife. Its dense matted root system shrinks nutrients in wetlands and ditches, degrading habitat for wetland critters and pushing out native plants. Farmland and canals were choking on the stuff, when people were happily carting these plants home for installation in their gardens. Purple loosestrife had swept across Canada and the U.S.

And then suddenly, it seemingly vanished from people’s consciousness and the landscape. What happened?

Purple Loosestrife became one of the most successful case studies of biocontrol, the introduction of more invasives to chill out the target invasive.

400px-LythrumSalicariaBigBiocontrol may raise the hackles of the we-shouldn’t-play-God faction but consider the alternatives. Pesticides and herbicides provides only temporary, geographically limited solutions and they come with a host of side effects like poisonings, cancer-causing agents, other health impacts, environmental impacts, and encouraging the genetic resistance to them in the pest species. And chemical solutions are expensive, and keep on being expensive.

In contrast, natural enemies can be self-sustaining and self-dispersing agents. They don’t require repeated applications and they hold out the hope that they will adjust their population size to that of their target species, and moreover they are unlikely to cause cancer. Once introduced, they do their job and that’s the end of it.

Still, biocontrol has been the subject of considerable controversy. Biologists have been getting much better at it, as the rules and regs for its application have become increasingly restrictive and uniform when once they were chaotic, subject to change and lacking any clearly understood national or bi-national models.

Asian Carp, introduced to deal with algae in fish farms, is an example of biocontrol gone badly, badly wrong.

Invasives typically arrive without their co-evolved predators, parasites and pathogens or in the case of weeds, herbivores. Without these checks, populations can spread rapidly.  Biocontrol requires locating the natural enemies of these target pests, evaluating the likely results of importing them, confining them for a period in quarantine and testing whether they would be likely to harm non-target species.

None of this is easy. Evaluating the ecological impacts of introducing a species requires a great deal of data that has to be garnered from the host country over many years. An understanding of the life history, dispersal, phylogeny and behavioural effects are necessary. The difficulties in getting this information can warp the data such that a disproportionate amount of info can be  learned about the particular predator/target species relative to the broader category of predator/non-target species.

Moreover, quarantine conditions can hardly replicate the complexity of interactions in the natural environment. Confining critters to petri dishes or cages obviously changes their behaviour. Under these conditions, predators have been known to go after sub-optimal prey (a form of stress eating perhaps), which can exaggerate the impact an introduced predator species might have in the wild, creating false positives.

Potential consequences for non-target species are difficult to evaluate, population dynamic data difficult to come by. The closer taxonomically the non-target species is to the target species, the greater the risk of unintended consequences. And even comprehensive studies are unlikely to identify how or whether the predator species will undergo evolutionary or adaptation changes as a result of being introduced to a new environment.  Unfortunately,  looking for trouble after the introduction of a biocontrol program can be extremely difficult. Throw in the unknown impacts of climate change, and getting a successful program looks doubtful.

How extraordinary then is the success of the biocontrol program for purple loosestrife. Research began in 1995, and by 1992, the Canadian and U.S. governments had approved the release of two European leaf-eating beetles, Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla plus a root feeding weevil, Hylobius tranversovitattus.

Following a period of inactivity in the fall and winter, the leaf-eating bugs feed on the leaves as they emerge in the spring. They mate and lay their eggs on the leaves. After hatching, the larvae move on to eating the tips, which prevents them from growing or producing flowers.

The root-feeding weevil either survive the winter as dormant adults in the leaf litter or as larvae in the roots of the purple loosestrife. Overwintering adults feed on leaf and stem tissue. Eggs are deposited in the stem just above ground level at the rate of one or two a day. A single female will live two or three years and lay about 300 eggs.  Overwintering larvae begin to feed as the soil warms up. They then complete their development, pupate and emerge as adults in mid to late summer although some larvae may take more than one full summer to complete their development inside the root.

The purple loosestrife program has been deemed a remarkable success.  Vast stands have been wiped out without the introduction of chemicals or unintended impacts on non-target species.

Unfortunately phragmites doesn’t lend itself as easily to biocontrol, being too similar to native species, that would run the risk of becoming the prey of a predator species that was introduced. Phragmites should not be composted, root fragments (rhizomes) and seeds should be disposed of in the garbage, and stands of it should be avoided so as to reduce the risk of spreading seeds. This is a no-fun plant.

Separating critters into native and invasive categories implies a before and an after, which in turn leads us to expect that if only we could pluck out the invasives, we will find the world the way it was. But nature is always dynamic and disturbances are ongoing and inevitable.

In the old days, biocontrol was primarily directed at ridding agricultural or other “useful” land of pests. Now we have moved on to wanting to save the natural environment from introduced species. This is much more difficult to do, and layers on more morally taxing issues about how much meddling we’re prepared to do.  Fortunately, biologists know much more about the complexity of the natural world than they used to.  This is important work and we should provide  them with the means to do it.

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife Program, Illinois Natural History Survey

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Richard A.Malecki, Bernd Blossey, Stephen D Hight etc.

