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Where does nature begin and end?
Whether we are “escaping” to nature or “getting back” to it, we tend to think of it as a distant reality or a far-off place. Even the idea of being “surrounded by nature” suggests a gap: no matter how close we get, we are always right here and nature is always out there.
But our habit of dissociating from nature is not only untenable, it’s also inaccurate. We live and work inside reconstructed trees and towers dug from the earth. Our food webs overlap and replace wild habitat. We share watersheds with all our non-human neighbours. Every second of the day, we breathe back and forth with plants.
The truth is that if we continue to view nature in either/or terms — either present or absent, either protected or exploited — we’ll never be able to re-build equilibrium with the world we inhabit. We CAN create balance with natural systems and still benefit from them. But changing our approach requires shared understanding and collective will.
Few places better exemplify that unified, participatory strategy than the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves*. These are areas where human populations strive to coexist productively with natural ecosystems. Rather than draw up battle lines, the biospheres — of which there are 18 across Canada, coinciding with 50 First Nations — operate exclusively through collaboration. Everyone gets involved, from developers and Indigenous peoples to scientists and community groups.
Each biosphere consists of three zones: a core area for conserving biodiversity and monitoring protected ecosystems; an adjoining buffer zone for ecologically friendly activities like recreation and ecotourism; and transition areas where different types of development can happen, with a focus on sustainability.
Most of all, the biospheres are meant to be places of learning. It won’t be easy to disentangle ourselves from the short-sighted, extractive approach to nature that has predominated for centuries. But the only path to better balance with nature is through mutual effort and the willingness to experiment.
Southwest Nova & Bras d'Or, NS
Eat the Invaders
When invasive species decimated maritime industries in Nova Scotia, the members of two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves had to find innovative ways to restore equilibrium.
TEXT Shannon Webb-Campbell PHOTOS Catherine Bernier
Since the glaciers retreated after the last ice age, Nova Scotia/Mi’kma’ki has been a coastal paradise, especially for the Mi’kmaw people, who have nurtured and sustainably harvested its abundant sea life throughout their long history. But warming waters in the Atlantic Ocean have brought new threats.
Two invasive species have struck different parts of the province: the MSX parasite found in oysters on the Bras d’Or Lakes, and the green crab in Southwest Nova.To defend themselves against such threats, communities in these two regions came together to seek designation as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, which promote solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.
The Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve was established first, in 2001, and spans five counties and multiple ecosystems along the Bay of Fundy and Atlantic Ocean. The Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve, established in 2011, encompasses a large tidal body of salt water in Cape Breton that reaches out to the Atlantic in three arms.
Through innovations that jointly benefit their regions’ social and ecological systems, these two biosphere reserves offer a template for how humans and nature can thrive together.
Where all Things Flow
Waking up at dawn in Cape Breton/Unama’ki (the “land of fog” in Mi’kmaw), I slip my winter coat on over top of my nightdress and sip coffee overlooking a salty stretch of inland sea on the Bras d’Or Lakes. As the sun rises, I watch a great blue heron and her young feed along the shoreline. I think of the Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous fishermen who would’ve been up long before me to be out on the water. And I remember the nearly decimated oyster beds below.
The Mi’kmaw word for the Bras d’Or is Pitu’paq, or the place “to which all things flow.” The interconnected bays, islands, channels, and estuaries of the Bras d’Or Lakes region were carved out of sandstone during the last glacial age. This vast estuary spans nearly 1,100 kilometres, and its natural abundance has been protected and sustained by the Mi’kmaq for thousands of years.
In 2002 a parasite called MSX, or Multinucleated Sphere Unknown, was first detected in the Bras d’Or Lakes. Harmless to humans but deadly to oysters, the disease had already devastated oyster industries in Chesapeake Bay and Delaware, and it would soon do the same in Cape Breton.
“When MSX started to show up, it basically prevented the oyster from digesting their food, so they starved to death,” explains Eileen Crosby, Chair of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. “They would start out okay as a small oyster, and then they would die.”
The arrival of MSX was particularly disastrous for local communities, who had been investing heavily in developing their oyster fisheries for decades.
Bras d’Or oysters were once shipped to high-end restaurants across Canada and internationally and were a ubiquitous local treat, especially during holidays. Today most oysters eaten in the region come from elsewhere. “MSX completely destroyed the oyster industry,” says Crosby.
For Thomas Johnson, executive director of the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission, the oyster has long been a central fixture of daily life. He came to the oyster farm as a little boy and still remembers how people lined up to make strings of scallop shells, which were hung off the wharf in order to collect oyster seeds for redistributing to other ideal areas nearby.
“It created a lot of jobs. My parents were involved. You got paid on a daily basis for so many strings. A lot of people were there. I remember the smell of the oyster and scallop shells as a boy,” says Johnson, who is a first-language Mi’kmaw speaker and has worked with Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife, which manages communal fishing licences and conducts research, for over two decades.
