Category Archives: Nature

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.

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

Wolves, Moose and Climate Change on Isle Royale

Split rocks thanksgiving weekendA furious battle is going on right now about whether a declining wolf population on (Michigan’s) Isle Royale National Park  in Lake Superior warrants a helping hand from us human folks or whether nature should be allowed to take its course.

The intervention being considered would introduce some healthy wolves to an inbred population that has been devastated by a genetic deformity affecting their vertebrae. The “nature” that might be allowed to take its course has been compromised by climate change: our fault of course.

This dilemma came to light as a result of the Wolf-Moose Project, at fifty years old, the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system in the world. Several times, the study has been threatened with closing when it appeared that all that could be known had been captured. But then, having survived, it went on to uncover more mysteries, reach deeper depths of understanding, and turn up more insights into the highly complex links roughly characterized as predator prey relationships. Who knew moose ticks could play a part in the survival of wolf packs?

From the project’s excellent website, here’s what it’s uncovered: how wolves affect their prey, how population health is affected by inbreeding and genetics; what moose teeth can tell us about long term trends in air pollution; how ravens give wolves a reason to live in packs;  why wolves don’t always eat all the food they kill; and the role of ticks.

Analyzing wolf scat, researchers were able to identify that in 1997, a large alpha male crossed over to the island via an ice bridge that lasted several weeks that winter, one of only two years in the previous 15 when Lake Superior had frozen sufficiently to allow this migration. He quickly took over a pack, forced another to extinction and grew his pack to 10 members, the largest in the previous 20 years.

But contrary to what the researchers first anticipated, the wolves survival rates did not increase. But digging deeper the scientists noticed that at the same time, the moose population had declined dramatically as a result of food shortages, a tick outbreak and a severe winter.  The implication is that, had the food supply been in the normal range, the consequences of the alpha male’s arrival would have been more positive for the pack. The lesson:  unrelated conditions can mask the beneficial effects of a widening of the gene pool.

More recently, these beneficial effects disappeared when his successful breeding eventually lead to all the wolves on the island being his descendants and the prevalence of genetic deformity in the vertebrae.

If we are ever to tackle the problem of when it is appropriate to intervene to save a species, we have to know these sorts of things.  Even if knowing a little more leads to greater uncertainties.

From the Wolf-Moose Project website: “Every five-year period in the Isle Royale history has been different from every other five-year period—even after fifty years of close observation…and the next five decades will almost certainly be different from the first five decades…the most important events in the history of Isle Royale wolves have been essentially unpredictable events—disease, tick outbreaks, severe winters and immigrant wolves.”

If enlightened ignorance isn’t predictive, why are we bothering to study animal behaviour at all? Because it may stop us from committing more harm to the environment, plus it is absolutely fascinating.

For a description of what the fight to save the wolves is all about check out a story in the Detroit Free Times.

For a more gratifying understanding of the underlying issues in this complex story, check out the Wolf-Moose Project’s website.