Invasive Phragmites, Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program

Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda, the Pipeline Agency is Grabbing the Fisheries File

Prime Minister Harper’s squeezing of environmental protections continues in its characteristic drip, drip fashion. In the latest example the National Energy Board, responsible for the approval of pipelines, is poised to assume some powers to protect fish and fish habitat, from Oceans and Fisheries Canada in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding posted on the NEB website.

Graffiti and iceLimiting the regulatory agencies overseeing a project might seem like a admirable move towards increased efficiency that will no doubt please the proponents of energy projects, but it raises serious questions about whether the NEB has the resources and willpower, unsullied by conflicting agendas, to responsibly protect the fish that get in the way of energy projects.

The Harper government talks relentlessly about balancing the budget and lowering taxes—that’s what  we got when the Conservatives won their majority, with 38% of the popular vote. What the government hasn’t admitted to is its assault on science and the weakening of environmental protections, which trundle along behind its cosseting of the oil sands sector. The closing and consolidated of the science libraries, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of the Experimental Lakes Area, the cancelling of the long-form census: this pileup suggests that the Conservative government is quietly suppressing, reducing and sidelining evidence-based, science-based challenges to its economic hegemony. This is part of Harper’s stealth agenda.

The Memorandum of Understanding, dated December 16, 2013, states that (for now) DFO retains responsibility for issuing permits under the Fisheries Act (permits that allow parties to undertake an activity that results in serious harm to fish) until such time as the two departmental bodies “propose regulations that would prescribe the NEB as a person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Authorizations.”

It’s an open question whether, as a result of departmental cuts, a greatly truncated DFO could ramp up a robust defense of fish and fish habitat that unfortunately find themselves in the path of an energy project. How less likely would the NEB be to do so, given the agency’s very different mandate.

The NEB is a quasi-judicial body that conducts hearings and issues rulings, enforceable by law, regarding pipelines, energy projects and trade. Its jurisdiction stretches over 71,000 Km of pipelines and 1,400 Km of international power lines. Fifty environmental, social-economic, land and engagement specialists carry out the NEB mandate that stretches over the NEB Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Standards Association for occupational safety. They also work with the Transportation Safety Board for accident investigations. And soon they’ll be getting the fisheries file to look after.

But just how deep can their expertise possibly be?

It looks like the government has sacrificed expertise on the altar of expediency. The guiding principles behind the NEB/DFO Memorandum include directives “to facilitate effective and efficient use of government resources in order that regulatory decisions are made in a timely manner by applying a one-project one-review approach; and to promote clarity and consistency of the regulatory process.”

But should the inevitable conflicts between development and the environment be buried in one over-stretched, Medusa-headed federal agency?

tracksOurs is a big country with a lot of water around and in it. DFO has, or had 10,000 employees. According to a secret document released under an Access to Information Request, DFO is facing cuts of $96.5M by 2015 affecting coast guard search and rescue; ice-breaker services; libraries; marine communication, rescue boats; buoy tending; species-at-risk Atlantic salmon production facilities; biodiversity and fish hatcheries; conservation and protection offices; lifeboat services; control surveillance; funding for the Northwest and Nunavut Territories; Arctic ports; the Experimental Lakes Area;  the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures Program; the At-Sea Observer Program; the restructuring of habitat and ecosystem management; and finally, contaminant research especially the elimination of in-house research programs on the biological effects of contaminants, pesticides, oil, gas and diluted bitumen. This will be replaced with a small advisory group.

Some of these concerns are moving to other agencies. In other cases changed circumstances justify these cuts—a 90% drop in the number of serious cases of non-compliance by foreign fishing vessels since 2005 for example.  But in other respects, the DFO budget should be increased in acknowledgement of stepped up marine traffic, technological changes, climate change impacts, and extended shipping seasons. These increased demands on DFO’s services were noted in briefing notes to DFO Deputy Minister Matthew King as quoted in a PostMedia News article by Mike De Souza.

Harper’s slash and burn approach is compounded adversely by changes to the Fisheries Act that were buried inside the 2012 omnibus budget. These eliminated DFO’s responsibility to protect all fish and their habitat and replaced it with a mandate to protect fish that serve some recreational, commercial or Aboriginal purpose. (You can imagine how the federal government might find this jurisdictional vacuum useful when developing the vast remote pristine regions of the Arctic, where there are bound to be  some fish that don’t serve any one’s interests.)

DFO does not deliver frontline services to Harper’s tax-paying base. In the short term the DFO cuts are visible only to those people directly involved in Canada’s waters and to conscientious environment watchers. But Canadians are responsible for about 23% of the world’s fresh water, and we’re bordered by three oceans. We are a marine country that requires a lot of looking-after and we’re not getting  it.

Sources for this blog are noted below.

Memorandum of Understanding between the National Energy Board and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for Cooperation and Administration of the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act Related to Regulating Energy Infrastructure

NEB begins slow takeover of DFO’s Fisheries Act Powers, ipolitic

DFO Cuts

Harper Cutting More than 100 Million Related to Protection of Water, by Mike de Souza, PostMedia News

Changes to the Fisheries Act, June 29, 2012

2012-2013 Departmental Performance Report, Fisheries and Oceans Canada