Beyond their economic impact, oysters thrive in the brackish water of the Bras d’Or Lakes and are critical to the local ecosystem. They secure the shoreline from erosion and provide habitat for other species that live under or on top of them.
Most importantly, oysters serve as a powerful filtration system for the entire estuary, significantly mitigating pollutants: a single oyster can filter five litres of water per hour.
Not just an extraordinary cleansing agent, oysters are also delicious superfoods. The tender pear-shaped pocket of meat—which can taste briny, salty, sweet, or even buttery—is chock full of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Oysters offer a rich source of protein, zinc, vitamins C and D, iron, copper, niacin, and riboflavin.
The oyster has long been significant to the dietary health of the Mi’kmaq, who also use them for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. The Wampum belt was made out of beads crafted from oyster shells, which can also be used as smudge bowls for sage.
Although Bras d’Or Lakes is now considered MSX positive, there are areas of the lakes where the disease has not been detected. It’s unclear if these oyster beds have a natural resistance, or if they simply haven’t yet been exposed to the parasite. While oyster populations have been in decline due to overfishing, pollution, habitat changes, and MSX, the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and other stakeholders have been working together to breed oysters that are immune to the disease. “The oyster is still in recovery mode. The disease is here to stay, and it’s not going away,” says Thomas Johnson.
“We are speeding up Mother Nature’s way of producing a disease-resistant strain of oyster. If we can produce some disease-resistant offspring, we can assist in bringing back a healthy population.”
— Thomas Johnson
While the Bras d’Or oyster recovers, the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission and Mi’kmaw oyster farmers like Joe Googoo have been working tirelessly for the past five decades to restore oyster populations in other parts of the estuary. In nearby Whycocomagh Bay, Googoo has over half a million oysters stored in floating trays, submerged less than a metre deep in the water.
Googoo, a first-language Mi’kmaw speaker who teaches oyster farming methods to youth in hopes of sustaining the industry for seven generations, has been experimenting with this method since 2008. Despite suffering some losses to MSX, he’s had some recent successes. The oysters on the surface have survived due to the mix of fresh and salt water, as the MSX virus cannot survive in fresh water.
The Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission and local Mi’kmaw oyster farmers like Googoo strive to employ Elder Albert Marshall’s philosophy of Two-Eyed Seeing, which means “trying to take traditional knowledge from the past and incorporate it with science, and meet somewhere in the middle for the benefit of the ecosystem,” says Johnson.
“Mi’kmaw knowledge and Western knowledge work really well together, especially with the oysters,” says oyster biologist Allison McIsaac.
For example, oysters naturally settle on eelgrass, but when the grass dies in the fall, the oysters are blown ashore and die too. The Mi’kmaq have traditionally collected oyster seeds from the eelgrass and moved them to locations where they grow best.
“We work with a lot of people who know the area,” explains McIsaac. “There is no need to go out and take temperatures and salinity to prove it’s a good area if they’ve been working it for decades.”
Despite the challenges of reviving oysters in the Bras d’Or, McIsaac is optimistic. She believes oysters are incredibly resilient animals. After all, they survived the last ice age; with a bit of help, they’ll survive MSX too.
Crabs in the meadow
Like-minded researchers and Indigenous innovators in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve have had recent successes growing oysters in suspension. When hung from buoys, oysters are protected from predators like the green crab, another invasive species wreaking havoc in the Maritimes.
The green crab has been in North America since the 1800s, but in the last half century, warming ocean waters have enabled it to travel up the Atlantic coast to the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, a six-hour drive southwest of Bras d’Or.
Beneath the turquoise waters along the ocean’s edge at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside, the green crab has been busily ripping up seabeds and undermining the ecosystem since it arrived in the early 1990s.
The full impact of its presence wasn’t appreciated until 2009, when Parks Canada began noticing parts of the seaside were different or missing.
The most glaring ecological change was the disappearance of the eelgrass, which bloomed in bright green meadows underwater. When the tides were low, biologists noticed something else: thousands of clam shells littered the mud flats, looking as though they had been attacked by nail clippers.
To combat the problem, Parks Canada began catching green crab for six months of the year. Every day, they went out in rowboats and dropped 140 modified shrimp traps into the blue-green water; every day, when they hauled in the traps, they were overflowing with green crabs. In this way, they removed over one million green crabs between 2010 and 2014. “Our eelgrass returned in spades. Today, we are back up to 36 per cent of the historic extent for Keji Seaside,” says Gabrielle Beaulieu, manager for the coastal restoration and resilience project at Parks Canada, who has been working with students and collaborating with stakeholders to defend seagrass from the crab for the last five years. In 2017 Parks Canada created a hot spot strategy, which continues to maintain the population, catching 15 crabs per trap and using only 30 traps.
Despite these efforts, the green crabs persist. Parks Canada, far from discouraged, has been thinking outside of the box in terms of seizing the culinary opportunity. They have also been working with McGill University to transform crab shells into a biodegradable plastic and Dalhousie University to create a concentrated fertilizer.
