Conservation is enormously complex. Looking for quick or simple answers does not necessarily achieve the results we aspire to. The good news is that there are practical and easy ways to promote conservation in our daily lives. Wildlife conservation starts with each one of us, and it does not have to be difficult. You can build a bird nesting box or a bat box, start a composter, be good to bees and other pollinators, or simply visit parks and conservation areas to learn more about ecosystems and the species they support, and about biodiversity and the miracles of nature.
It helps to be aware of the bigger picture. Moose are large, brawny and strong animals, yet their numbers are falling in many parts of their native North American range. Caribou are an iconic Canadian species, yet their populations are declining across the country. In the Arctic, the Bathurst herd has shrunk from 470,000 in 1986 to just 35,000 now. The Beverly herd went from 270,000 in 1994 to 124,000 in 2011. The George River herd in Quebec plunged from one million to 20,000. In the West, six of the 13 herds in the Rocky Mountains have dropped to fewer than 50 individuals. And the caribou that once roamed the Maritimes are extinct.
It is not known what exactly causes these changes. Part of the answer may be that there is really only onespecies of caribou – the rangifer tarandus – an extremely adaptable deer that lives in a great variety of habitats. Scientists do recognize various subspecies, but there is so much overlap and interbreeding between the various populations that many believe it is more helpful to divide Canada’s caribou into two major types: migratory and sedentary caribou.
Migratory caribou live in large groups on the tundra and move south into the boreal forest in wintertime. Sedentary, or woodland, caribou live in small, scattered groups throughout the boreal forest and spend most of their lives in the same area. However, both types are in steep decline for various reasons, some natural and some human-made. Even when caribou have a good food supply, they usually retreat when bulldozers begin pushing roads into their habitat. It is not realistic to assume that cash-strapped northern communities and revenue-hungry provincial governments would agree to shutting down development in half of our boreal forest. Just witness the relentless efforts to start massive mining projects in the Ring of Fire. But a Canadian decision to protect the boreal forest as an irreplaceable natural asset (carbon sink, freshwater lakes and rivers), might be a brilliant investment – and a better choice.
Let’s also look how conservation efforts play out for our feathered friends. Northern Spotted Owls are the most endangered birds in Canada. The roots of their decline are habitat loss and the arrival of a pugnacious habitat competitor. Of all the owl species, they are regarded as the most docile. They nest and hunt only in mature, old-growth forests, the same territory that is most highly valued by the lumber industry. So the chainsaws drive them out. It is only natural that they yield to human encroachment. But their accelerating decline is also pushed into overdrive by a threat that no one predicted: fierce competition from the pale-faced Barred Owl, a similar but larger and more quarrelsome species that has migrated across the continent and is now chasing the Spotted Owl off its ancestral turf. Nobody knows precisely why or how the Barred Owl made its way west. Barred Owls originally ranged from Florida to Maine and west to the prairies. But sometime in the 20th century, they hopscotched their way to the Pacific. They arrived in B.C. during the 1940s and then spread southward into the U.S.
Between 2007 and 2013, the British Columbia government killed 39 Barred Owls and re-located another 94 from a 5 km radius around areas where Spotted Owls were sighted. There is a B.C. Spotted Owl recovery plan in place, and the targeting of Barred Owls has already paid dividends. At sites where Barred Owls were removed, new Spotted Owls have been discovered.
Some may question why we should spend so much effort to save a reclusive bird that few of us will ever see. Biologists contend that the importance of the Northern Spotted Owl extends beyond its symbolic value as an emblem to that of the last surviving wild places on the planet.
The struggle of these birds and mammals is a measure of our national efforts to stewardship and conservation. One would hope that our national parks play a significant role in this, but Parks Canada is in trouble. It is underfunded and would have to almost triple its spending on infrastructure upkeep to maintain the parks in good repair. Leaving Parks Canada assets in poor condition will only increase the cost of deferred work further down the road. The Conservative government did announce it will spend $391.5 million over five years to help with the crumbling infrastructure in our national parks, but only $1 million of that is slated for this year. We need to do better than that.
Yes, conservation is complex, but doing your part need not be complicated. Instead of continuing to destroy our planet, let’s keep it habitable. Without a planet, nothing else matters.
Some summer flowers to enjoy
On your hike look for the beautiful Orange Day Lily, the delicate Celandine, the sturdy Bitter-sweet Nightshade, anemones, cat tails, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and various types of violets. See these and many other summer flowers anywhere in the Rouge Park, Rouge Beach, the Twyn Rivers Area and the Woodlands Area, but also at the Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area (Stouffville Road), Milne Park (McCowan Road, Markham), the Phyllis Rawlinson Park (Richmond Hill), and the Toogood Pond ( Main Street, Unionville).
There is a question for you: which snake plays dead to deter predators from making it dinner?
That is the Hog-nosed snake. It plays dead by rolling over, sticking out its tongue and even letting a little blood trickle out of its mouth. In a bind, the Hog-nosed snake releases fluid from its bottom that smells like a dead animal. It can even release a fluid from its rear end that smells like a decomposing animal. Nature has its peculiar ways …
Special days and events this season
July 19: Canada Parks Day
September 24: National Tree Day
September 23-29: National Forest Week
Enjoy the summer and explore nature. Happy hiking, S.G.
Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Green Book (Gahbauer) with field notes from Rouge hikes.