Introducing the Long Point Walsingham Forest Priority Place

Ontario’s Priority Place for Species at Risk conservation

Located on the north shore of Lake Erie, Norfolk County is renowned for its fertile agricultural land, forests, beaches and coastal dunes, tallgrass communities and wetlands. The vision for the LPWF Priority Place is to create healthy, resilient, and connected ecosystems that support biodiversity, productive landscapes, and a thriving community. Photo: Leanne Gauthier-Helmer.

In August 2017, Long Point Walsingham Forest (LPWF) was selected by the federal government as Ontario’s priority place for species at risk conservation. Located entirely within Norfolk County, LPWF is 86,715 hectares large and includes the longest freshwater sand spit in the world, Long Point. Long Point is an internationally recognized Ramsar site (wetlands of international importance), an international Monarch Butterfly Reserve, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and the first globally significant Important Bird Area in Canada. LPWF also includes the Norfolk Forest Complex, which is also recognized as an Important Bird Area. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in the Long Point area.

While LPWF makes up less than 1% of Canada’s total land area, it was selected as Ontario’s priority place for the following reasons:

  • its high concentration of biodiversity, including over 80 species at risk;
  • the significant threats to its biodiversity; and
  • its highly engaged local conservation community.

The land cover in LPWF includes agriculture, forests, beaches and coastal dunes, tallgrass communities, and wetlands. LPWF has retained much of its natural integrity due to the conservation and stewardship initiatives spearheaded by private landowners, conservation authorities, not-for-profit organizations, and government. This conservation community has been addressing the numerous threats affecting species at risk and their habitats in LPWF. These threats include land use changes, fire suppression, roads, and invasive species.

Boundaries of the Long Point Walsingham Forest Priority Place.

What is a “Priority Place” anyway?

In Budget 2018, the Government of Canada invested a historic $1.35 billion to support work with other governments, Indigenous groups, non-profit organizations, and others in nature conservation. This funding will support Canada in reaching its biodiversity goals, which are to protect a quarter of its lands and a quarter of its oceans by 2025, to create healthier habitats for species at risk, and to improve its natural environment.

The federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, has agreed to implement the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. This new approach will shift from a single-species conservation approach to one that focuses on multiple species and ecosystems. Efforts will be concentrated on priority places, species, sectors and threats across Canada, thus enabling conservation partners to work together and achieve better outcomes for species at risk.

A portion of this funding supports conservation efforts in 11 priority places identified across Canada. Priority places are areas with significant biodiversity, concentrations of species at risk, and opportunities to advance conservation efforts. In each priority place, the federal and provincial or territorial governments will collaborate with partners to develop and implement a conservation action plan coordinating actions to address the greatest threats to species at risk. Such actions include habitat stewardship, habitat restoration, and education and outreach.

The Long Point Walsingham Forest Priority Place Collaborative

The LPWF Collaborative is a partnership of over twenty non-government and government organizations that are committed to improve biodiversity conservation in LPWF through the coordinated identification and implementation of priority conservation actions. The Collaborative has developed an Integrated Conservation Action Plan (ICAP) which identifies the highest priority actions for improving ecosystem health and conserving species at risk.  The knowledge and expertise of the Collaborative is integral to fulfilling the vision of the LPWF ICAP, which is to create healthy, resilient and connected ecosystems that support biodiversity, productive landscapes and a thriving community.

Within the Collaborative, there are five subset committees called “working groups”. Each working group is implementing conservation actions that address priority threats to species at risk and their habitats. The priority threats and important habitats and species include:

  • Threats: Roads, Invasive species, Agricultural Runoff, Fire Suppression and Logging and Wood Harvesting
  • Important Habitats and Species: Coastal Wetlands and Inner Bay, Open Country, Forests and Treed Swamps, Watercourses and Riparian Areas and Amphibians and Reptiles

Environment and Climate Change Canada has invested approximately $4.5 million in federal funding to conservation projects in LPWF from 2018-2021. The Collaborative has matched that investment with approximately $6.6 million.

Road Ecology Working Group

Members: Ontario Road Ecology Group, Long Point World Biosphere Reserve Foundation, and Canadian Wildlife Service
Goal: Reduce wildlife road mortality by enhancing road infrastructure to facilitate safe movement of wildlife across the landscape.
For additional information, or to get involved, please contact:

Mandy Karch, Executive Director, Ontario Road Ecology Group

ontarioroadecologygroup@gmail.com

 

Invasive Species (Phragmites australis) Working Group

Members: Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Canadian Wildlife Service
Goals:

1.       By 2025, 90% of the vegetation in the Coastal Wetlands and Beaches and Coastal Dunes ecosystems is native.

2.       Maintain and improve the riparian zone so that 75% is vegetated with native plants

For additional information, or to get involved, please contact:

Eric Cleland, Director, Nature Conservancy of Canada

eric.cleland@natureconservancy.ca

 

Agricultural Runoff Working Group

Members: ALUS Norfolk Inc., Norfolk County, Long Point Region Conservation Authority, Carolinian Canada Coalition, Long Point Basin Land Trust, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Canadian Wildlife Service
Goals:

1.       Maintain and improve the riparian zone so that 75% is vegetated with native plants

2.       By 2025, at least 50% of surface water samples meet the provincial water quality objective for phosphorus (0.03 mg/L for streams and rivers).