In the places where green crab originated, along the coast of Spain and Portugal and in the Mediterranean, green crab are treated as a delicacy.
In Italy, for example, green crab trapped during their brief soft-shell moulting phase can sell for €40 a pound.
Drowned in egg batter and dipped in corn flour, the small crustaceans are served deep-fried in a dish known as moeche or moleche.
In Nova Scotia, green crab aren’t as prized—at least, not yet. Chef Paolo Colbertaldo, originally from Venice and now the owner of Lincoln Street Food in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, has cooked with the green crab, which he describes as tasting “shellfishy.” He recently served it with sweet potatoes in a soup, and has also made a fish sauce from it.
“The mentality for using invasive species is different in Italy, they just use it,” says Colbertaldo. He says the challenge of introducing green crab as a delicacy to Nova Scotia lies in the difficulty of harvesting the moulting ones, because “the green crab is a mean little bugger.” Still, Colbertaldo intends to use the crustaceans whenever he can get his hands on them.
I am going to make a soup with them, and top them with a scallop or corn and wild mushroom dumpling. That kind of stuff.
— Paolo Colbertaldo
Acadian lobster fisherman Lucien LeBlanc is skeptical of a market emerging for green crab, given their small size. While they have some utility as springtime bait, he mainly wants to see them gone. “Considering the green crab is an invasive species that is quite harsh on its local environ‑ment, I personally feel the more they can be fished and removed from the ocean, the more our local species will thrive,” he says.
LeBlanc is holding out for a more high-tech solution, like the project being developed at McGill University in Montréal. Dr. Audrey Moores’ green chemistry lab is attempting to make plastic cutlery and cups from a chitin (a type of protein) found in the shell of green crabs.
This past winter, Moores and her team extracted chitin from the green crab, and are currently taking the next steps to turn it into a degradable plastic material.
“If we can remove this invasive species and in return make a plastic product that could be used in a variety of situations, that would be a win-win for most who make their living on the ocean,” says LeBlanc.
Whatever solution emerges as the best way to make the most of the green crab, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is, for better and for worse, the ideal place to find it.
“Every biosphere means there is something special about that place,” says David Sollows, chair of the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve. But what ties them together is the commitment to combining Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific approaches promoting biodiversity and creating sustainable opportunities that will endure for generations.
In both the Bras d’Or Lake and Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserves, Indigenous knowledge-keepers, chefs, parks employees, ecologists, fishers, and community members are coming together to protect their ecosystems for future generations. We can’t turn back the clock, but through collaborative approaches like these, we can find new harmonies with nature in our changing world.
To learn more about how traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge and western science are being used to bring oysters back to the Bras d’Or Lake, or more about how the people of the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve innovate new ways to deal with invasive green crabs, check out Episode 4 and Episode 9 of Striking Balance, a TVO original documentary.
Beaver Hills, AB
Bison in the Balance
The Beaver Hills Biosphere has a wolf problem: there aren’t enough of them. That’s bad for an ecosystem dominated by bison and elk, who need natural predators to properly fill their vital biological niche. But restoring carnivores to the parks and protecting the world’s most important bison herd means striking a delicate balance between drawing more visitors and minimizing disturbance to the wildlife.
TEXT Matthew Stepanic PHOTOS Ramsey Kunkel
If you were hiking the trails of Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Park or Elk Island National Park in mid-June of 2021, you may have encountered Cat Fauvelle huddled in the bushes. Along with a team of volunteers, the university researcher spent the better part of the month installing dozens of cameras to track the movements of carnivores and ungulates like elk and bison.
Fauvelle always carries bear spray at her side when she’s working in the parks, but these days, the risk of needing it is low. Local wildlife populations are off balance: there are too many grazers and not enough hunters.
Fauvelle aims to figure out why. Her research poses critical questions about the way that human activity affects fine-tuned ecosystems inside the UNESCO Beaver Hills Biosphere, a specially designated area that encompasses the two parks east of Edmonton, Alberta, as well as farms, residential neighbourhoods, and industrial zones. Have predators reacted negatively to the pandemic-related increase in visitors to the parks? Is neighbouring development disturbing their habitual patterns? Her discoveries will inform the delicate dynamic between the biosphere’s protected areas and the humans who live nearby, as local ecologists strive to invite more participation in the parks while still respecting nature’s limits.
Taking care of where you live
Back in 2001, the leadership at Elk Island National Park grew concerned about the effect that nearby property development was having on its natural ecosystems. The biosphere depends on a healthy buffer zone surrounding the parks, as noise from nearby refineries, farms, or suburbs could disturb the wildlife and force them to move inward, causing overcrowding. Given its proximity to the city of Edmonton, as well as a busy oil and gas hub known as Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, the park needed help defending against too much encroachment.
