On most summer afternoons, if you gaze across Bowmanville Marsh long enough you’ll see an Osprey flying slow above the water, then suddenly dropping to the surface before rising up with a fish in its talons.
But the Osprey doesn’t nest in Bowmanville Marsh – it nests about a kilometer away in Westside Marsh. That’s where a pair of Ospreys fix up their nest each spring, and that’s where they feed one or two chicks through the summer until they can all fly away together. Quite often the fishing is better in one marsh than the other – and the Ospreys know where to go.
Otter knows this too. You might see a family of Otters in one marsh several days in a row, and then they trot over the small upland savannah to the other marsh.
Osprey and Otter know many things that our provincial government would rather not know. One of those is that the value of a specific parcel of wetland can’t be judged in isolation. Many wetland mammals, fish and birds – even the non-migratory ones – need a complex of wetlands to stay healthy.
To developers and politicians with dollar signs in their eyes, a small piece of wetland in an area with several more might seem environmentally insignificant. Otters and Ospreys and many other creatures know better. Filling in or paving over one piece of wetland can have disastrous effects for creatures that spend much of their time in other nearby wetlands.
A change in how wetlands are evaluated – so that the concept of a wetland complex is gone from the criteria – is just one of the many ecologically disastrous changes the Doug Ford government in Ontario is currently rushing through. These changes touch on most of the issues I’ve written about in this blog, from global ones like climate change to urban planning in a single city. This time I’ll focus on threats to the environment in my own small neighbourhood.
Beavers move between Bowmanville and Westside Marshes as water levels change, as food sources change in availability, and as their families grow. They have even engineered themselves a new area of wetland close to the marshes. Great Blue Herons move back and forth between the marshes and nearby creeks on a daily basis throughout the spring, summer and fall.
In our sprawl-loving Premier’s vision, neither wetlands nor farmland are nearly as valuable as the sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter homes that make his campaign donors rich. The Premier, who tried in 2021 to have a wetland in Pickering filled and paved for an Amazon warehouse, thinks it’s a great idea to take chunks of farmland and wetland out of protected status in the Greenbelt. One of those parcels – consisting of tilled farmland as well as forested wetland – is to be removed from the Greenbelt in my municipality of Clarington.
The Premier’s appetite for environmental destruction makes it clear that no element of natural heritage in the Greater Toronto area can be considered safe. That includes the Lake Ontario wetland complex that I spend so much time in.
This wetland area now has Provincially Significant Wetland status, but that could change in the near future. As Anne Bell of Ontario Nature explains,
“The government is proposing to completely overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System for identifying Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs), ensuring that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future. Further, many if not most existing PSWs could lose that designation because of the changes, and if so, would no longer benefit from the high level of protection that PSW designation currently provides.” (Ontario Nature blog, November 10, 2022)
The Bowmanville Marsh/Westside Marsh complex is home, at some time in the year, to scores of species of birds. Some of these are already in extreme decline, and at least one is threatened.
Up to now, when evaluators were judging the significance of a particular wetland, the presence of a threatened or endangered species was a strong indicator. If the Ford government’s proposed changes go through, the weight given to threatened or endangered species will drop.
The Rusty Blackbird is a formerly numerous bird whose population has dropped somewhere between 85 – 99 percent; it stopped by the Bowmanville Marsh in September on its migration. The Least Bittern is already on the threatened species list in Ontario, but is sometimes seen in Bowmanville Marsh. If the Least Bittern or the Rusty Blackbird drop to endangered species status, will the provincial government care? And will there be any healthy wetlands remaining for these birds to find a home?
Osprey and Otter know that if you preserve a small piece of wetland, but it’s hemmed in by a busy new subdivision, that wetland is a poor home for most wildlife. Many creatures need the surrounding transitional ecozone areas for some part of their livelihood. The Heron species spend many hours a day stalking the shallows of marshes – but need tall trees nearby to nest in.
Green Heron (left) and juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron
And for some of our shyest birds, only the most secluded areas of marsh will do as nesting habitats. That includes the seldom-seen Least Bittern, as well as the several members of the Rail family who nest in the Bowmanville Marsh.
There are many hectares of cat-tail reeds in this Marsh, but the Virginia Rails, Soras and Common Gallinules only nest where the stand of reeds is sufficiently dense and extensive to disappear in, a safe distance from a road, and a safe distance from any walking path. That’s one reason I could live beside this marsh for several years before I spotted any of these birds, and before I ever figured out what was making some of the strange bird calls I often heard.
Juvenile Sora, and adult Virginia Rail with hatchling
There are people working in government agencies, of course, who have expertise in bird populations and habitats. One of the most dangerous changes now being pushed by our Premier is to take wildlife experts out of the loop, so their expertise won’t threaten the designs of big property developers.
No longer is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to be involved in decisions about Provincially Designated Wetland status. Furthermore, local Conservation Authorities (CAs), who also employ wetland biologists and watershed ecologists, are to be muzzled when it comes to judging the potential impacts of development proposals:
“CAs would be prevented from entering into agreements with municipalities regarding the review of planning proposals or applications. CAs would in effect be prohibited from providing municipalities with the expert advice and information they need on environmental and natural heritage matters.” (Ontario Nature blog)
Individual municipalities, who don’t typically employ ecologists, and who will be struggling to cope with the many new expenses being forced on them by the Ford government, will be left to judge ecological impacts without outside help. In practice, that might mean they will accept whatever rosy environmental impact statements the developers put forth.
It may be an exaggeration to say that ecological ignorance will become mandatory. Let’s just say, in Doug Ford’s brave new world ecological ignorance will be strongly incentivized.
These changes to rules governing wetlands and the Greenbelt are just a small part of the pro-sprawl, anti-environment blizzard unleashed by the Ford government in the past month. The changes have resulted in a chorus of protests from nearly every municipality, in nearly every MPP’s riding, and in media outlets large and small.
The protests need to get louder. Osprey and Otter have a message, but they need our help.
Make Your Voice Heard
Friday Dec 2, noon – 1 pm: Rally at MPP Todd McCarthy’s office, 23 King Street West in Bowmanville.
Write McCarthy at Todd.McCarthy@pc.ola.org, or phone him at 905-697-1501.
Saturday Dec 3, rally starting at 2:30 pm: in Toronto at Bay St & College St.
Send Premier Ford a message at: email@example.com, 416-325-1941
Send Environment Minister David Piccini a message at: david.Piccini@pc.ola.org, 416-314-6790
Send Housing Minister Steve Clark a message at: Steve.Clark@pc.ola.org, 416-585-7000
All photos taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Bowmanville/Westside Marsh complex, Port Darlington.