Ottawa Citizen - Strict new provincial standards will define wildlife habitats in need of protection

Published on July 3rd, 2012 in the Ottawa Citizen

Twenty tadpoles, five common garter snakes or a single duck nest would be enough to define land as “significant wildlife habitat” in need of protection from development under strict new Ontario standards.

And protected sites could demand special treatment (such as not cutting trees or building roads) for hundreds of metres in all directions, up to a kilometre all around in the case of bat caves.

They apply in urban and rural development alike.

They are in addition to existing protection for significant wetlands, or areas with rare or threatened species such as butternut trees or bobolinks.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says the changes are just extra criteria to fill gaps in existing wildlife protection rules. They would apply to new developments such as subdivisions, commercial construction or wind turbines, not to smaller projects such as renovating a house.

The scope is broader than anything Ontario has seen before. The draft rules would protect butterflies, toads, salamanders, deer, red spruce, white oak, alvars, sand dunes, bogs, owls, farm fields that flood in the spring, geese, springs, bears, lichens, gulls, turtles, sandpipers, mink, wolves, ospreys, and “dancing grounds” of the sharp-tailed grouse.

These include urban species such as ring-billed gulls (familiar wherever French fries are sold), merlins (a small hawk common in Ottawa) and “nuisance” geese.

More specifically, the following would be designated as Significant Wildlife Habitat:
Any wetland with 20 or more frogs or tadpoles;
Large buffer areas around nests of Cooper’s hawks, ring-billed gulls, Canada geese or most ducks, all of which are found in urban Ottawa;
Farm fields that flood in spring if they are stopovers for 100 or more migrating geese or ducks;
A single snapping turtle nest, or a pond where five painted turtles spend the winter;
Any hawk or owl nest in a forest;
A cliff and the “talus” (fallen rocks) at its base;
Any stand of trees where 10 per cent or more of the trees are white oak;
“Corridors” where toads, deer, or salamanders move from spot to spot;
Any spring or “seep” where groundwater comes to the surface.

In all, the draft outlines habitats of hundreds of types of plants and animals, ranging from forests to beaches to farms and suburbs.

The draft document on Significant Wildlife Habitat was posted on a provincial website in the spring, but attracted little notice. It is on the Environmental Registry website, reference number 011-5740. The period for comments is closed.

The Ministry of Natural Resources says it will not be applying the new definitions to existing properties or small residential projects. They will be “only considered as a result of a development application” and applied during an environmental impact study.

“Therefore Significant Wildlife Habitat is typically only determined when a subdivision, commercial development, golf course, aggregate operation, wind farm, and large solar project is proposed in an area that may be changing the existing land use,” the ministry wrote in a reply to questions.

But Randy Hillier, Conservative MPP for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, warned ”an endless maze of bureaucracy” is strangling economic development in rural areas.

“Everything is falling under these protection zones, increasingly making it nearly impossible to do any sort of development, any commercial work, any new residential, in rural Ontario. And it’s hurting our economy.”

“Whether or not it prevents the eventual development it adds huge, huge costs” as well as delays and uncertainty.

He said the expanded wildlife measures cover anything “except a completely sterile environment.”

Large developments would be required to protect a wide variety of habitat types.

For instance, if 100 or more migrating ducks stop in a flooded field, the habitat would be the field plus a buffer of 100 to 300 metres on all sides, “depending on local site conditions.”

Spring flooding in fields affects most farms, especially from Orléans east — the former Champlain Sea.

The new standards would provide ample employment for consultants. For instance, a study would be required to determine whether the shore of a lake, river or wetland has at least 1,000 shorebird-days during migration, from at least three shorebird species (sandpipers, plovers, godwits and yellowlegs.)

One shorebird-day is one shorebird spending one day on the site. There would be different calculations if the birds include whimbrels.

Once designated, the shore itself would be provincially significant habitat, but so would a buffer running 100 metres back from shore. In cottage country, this could become a major factor affecting shoreline development.

Other significant habitats would include 20 hectares of wintering grounds for one short-eared owl; any land within one kilometre of the entrance to a bat cave; any bog; any old-growth forest; any land within 150 metres of a ring-billed gull colony.

A winter nest of five garter snakes becomes significant under the new rules.

Any area with three nesting pairs of Canada geese or various ducks would be designated as significant habitat too, with a 120-metre-wide buffer. (For black ducks, just one nest is required.)

This would take in large areas near the Ottawa River Parkway and along the Rideau River — areas where Ottawa and the National Capital Commission are trying to reduce Canada goose nesting.

There would be a 100-metre-wide buffer around a Cooper’s hawk nest, and 50 metres near a merlin’s nest. These birds both nest in urban Ottawa. Merlins, says biologist Mike Runtz of Carleton University, regularly nest in spruce trees in residential neighbourhoods.

Runtz said some of the new measures are important, for instance protection for flooded fields, which help waterfowl to migrate, and for springs. He said others, including protection for ring-billed gulls, are “a little ridiculous.”

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