Local municipalities were the first to respond, prompting the provincial and federal governments to throw in their support as well, along with NGOs and the University of Alberta. Soon, all of these parties were working together to better protect the region, through land-use regulations and educational programs about the intrinsic value of the local ecology. They called it the Beaver Hills Initiative, and in 2016 the area received a UNESCO Biosphere designation.
“It’s a label that’s put on your community that says you must be doing a good job of taking care of where you live,” says Strathcona County Councillor Glen Lawrence.
Lawrence celebrated the announcement by getting a tattoo of the Beaver Hills logo on his arm. “I’m not a piercing or a tattoo guy, but I was born and grew up here, and now when I’m away, I have a little piece of it with me.”
A refuge for bison
Shaped by ancient glaciers, the landscape and ecological features of the Beaver Hills Biosphere shift and change dramatically as you travel through it, from boreal forest to mucky wetlands to rolling grasslands. All that variation has led to “a significantly different suite of critters that live and move through the region,” says Beaver Hills executive director Brian Ilnicki.
Two of the biosphere’s most important denizens are the plains bison and wood bison, which are kept on separate sides of Highway 16 to preserve their genetic purity. A century ago, bison were brought to near extinction by European settlers, and only a small herd of about 45 animals remained in the world. The survivors were brought to Elk Island National Park, and they have thrived there ever since.
The bison are indispensable to maintaining and restoring prairie grasslands, in part through (adorable) behaviours like taking dust baths. By rolling in the dirt to help shed their winter coat or relieve an itch, they aerate the soil, which aids in plant growth and spreads seeds.
Their fur is also ideal for birds’ nests, as its scent masks the eggs from predators. The loose brown tufts shed by the bison have helped foster a healthy songbird population in the biosphere.
They’re also one of the biggest draws for visitors to the park. Fortunate visitors who’ve timed it right will join the line of cars pulled over to watch a herd of bison cross the Bison Loop with calves in tow, or they may encounter an old loner taking a moment to himself on the side of the road. Weighing between 1,500 and 2,500 pounds — perhaps as much as the car you drove to see them — these animals may look fluffy and sedate, but they can be deadly when aggravated.
The bison’s historic brush with extinction has created a false impression that the species remains threatened today, says Jonathan DeMoor, a Parks Canada ecologist who works closely with the bison populations. “It often gets phrased like, ‘We need to protect the bison.’ The problem is they’re doing too well inside of the park. It’s a productive ecosystem, so there’s lots of food for them and a low density of predators.”
The park’s drive to address overpopulation has coincided fruitfully with cultural reclamation efforts by Indigenous peoples across the world. “One of the points of pride about the Elk Island herd is that both populations are free of any cattle gene integration, which makes them ideal candidates to start new herds in other places,” DeMoor says.
Since the program began in 1924, Elk Island has transferred over 2,600 bison to Indigenous communities with strong relationships to the animal, such as the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, who received 87 in 2016.
The handover process takes about a year, to give recipients time to prepare. “It’s about restoring the cultural connection with the communities and restoring the connection of having bison back on their land,” says DeMoor.
Although bison are one of the biggest success stories for the biosphere, other animal populations, such as elk, moose, and especially wolves, are just as important. Elk are an easier catch for a wolf, but if they work together in a pack and are patient, they can manage to take down bison, one of North America’s largest land mammals. The park is hoping to rebuild predator populations in order to control the overabundance of bison and other large ungulates like elk, who are able to jump the fence around Elk Island and often return with diseases picked up while visiting neighbouring feedlots.
A higher predator population can help prevent these problems, but so far, that hasn’t panned out. Some unexplained ecological issue is preventing predators from returning to the kind of numbers that are needed. This is where Cat Fauvelle’s research might make the difference.
“Carnivores are really good at recolonizing areas, even after they've been excavated or removed. But they're not really doing that; they're taking a really long time to recolonize in these areas. So we're trying to figure out why.”
— Cat Fauvelle
To monitor the carnivore and ungulate populations, Fauvelle and her team have set up 49 cameras around the biosphere to capture images of passing wildlife and, hopefully, discover what barriers are preventing their movements. Wolves and other carnivores tend to use the path of least resistance, Fauvelle says, and so many of the camera spots can be conveniently placed along walking trails.
The cameras are triggered by motion-detection sensors and are set up to take as many pictures as possible. “I’ll be back in August to do a preliminary sweep of the cameras to see if we’re getting what we want,” says Fauvelle. “In the two months they’re up, I’ll probably have a couple hundred thousand photos to go through.”
Kelsie Norton, who does outreach work for Beaver Hills and helped organize volunteers to assist in the project, says they’re hoping to answer critical questions about the carnivores’ movements: Are the corridors and highways an issue? Are they changing their behaviour around humans? Will the recent increase in visitors affect these trends?
