Road Ecology Working Group

Your good driving habits can help protect Species at Risk

Painting of a Blanding’s Turtle being carried across a road while a snake, frog and snapping turtle wait their turn, by Long Point artist Cindy Presant. Photo: ECCC.

The network of roads that crisscross Southern Ontario is constantly growing as development expands. While these roads are important in our daily lives, they alter the landscape and have a significant impact on biodiversity.

“Roads are a primary threat for many species,” says Mandy Karch, Executive Director of the Ontario Road Ecology Group (OREG) and chair of the Road Ecology Working Group. Apart from mortality due to collisions, roads fragment and alter the habitats they cut through and cause pollution from things like exhaust, chemicals, and road salt, as well as light and noise pollution. Wildlife such as turtles and snakes are often drawn to roads to bask on the surface due to the heat that roads absorb and because of nesting substrate found on road shoulders, putting them at increased danger to be hit.

Norfolk County was selected as a Priority Place largely due to the well-known biodiversity here, and some of its most significant Species at Risk, primarily turtles and other reptiles and amphibians, directly feel the impact from roads and traffic.

Altering road infrastructure to consider the local ecology is an important step to reduce wildlife mortality and habitat fragmentation. The Long Point Causeway Improvement Project, which began back in 2006, involved installing 4.5 kilometers of exclusion fencing to keep wildlife off the roads and special culverts to allow them to pass safely under the road. Researchers have found these measures led to nearly 89 percent fewer turtles making it onto the causeway. Because of the clear success of this project in reducing road mortality of wildlife, the Road Ecology Working Group is looking to install infrastructure at other hotspots in the Priority Place.

There are also a lot of individual actions anyone can do anytime they drive to help.

“The public is a key partner in determining how roads and traffic affect biodiversity,” says Karch. “Motorist behaviour, such as driving speed and attentiveness, tremendously influences whether or not a wildlife/vehicle collision will occur.”

Karch lists some important ways you can help keep wildlife safe while driving:

  • Watch for wildlife, especially when driving on roads that bisect wetland, forest, or field habitat
  • Don’t litter! Even biodegradable food items pose a risk as they draw wildlife to the roadside to feed, putting them in danger of a collision
  • If you stop to help a turtle cross the road, always move it in the direction it is heading, and only when safe for you and other motorists. Use a car mat or blanket for snapping turtles if you’re unsure how to handle them, and never lift a turtle by its tail.
  • Watch for wildlife crossing signs and obey speed limits. Sufficient reaction time is key to safely avoiding collision with wildlife.

One structure, two purposes: How well-planned infrastructure can address both biodiversity protection and climate change adaptation goals

Road ecology, the study of the interactions between the environment and roads, offers important land-use planning tools which can help adapt to the effects of climate change.

Climate change is a global issue, which often makes it feel like actions taken locally or individually are insignificant. In reality, we are experiencing the effects on a global and local scale. Even local or small-scale mitigation techniques and technologies can have a cumulative impact.

The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are connected. Biodiversity loss – for example, loss of forested land or wetlands – results in emissions of greenhouse gases. Healthy ecosystems, such as wetlands, can help reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by capturing and holding onto carbon. Not only that, but wetlands, such as those found around Norfolk County, can also help buffer the effects of weather events. They can store flood water, recharge creeks during a drought, stop storm surges, and provide fire breaks. But healthy ecosystems require species diversity to properly function.

The Road Ecology Working Group is collaborating to protect biodiversity in the Priority Place by mitigating road mortality, which results in installing road infrastructure such as fencing and culverts to both prevent wildlife from being on the roads and to enable them to move through their habitat at safe locations.

A turtle using a culvert, allowing it to move through its habitat without the danger of being on a road. Photo: Rick Levick.

While these infrastructure options help mitigate the threats of roads to Species at Risk, they also have the opportunity to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The same culverts which allow species to move under the roads can also help accommodate increased water flows from extreme weather events. These extreme weather events are occurring at an increasing frequency due to climate change.

“Biodiversity-led infrastructure serves multiple objectives and achieves safe, efficient transportation for residents and visitors across the County,” says Mandy Karch, Chair of the Road Ecology Working group in the LPWF. “As municipalities assess infrastructure and plan for climate change adaptation strategies, considering road ecology principles and practices are integral to completing an economically and ecologically responsible process.”

With this in mind, the Road Ecology Working Group is looking for ways to include wildlife and Species at Risk planning that align with projects or upgrades for Norfolk County road plans. They compare where road upgrades are already needed in Norfolk County with wildlife crossing hotspots in order to recommend road mortality mitigation infrastructure to be included in these upgrades.

This method of allocating funds to install and maintain infrastructure will help preserve biodiversity and mitigate local climate change impacts, and as Mandy Karch says, is data-informed and both economically and ecologically responsible.

Be a citizen scientist in the Priority Place

Driving down roads can provide good opportunities to see wildlife. Unfortunately, these sightings sometimes occur as roadkill.

Some species may be attracted to roads to feed, bask, or nest, which puts animals, especially slow-moving animals such as turtles and snakes, at risk of a collision. The Priority Place is home to many Species at Risk whose populations are decreasing as a result of these collisions.

No single agency is able to monitor the vast road network found in Norfolk County, and this is where the public can play an important part by reporting wildlife or wildlife-vehicle collisions.

“When the public reports wildlife/road interaction sightings (alive or dead), these data can be used to inform and prioritize mitigation strategies that improve the landscape for safe transportation and wildlife protection,” says Mandy Karch.

“Concerned residents are dedicated to resolving road ecology issues and help protect local wildlife populations by reporting observed wildlife/road interactions. Surveying a road or simply reporting an opportunistic sighting all contributes important data that helps prioritize and inform the mitigation process and responsible spending of mitigation dollars. This form of data collection is called Citizen Science,” explains Karch. “Citizen Science is volunteer-based ecological monitoring that plays a key role in successful conservation initiatives.”

Citizen science is a great way for the community to be a part of conservation actions and help shape the landscape for safe wildlife movement.

The best way the public can help is to report your sightings to iNaturalist, a nation-wide citizen science wildlife reporting platform, to the Wildlife on Roads in Ontario project at https://inaturalist.ca/projects/wildlife-on-roads-in-ontario.

If you’re interested in doing more as a citizen scientist in Ontario’s Priority Place, please contact project partner Kari at Eco-Kare International. Email: wildlifeonroads@eco-kare.com; call or text 705-933-8430.

Norfolk County resident John Everett safely helping a turtle cross the road near Big Creek marsh.

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