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Endangered species

By Derek Coronado, The Windsor Star August 31, 2012

Champagne corks were popping at Queen's Park when it was announced that Michigan had agreed to the building of a new bridge joining Detroit to Windsor. This multibilliondollar project is seen as a key tool for expediting the movement of goods to our largest trading partner, so the Canadian government has delivered a low-risk, high-reward deal for our American neighbours.

But what about the endangered and threatened species that the new Windsor-Essex Parkway feeding the bridge will impact?

Rarely is news of a new mega-project celebratory for endangered species, but in this case there is an interesting twist: Thanks to Ontario's new Endangered Species Act, these species are benefiting from some long overdue attention, triggered by the construction of the parkway.

Essentially, the ESA requires the parkway's developer - the Ontario Ministry of Transportation - to ensure that its work takes into account the needs of species struggling for survival. In this case, these species are mostly members of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem that once covered a good deal of southwestern Ontario, but which has now been reduced to a few tiny fragments found mostly in the Windsor area. To protect species that live in the way of the bridge and its roads, MTO has been busy restoring tallgrass prairie habitat, relocating plants and animals, and designing systems to ensure that species are not harmed during or after construction.

For example, a large "ecopass" over the highway will ensure that populations of Eastern Foxsnake and Butler's Gartnersnake are not cut off from others in their clan, something that would reduce genetic diversity and species survival chances. Another proactive measure has been to buy swaths of habitat in the area and catch and transplant animals that would otherwise be harmed once construction began.

Construction crews, meanwhile, have been trained to be on the lookout for rare species and there have been more than 200 calls to the project's Species at Risk hotline to date. In fact, species at risk populations throughout the area have benefited from intensive monitoring efforts over several years of the project.

This is exactly how Ontario's new Endangered Species legislation - passed in 2007 - is designed to work. Instead of the old approach of identifying and then largely ignoring endangered species, the new act combines clear requirements to identify and "list" endangered species in a sciencedriven manner with a flexible approach to dealing with the impacts of development, in this case a new highway.

Sure, it costs money to recreate endangered habitats, monitor and move species and educate workers. But there are multiple benefits: Negative impacts on important ecosystem functions like water filtration or - in the case of snakes, rodent control - are minimized. Jobs also result from ecological restoration efforts. In this case, the Walpole Island First Nation brought its expertise in local plant communities to the project and led the planting of new habitat areas.

And significant new scientific knowledge about endangered species has been generated, including about the ability of species to adjust to relocated homes. This will be invaluable for hundreds of other projects across North America.

But the bottom line is that species protection efforts are a minor cost compared to the $1.4-billion price tag for the parkway alone. With the Canadian government agreeing to assume the full cost of construction, to waive tolls for northbound drivers, and to purchase land in Michigan for highway connections, taking steps to protect species at risk of extinction is the least of the financial challenges facing this project.

And because the ESA makes expectations clear, it is also straightforward to "design in" species protection efforts from square one, which can dramatically reduce costs. Shifting the location of a culvert may not add a cent to the bill for the project, but may have a major benefit for endangered species, for example.

The bigger story is why we need to spend time and money protecting endangered species in the first place. Endangered species are often indicators of endangered ecosystems and endangered ecosystems spell danger for us who, like it or not, are also a part of them. Think of it as starting a house renovation and discovering that your foundation wall is cracked.

Fixing that crack isn't going to be nearly as satisfying as choosing the tile for your new kitchen, but most people understand that it is absolutely critical to the long-term sustainability of their home. And in the face of a threat like climate change, understanding and restoring an ecosystem - tallgrass prairie - built by nature to withstand heat and drought is also in our own best interest.

So instead of seeing endangered species as a burden or a barrier, we should see them as an important opportunity to think differently about how we design and integrate our built environment with the natural one.

Derek Coronado is co-ordinator of the Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario.

Copyright (c) The Windsor Star