Fauvelle’s project also caught the interest of people in the surrounding community, Norton says. When the call went out for volunteers to help her set up cameras, eight volunteers signed up immediately, and many more had to be turned away. Volunteers have been integral to the life of the biosphere, whether assisting researchers or turning up for weekend weed pulls. “We build awareness and build opportunities for people who want to get involved in sustaining a unique landscape,” Brian Ilnicki explains.
The park saw record numbers of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the increased interest in the biosphere isn’t all positive. Visitors can easily add stress to the ecosystem by leaving messes and disturbing the wildlife by getting too close or making a lot of noise. “It’s great to have more people experience the park, but from an ecologist’s perspective, it’s another issue that’s affecting the integrity of the park,” says DeMoor, who acknowledges he’s sometimes tempted “to kick out the people and take down the fences.” But he also knows the importance of direct contact with nature.
“What inspired me to do this work was going to Elk Island as a kid. It’s a part of what Elk Island is doing a great job of: introducing people to the biosphere.”
— Jonathan DeMoor
The long history of conservation in the Beaver Hills Biosphere gives Lawrence hope for its future. “I look back on those people who had the goodwill to preserve those last 45 bison,” he says. “I hope I’m a part of that and that the people coming here will value and protect this area for future generations. Let’s leave this place better than we found it. Let’s prove we value nature, because what we do to nature we do to ourselves.”
To learn more about how the people in the Beaver Hills Biosphere are uniting to keep local ecosystems intact, check out Episode 7 of Striking Balance, a TVO original documentary.
Georgian Bay, ON
A Snake’s Worth
Around the Georgian Bay in Ontario, it has long been common to kill massasauga rattlesnakes on sight. But decades of public education have taught locals to share the land more mindfully with this ecologically important species. Now, the arrival of a highway through critical habitat has sparked a new wave of care and investment to preserve this threatened snake.
TEXT & PHOTOS Laurence Butet-Roch
In a nook formed by three suitcase-sized rocks, a stout grey snake with dark brown bowtie-shaped patches is coiled, basking in a sunbeam. The female rattlesnake has selected this prime piece of real estate facing Georgian Bay in Ontario as her gestation site. For most of the summer, she will pass her days lying on, around, or underneath this trio of banded dark- and light-coloured rocks, regulating her temperature as she bears her young.
“Once they’re born, in late July or early August, after about a week with them, she’ll leave to go on a feeding frenzy because she has to gain her weight back up before hibernation,” explains Glenda Clayton, the former species-at-risk coordinator for the Georgian Bay Biosphere. She’s standing a metre away from the snake, making sure that her tall frame doesn’t cast a shadow on the pregnant mother enjoying the warm rays of the sun.
For over a decade, with great patience and good humour, Clayton has been teaching the public about the province’s only venomous snake, earning herself the nickname “the snake lady.” Now retired, she still jumps at any opportunity to dispel persistent myths about the danger they pose and even convince her audience to celebrate their presence upon the landscape.
Spanning 347,269 hectares on the eastern coast of Georgian Bay from Port Severn to French River, the Georgian Bay Biosphere is home to 20,000 people, 840 native plant species, 170 breeds of birds, 44 different kinds of mammals, and 34 types of reptiles and amphibians. Fifty of these species are at risk, including the massasauga rattlesnake. The region, with its mix of heat-absorbing rock barrens, wetlands, and moderate climate, is exactly what the massausagas need to breed and survive cold Canadian winters. Today, it is one of the last remaining habitats in the country for the threatened ophidian. And their numbers have dwindled. The once-prevalent snake used to turn up commonly, especially in the evenings; now they can only be found after a careful search.
Hearts and minds
The Georgian Bay isn’t just a haven for rattlesnakes — it’s also a hot spot for tourists, cottagers, and year-round residents, thanks to its revered landscape, which famously inspired the Group of Seven, and its proximity to Toronto. It’s an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive on a widened highway, with the exception of an 85 km single-lane stretch in the region’s north.
The project to expand Highway 400, which runs from Toronto to Sudbury and is part of the Trans-Canada network, dates back to the late 1980s and has progressed sector by sector ever since. In 2020 Ontario’s provincial government reaffirmed its commitment to improving connectivity with the north of the province to improve public safety, reliable transportation, and economic opportunity. But the proposed route, which would run alongside the current one, would alter important habitats for many species at risk, including the massasauga rattlesnake.
Given the stakes, the general manager of the Georgian Bay Biosphere, Greg Mason, argues that “we need to ask ourselves why we are so intent on building a four-lane freeway. There’s definitely an irony in wanting to come here to enjoy the beauty of the environment, but requiring the convenience of a twinned highway.”
Encouraging locals and authorities to rethink their habits is key to the organization’s effort to foster more harmony between the area’s human and animal inhabitants.
The UNESCO Biosphere designation doesn’t come with any jurisdictional power; rather, it creates a soft form of influence that stems from their public outreach and the networks they create. “Having authority is not necessary,” says Mason. “Rules can only get you so far. You still need to bring people’s hearts and minds on board.”
