Endangered wildlife gain new, needed protection

Last Saturday (April 15) The Ottawa Citizen published an article written by federal Environment Minister David Anderson. Entitled “The origin of species protection,” the story served to outline the new legislation designed to protect the 340 species classified at being at risk in Canada.

The entire contents of the new Species at Risk Act, which was tabled in the House of Commons last week, is available online at www.ec.gc.ca

In his article, Anderson notes,

“We have a moral responsibility as stewards of the Earth to protect our inheritance. Yet we are seeing species threatened at an alarming rate, primarily due to human activity. I do not believe that anyone in Canada has the right to deliberately eliminate species from the planet, and today we have at least 340 species classified as being at risk in Canada and we must reverse that trend.”

The new Species at Risk Act effectively “protects species that are endangered, prevents species from becoming endangered, and mandates recovery strategies to return wildlife to sustainable population levels.”

That’s a far-reaching goal. Exactly how will this be done? What are “sustainable population levels” and, in the face of encroaching development and ensuing habitat loss, depletion of the ozone layer, and contaminants in our air and water, how can we ensure that wildlife are given the free-ranging habitat they require? Indeed, is it possible?

After just having visited Banff National Park last year, the difficulty of providing predator species like grizzlies and wolves adequate room to roam is evident. Millions of dollars have been spent on underpasses beneath the Trans-Canada Highway and I believe the figure of $4 million was spent on two overpasses. What wildlife officers and scientists have noted is that although ungulates like elk and deer will use these, more wary predators do not.

So what?

One reason is that because some species don’t use the man-made corridors, groups of animals become isolated and unable to migrate from one area of the park to another. This unnatural state results in unhealthy genetic pooling, or inbreeding.

Let’s bring this situation back to the Pontiac region, for relevancy.

All too often we can sit here at home and think that “species at risk” is someone else’s problem.

Here’s a “for instance” that’s personal and applies to me and something I did.

One spring day in 1989 -- the year we became residents here -- Eric and I were startled to hear a repeated gurgling noise coming from the southeast corner of our property. Fellow bird enthusiast Dale Shutt, an artist living on Calumet Island, to identify the sound for us. It was the call of an American Bittern, a wetland species.

But after a joint project during which our neighbours and us enlarged a drainage ditch by hand between our two properties, that little wetland dried up.

We haven’t heard the lovely, gurgling call of the bittern since.

This is something that we did, with our neighbours, that permanently affected a species’ habitat.

So I’m not casting stones on the rest of you, “lecturing” others and admonishing you not to do this or that. We, here at our property, have innocently but permanently affected a species’ habitat.

And so it happens: habitat is permanently lost for nesting migrant species, frogs and others.

Very often, landowners are like us. They don’t intend to permanently remove a wild species’ habitat. Just like our neighbours and us, we undertake a project so as to “improve” certain conditions. In our case, we aimed to drain the bottom corner of our wet field so that farm machinery could work the land. In an agricultural community such as ours, where land is valued for crop, we probably wouldn’t have been faulted by anyone.

Except by the bittern and the frogs whose voices we inadvertently silenced in the bottom corner of our field. Sadly for them, they don’t possess a political voice.

And, when I look about our Pontiac, I see so many changes. Land is being cleared for housing along Highway 148, or for grazing areas throughout the region. Some people are lobbying to remove “barren land” from agricultural zoning, so they can sever and build new homes... and make money.

We repeatedly hear on the radio about “vacant land,” “barren land” or “land banks.”

These are dangerous terms. Each actively promote a careless attitude toward valuable wildlife habitat.

The land is not “vacant.” It is not “barren.” It is the home of certain species, whether it be a spring peeper or a bittern, a muskrat or a nesting songbird. It is the summer home of the common loon, whose voice is simultaneously a Canadian symbol of the wild... and of idyllic cottage life.

Even our parks are endangered, and we need not smugly point to Banff. Here in Pontiac, we have Gatineau Park. Some people have phoned me to berate me about my position on parkland. Hunters have called to insist that they want to hunt in the park. Others want to build more trails for horseback riding, for ATVs, snowmobiles, mountain bikes: the list is as endless as our wish for adventure. At the base of all these suggestions is our notion of what “land” means to us... and what “parks” are.

If we continue to think of parks as recreational playgrounds, not wildlife sanctuaries, then we are all in danger of losing inestimably precious wildlife habitat

We need to think seriously about our parks. Someone recently excitedly observed they are seeing far more owls recently, near Gatineau Park. This is a good thing! But if Gatineau Park did not exist (and many people here in the Pontiac wish it didn’t for a variety of reasons) we wouldn’t have so many birds. Why? Because of the logging, the cottages beside the lakes, potentially the mining, etc etc etc that would exist instead of our park.

The park also suffers as it fails to provide surrounding municipalities with a tax revenue. This is another reason why many people want to develop more campgrounds, more trails, more economic initiatives.

Enter the necessity for endangered species legislation.

We human beings are the dominant, most successful species on the planet. We don’t have to be wary of predators. We don’t have to be concerned about genetic pooling: mating is hardly a problem with our species -- and how many fathers-and-mothers of the bride and groom honestly don’t want grandchildren?

It seems that homo sapiens has no limits to growth, reproduction and survival as a species.

I therefore applaud David Anderson’s opening remark in his article. I too believe that “we have a moral responsibility as stewards of the Earth to protect our inheritance.”


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon, beside Gatineau Park. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com