Pushed to the brink

Our city's ongoing expansion and development has an adverse affect on its non-human population. Toronto's list of endangered and threatened species is getting longer primarily because of urban growth and a change in environmental factors. "Over the decades, southern Ontario cities such as Toronto have grown very rapidly," says Donna Cansfield, Minister of Natural Resources, "and the natural habitats of some species have been reduced as a result of development and, in some cases, due to pollution."

Concern centres on more than the potential loss of animals; the stability of many species serve as indicators of how our environment is faring. As much of the area surrounding Toronto was previously agricultural land that has been transformed into housing, malls, and office buildings, we rely on the health of these urban animals, like a canary in a mine, to track pollutants and land use.

The Species at Risk Stewardship Fund was set up to provide $18 million, between 2007 and 2011, to eligible projects around Ontario. The fund aims to "provide special funding for individuals and organizations that voluntarily undertake projects aimed at protecting or restoring species at risk and their habitats," says Cansfield. However, since in many cases species at risk are found on private land, the Ministry has an incentive program aimed at private landowners to monitor and protect the natural habitats on their properties. "An example might be where a farmer restores a field by using rare plants which would provide habitat for a species at risk," says Minister Cansfield of the incentive program.

The Redside Dace Recovery Project, one of the funded groups, is doing work in the Rouge River area, known as the best redside dace pool in the GTA. This minnow, with an unusually large mouth, catches insects as it leaps out of the water and lives in clear, cool streams with both rubble and gravel bottoms. They breed in shallow, flowing pools and riffles, most commonly in the nests of other small fish. Habitat alteration is one of the main threats to the redside dace and is caused by the siltation of streams due to erosion, and the loss of streamside vegetation which provides food and cover.

As one of Toronto's endangered species, this fish is being threatened by urban development in the Rouge River area and is at risk from debris and sand from nearby Elgin Mills Road East. The project's coordinators explain that they are not trying to stop business development, but rather educate the developers and residents about making wise and healthy choices to help the fate of these minnows — like using rain barrels to limit the amount of water rushing into the streams during rainfall and maintain the water balance.

Another of Ontario's indicator species, the Jefferson salamander, has been a sort of poster child for the perils of urban development and sprawl. In Canada, this amphibian only occurs in Ontario and requires an untouched forest floor in an intact deciduous forest. These salamanders breed in vernal pools, temporary wetlands that form from heavy rainfall or snow melting in areas of depressed land, which need to be unpolluted and not dry up in the summer months.

Like the redside dace, loss of habitat due to clearing of wetlands and forest for development and other resource extraction has caused the Jefferson salamander's numbers in Ontario to decrease to a small number of isolated pockets of a few hundred salamanders each. The Ministry of Natural Resources has partnered with "the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to conduct inventory work for the species and their breeding areas. This research, in addition to findings in other areas, will help [the Ministry] in [its] work to recover the species in Ontario."

The king rail, another of Ontario's endangered species, is a large, long-billed marsh bird. Although rarely seen, it makes its home in shallow, highly vegetated freshwater marshes. This species has been greatly affected by Toronto's development, as its habitat has been consistently drained and cleared for future expansion. It is estimated that more than 80% of the marshes in its range have been destroyed.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed the king rail as endangered in 1994, when the Rare Breeding Bird Program suggested that its population was no more 52 pairs. Today, there fewer than than 35 breeding pairs of these birds in Ontario.

The king rail's decline also shows the close link between environmental changes and a species' survival. One of the king rail's main sources of food, the crayfish, has been in decline due to acid precipitation, which causes a decrease in calcium levels in aquatic habitations. As their food chain shifts and their natural habitat changes or diminishes, the already undetectable birds become even harder to monitor and protect.

Public awareness is key to protecting and recovering many of Ontario's species at risk, so educating communities and businesses about what can be done and partnering with protection groups to fund research are all important steps. As Minister Cansfield says, "Species at risk are important to the ecological, social, and economic vitality of Ontario, and everybody has a role to play in protecting threatened and endangered species, as well as their habitats."