Its value is its presence
Up until the 1970s, concern for the venomous snake was largely non-existent. Even in protected areas like Killbear Provincial Park, rangers would promptly kill them, fearing that they would trouble visitors. As a result of this persecution, as well as the destruction and fragmentation of their habitats for roads, cottages, and other development, their numbers dwindled to the point that they could disappear if nothing is done to reverse the trend.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” reflects Richard Noganosh, an Elder at Magnetawan First Nation, an Ojibwe community on the southern shores of Byng Inlet. “Every year something goes missing. But a lot of people don’t notice. I haven’t seen a killdeer yet this year, and very few butterflies. It scares me. All of it is here for a reason. Snakes are here for a reason.” Crucially, massasaugas help keep rodent populations down and provide sustenance for herons, hawks, and eagles.
“Is that the end-all and be-all?” asks Glenda Clayton, who drives an electric vehicle with a sticker that reads: “I Brake for Turtles and Snakes.” “No. This is its home, its habitat. They are an integral part of the landscape. I’m a firm believer that its value is its presence.”
Over the years, the Georgian Bay Biosphere and its partners have sought to convey that sense of the snake’s intrinsic worth, beginning with how to live side by side with them. The first step is to address misconceptions about how dangerous they are. “They’re not vicious. In fact, they’re humble beings,” says Tianna Burke, who replaced Clayton as species-at-risk coordinator when she retired in September 2017. “This makes it very easy to share the landscape with them. We just need to pay more attention.”
The key to preventing a rattlesnake bite is to watch where we’re stepping and be aware of our surroundings. Massasaugas are not aggressive creatures. They rely on camouflage and stillness to avoid predators, will rattle if one gets too close, and will only bite if it’s absolutely necessary. “They are more scared of you,” reminds Noganosh in a soft voice. “That’s why the Creator gave them a rattle to use as a signal; so people who aren’t paying attention wouldn’t step on them.”
For the Ojibwe Elder, the reminder to be more mindful in nature aligns with the creature’s role in the world. Snake is a protector who warns us when we consume too much. “I was always told to just take what you need and leave the rest for others,” he adds, pausing to let the teaching sink in.
Fidelity to home
At the moment, work on widening the stretch of highway that cuts across the northern part of the Biosphere has been halted as the Ministry of Transportation negotiates with First Nations along the way. In the meantime, stakeholders within the Georgian Bay Biosphere are using the interlude to learn more about the behaviours of the massasaugas.
This work is already producing useful data. Studies conducted between 2012 and 2015 by Ron Black, an affable wildlife biologist long employed by the Ministry of National Resources, demonstrated that massasaugas are incredibly loyal to their homes. Year after year, they return to the same hibernaculum and gestation rock, even when moved away or when a barrier, such as a road, stands in their way. “This shows just how valuable the habitat is. You can’t destroy it lightly,” says Black. The low 15.8 per cent success rate of this experiment suggests that multiple rounds of relocation would be necessary to offset the impacts of the proposed construction.
This growing evidence of massasaugas’ site fidelity might compel conservationists to change their approach. Exclusion fencing that prevents the snakes from travelling to their preferred spots, or moving them even just a few metres for our convenience, might actually lead to a slow death, as they will continue to try to return to their home.
In light of these findings, staff from the Georgian Bay Biosphere, Scales Nature Park, and Magnetawan First Nation, among others, continue to walk the land, eyes peeled for the rock formations that massasaugas are fond of. They use long hooks to tap around them lightly, waiting to hear the distinctive rattle. When a snake is found, it is measured, weighed, tagged (either with a small passive integrated transponder or by painting one of the rattles), photographed, and geolocated. Along the way, they give names to some of the rattlesnakes they find. Meghan Britt, who began working this spring as a field technician with Scales Nature Park, a centre focused on the conservation of Canadian reptiles and amphibians within Ontario, called her first found specimen “Megatron,” inspiring a trend of Transformer-inspired names like Bumblebee, Ratchet, and Starscream.
Aside from finding strategies to mitigate the effects of road construction, organizations like the Georgian Bay Biosphere also want homeowners to think of massasaugas when designing their vacation eden. We can reimagine what landscaping looks like, says Clayton. Rather than moving the table rocks favoured by the rattlesnakes and seeding a lawn, she recommends only clearing a narrow path that would allow you to see where you’re stepping. “But for the rest, leave it undisturbed for the animals.”
Massasauga rattlesnakes teach us about how to be good guests, says Hope Hill, who came from Six Nations to Magnetawan First Nation to work with the species-at-risk team this summer: “This is their home, so we need to give them the care and respect that they’ve shown us in allowing us to enjoy their homes.”
To learn more about how the people of Georgian Bay are mitigating the impact of increasing numbers of cottagers and a new four-lane highway on the region’s endangered species, check out Episode 5 of Striking Balance, a TVO original documentary.
Lac Saint-Pierre, QC
The Yellow Perch in the Meadow
The links between grasslands and bodies of water are stronger than you’d think. In the Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve, farmers and conservation communities work together to rehabilitate the health of the yellow perch population.
TEXT Émilie Folie-Boivin PHOTOS Drowster
Although a few cottages on stilts can be found in Baie-du-Febvre, no one builds their house at the water’s edge. In the area surrounding Lake Saint-Pierre in Québec, nearly every spring brings a flood so intense it doubles the surface area of the lake.
For a period of nearly two months, many fish use the flooded fields to reproduce. Yellow perch is one such species: in mid-April, they cross the treeline, swim a few kilometres, then wrap their strings of eggs around submerged vegetation.
This species is part of a completely unique ecosystem — one that enriches human communities as well. Farmers cultivate rich, life-supporting soil; sport and commercial fisherfolk and hunters feed themselves; vacationers wander through picture-postcard landscapes which host a flourishing tourism industry. What’s more, yellow perch are intimately linked to the Abenaki peoples’ way of life.
But the yellow perch population dropped by 79 per cent between 1979 and 2019, while everywhere else in the province, stocks are doing very well. In other words: the yellow perch in Lake Saint-Pierre are in trouble.
One of the main reasons the shoreline of Lake Saint-Pierre is so exceptional is because of its freshwater flood plain — the largest of its kind in Québec. In addition to a refuge for fish to reproduce, it provides a generous food supply for the fish larvae, which emerge hungry for small invertebrates. The warm, shallow waters of this 32 km long lake contribute to the efflorescence of ample aquatic meadows that are home to an entire ecosystem. In total, 288 species of birds, 79 species of fish, and 24 species of amphibians and reptiles, many of them endangered or vulnerable, frequent this area halfway between Montréal and Québec City. (Not to mention 85,000 human residents, enormous cargo vessels, and several factories.)
This remarkable archipelago — including about a hundred small islands — is a jewel of our environmental heritage. Since 2000 it has been classified as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO; it has also been designated as a “Ramsar site,” a wetland of international importance. This title makes the lake a subject of particular interest, explains Henri-Paul Normandin, spokesperson for the biosphere and former Canadian ambassador. “It’s a little treasure that attracts international attention. We plan to use this to raise awareness and to mobilize the local community as well as other levels of government. Because global issues around biodiversity are also local issues. And what we’re doing—or not doing—on the local scale has an impact on the entire planet.”
Lake Saint-Pierre also acts as a purifying station for the waters of the St. Lawrence. For example, when Montréal dumped large amounts of sewage into the river, it was filtered by the web of marshes. It’s been proven that the water comes out cleaner near Trois-Rivières than it was at Sorel-Tracy.
“The lake acts like a kidney for the St. Lawrence,” says Philippe Brodeur, a biologist for the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife, and Parks. “But the kidney is tired — visibly tired.” This exhaustion is visible in the plight of the yellow perch, veritable canaries in the coal mine.
Toward a more sustainable agriculture
Fisherfolk and farmers have been passing the buck for a long time about the deteriorating health of the yellow perch. “[In the late 1980s and early 1990s], yellow perch fishing was still continuing aggressively, even though their numbers were already in decline,” says Philippe Brodeur, standing in brilliant sunlight. “The landed volume surpassed 300 tons annually in the lake.” At the time, the habitats were able to support this frenetic pace, but low reproduction rates soon made the fishery unsustainable. And in spite of the 2012 moratorium on sport and commercial fishing (which has been extended until 2022), the health of this bioindicator species has remained fragile.
It became clear that the intensive farming of corn and soy in the flood plains — rather than the traditional cultivation of mainly hay and pasture land — had a lot to do with it. The autumn harvest leaves the ground bare, and the yellow perch have nothing to attach their eggs to. When the snow melts, sediments and pesticides stream out all the way to the shores, causing turbidity in the water.
The situation is worrisome enough that a panoply of defenders are showing up to protect Lake Saint-Pierre. Several million dollars have been invested in restoring habitats on the flood plain, as well as upstream from the shoreline. One of the goals is to put sustainable agricultural practices in place.
To plant a prairie
Anne Vanasse is a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at University Laval, and co-head of the multidisciplinary pole of expertise for sustainable management of the Lake Saint-Pierre shoreline. For the past three years, she and her team have been collaborating with farmers to test various sustainable agriculture initiatives. Claude Lefebvre, a dairy farmer and mayor of Baie-du-Febvre, is one such farmer. “It’s always the farmers’ fault!” he shrugs, with kind eyes. “But yes, we are aware that we are part of the problem.”
On the land where he grew up in the 1950s, Lefebvre is now trying to establish a meadow of reed canary grass — a perennial plant that’s very resistant to floods because of its extensive root system, making it an ideal refuge for several species. The researchers are banking on this plant (and a few other strategies) to re-establish habitat for the yellow perch. Unfortunately, it’s a fodder that tends to be unattractive to growers; it’s very fibrous, contains little protein, and is not very appetizing for cattle. With his 400-head dairy farm, Lefebvre still sees it as an opportunity worth seizing.
“The goal is to have a market for this plant; for us, we’ll use it to feed our dry cows [on lactation rest before a new calving], because they don’t need to have a diet that’s too rich during this time.”
— CLAUDE LEFEBVRE
You might think it would be easy to naturalize grassland with plants this hardy, but major floods in 2019 and 2020 delayed seeding, and the farmer worries that the reed canary grass will fail to become established this year because of an exceptionally dry summer. Fortunately, Lefebvre has a quality in common with the planet: resilience.
Other possible solutions are being explored. In monocultured areas, Vanasse and her team are studying intercropping, which consists of sowing, for example, raygrass between rows of corn, and winter wheat or lotus in soy fields. These herbaceous plants may not help the yellow perch habitat directly, but once the harvest is cut, they create a carpet that reduces soil erosion and may help slow sediment runoff into the lake.
“It’s always the farmers’ fault!” he shrugs, with kind eyes. “But yes, we are aware that we are part of the problem.”
— CLAUDE LEFEBVRE
Another initiative currently under study consists of establishing permanent, four-metre-wide bands near ditches on arable land, to provide the fish with something to attach their eggs to.
A return to hay
For more than 30 years, Laurent Brissette has owned land near a magnificent string of small islands, in Saint-Ignace-de-Loyola. It’s one of the spots where the lake resembles the Louisiana bayou.
After growing soybeans (“We had to use a lot of herbicides and pesticides for it to be profitable, and I didn’t like that,” says Brissette on the phone), this “gentleman farmer” returned to his roots and began to grow hay, just like the first generations of farmers on the flood plains. Alone, he worked hard to bring back the wildlife, reconnecting bits of stagnant marsh by hand. “I even managed to make a ditch for fish with a pickaxe. It took five hours!” he adds, and his pride resounds all the way to Montréal. For his retirement, he wanted to see this place become a protected area — a dream that was realized with help from the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).
In 2020 this non-profit organization (NPO) took possession of 12 hectares belonging to Brissette. The NCC is one of the organizations that actively contributes to the protection of the yellow perch habitat in Lake Saint-Pierre, acquiring land to preserve it over the long term and to encourage environmentally responsible agriculture. “People think that when we restore the ecological functions [of a place], there’s no room left for humans, but this isn’t true. We do it for the wildlife, but also to promote economic activity that anyone can support — not just to allow a handful of owners of monoculture farms to make a buck,” says the expressive Julien Poisson, program director at the NCC.
Today, Brissette’s land teems with life thanks to the combined efforts of the farmer and the NPO. Ducks and farmland birds nest between the milkweed and tall grass. The NCC has plans to further diversify the plants as well. “For the yellow perch, we already have a 95 per cent gain. Before, they had stopped coming here, and now, it’s a veritable fish nursery!” says Poisson, a biologist by training.
The state of the yellow perch is still concerning in the Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve; the battle is not over. But encouraging improvements are taking place on the local scale.
It always takes time to change people’s minds, but despite a few pockets of resistance, the farming community is decidedly in problem-solving mode now. “The community might not have been ready 10 years ago, but now, it’s ready. I know a few reluctant ones who didn’t want anything to do with a gang of biologists and have now changed their way of thinking. We’re conscious of what’s been lost,” says Claude Lefebvre. “That said, if these lands [on the flood plain] weren’t farmed, we’d have to cultivate elsewhere. Who’ll feed us? Brazil? We’re trying to limit our impact on the environment as much as possible, but can we still farm while improving the lot of the yellow perch? That’s what remains to be seen,” concludes the optimistic farmer.
To learn more about how the people of Québec’s Lac Saint-Pierre region are taking creative steps to restore the lake to its former glory, check out Episode 6 of Striking Balance, a TVO original documentary
Established in 1957, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO serves as a bridge between Canadians and the vital work of UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 1978, Canada’s first Biosphere Reserve received UNESCO status. UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are special sites for conserving biodiversity and cultivating interdisciplinary learning to tackle some of the most complex challenges facing the world. Today, there are 18 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves across Canada, encompassing 235,000 square kilometres. These sites help promote long-term environmental sustain- ability and improve the quality of life of over 2.3 million Canadians and more than 50 First Nations.
Chapter 01: Southwest Nova & Bras d’Or
TEXT: Shannon Webb-Campbell
PHOTOS :Catherine Bernier
Chapter 02: Beaver Hills, AB
TEXT: Matthew Stepanic
PHOTOS: Ramsey Kunkel
Chapter 03: Georgian Bay, ON
TEXT & PHOTOS: Laurence Butet-Roch
Chapter 04 : Lac Saint-Pierre, QC
TEXT: Émilie Folie-Boivin
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