For additional information, or to get involved, please contact:

Stephanie Giles, Program Coordinator, ALUS Norfolk Inc.

alusnorfolk@alus.ca

 

Open Country Working Group

Members: Nature Conservancy of Canada, Natural Resource Solutions Inc., Tallgrass Ontario, St. Williams Conservation Reserve, Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance, ALUS Norfolk Inc., Long Point Basin Land Trust, Ontario Nature, and Canadian Wildlife Service
Goal: Maintain existing Open Country habitat and restore additional areas, prioritizing sites where: existing habitat patches can be increased in size, habitat patches >=5 ha can be created, patch connectivity is best achieved and/or there are opportunities for long-term management.
For additional information, or to get involved, please contact:

Kristen Bernard, Program Director – Southwestern Ontario, Nature Conservancy of Canada

kristen.bernard@natureconservancy.ca

 

Forests and Treed Swamps Working Group

Members: ALUS Norfolk, Birds Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Long Point Basin Land Trust, Long Point Region Conservation Authority, Long Point World Biosphere Reserve Foundation, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Norfolk County, Norfolk Woodlot Owners Association, St. Williams Conservation Reserve
Goal: Maintain existing 2018 Forests and Treed Swamps cover and where possible increase/improve interior forest habitat and connectivity through additional forested acreage and forested corridors by 2050.
For additional information, or to get involved, please contact:

Ian Fife, Ontario Forest Birds Program Coordinator

ifife@birdscanada.org

The importance of biodiversity and protecting Species at Risk in the Priority Place

Mating Monarch butterflies. Photo: Brian Craig.

Although we might not always recognize it, plants and animals play a huge role in keeping our environment healthy and balanced.

Biodiversity is a term used broadly to describe the enormous variety and variability of life on Earth. It can also be used more specifically to refer to all of the species in one region or ecosystem. The term “ecosystem” refers to groups or plants, animals, and other organisms that are found in the same area and interact with each other. These interactions form the environments we know and recognize, such as the different forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems around Norfolk County.

Balance within these ecosystems requires the continuation of these interactions, and the decline or loss of one species often triggers the decline or loss of others. This is why it is important to preserve biodiversity and all species, especially threatened or endangered Species at Risk.

Bald eagle perched in a Sycamore tree. Photo: Brian Craig.

When ecosystems are functioning well, they provide us with important benefits, including clean air, clean water, and fertile land to grow healthy food. They can also help mitigate the effects of climate change. For example, ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands absorb and store carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The Long Point Walsingham Forest Priority Place is an incredibly biodiverse area. It is located in a part of Canada referred to as the Carolinian Life Zone. This fragile ecoregion is found in both the eastern United States and southern Ontario. It is characterized by mixed leaf forests, although deciduous (broad leaf) trees predominate. While this vegetation zone takes up less that 1% of Canada’s total land area, it contains a greater number of plant and animal species than any other vegetation zone in Canada!

Preserving the biodiversity of the Priority Place is essential to ensure that the benefits we receive from healthy and functioning ecosystems are preserved for future generations.

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.

Success in invasive Phragmites control requires a collaborative approach

Phragmites australis is a tall grass species with origins in Europe believed to be introduced to Canada in the late 1800s. In Ontario, there is also a native species of Phragmites found in similar habitats however it grows in balance with other native vegetation and must be protected as part of any management plans.

The aggressive invasive Phragmites began being monitored by biologists in the wetlands of Long Point over 20 years ago. Since then, the growth and spread of this species at Long Point has been exponential.

Phragmites is an aggressive invader, growing up to 6 metres in height, crowding out native vegetation and reducing biodiversity by producing dense monoculture stands. These stands impact native species, especially Species at Risk, since they provide poor habitat and food for wildlife, and impede the ecosystem from functioning as normal.

The impact of invasive Phragmites on these ecosystems has a direct impact on people too, says Eric Cleland, Director of the Invasive Species Program for the Ontario region at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, “invasive Phragmites can impact critical items in our daily lives like infrastructure, property values, and agricultural productivity, along with the recreational and environmental values that make the Priority Place so important.”

Phragmites can be exceptionally tricky to remove once it’s become established in an area due to its deep root system and fast spread, but targeting this invasive species is an important task to make sure our wetlands and ecosystems are healthy and functioning.

In 2015, NCC and MNRF spearheaded a gathering of stakeholders: “the presentations and discussions that took place during that gathering formed the groundwork for a coordinated control effort in the Long Point region. This day led to the creation of the Long Point Phragmites Action Alliance,” says Cleland.

This collaborative is made up of 29 partnering organizations which include all levels of government, environmental control groups, and local landowners with interests in conserving and managing the diverse wetland habitat within the Long Point region.

“It’s critically important to work collaboratively to ensure no populations are left behind,” says Cleland, “If one area is left untreated, Phragmites can rapidly re-invade, jeopardizing the whole program. Control at a landscape scale is only feasible where landowners and organizations work together to pool funds, labour, skills, and equipment.”

According to Heather Braun, Habitat biologist at CWS, the leadership of the MNRF and NCC has been the key to the success of this program. “The province and NCC have built a program that has gained community support and is resulting in positive changes for wildlife and SAR.  We have a goal to manage 90% of the Phragmites in the Priority Place, and I am confident that together we can achieve that goal.”

While this work is ongoing, these groups can be proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. Since 2016, over 1,400 hectares in the Long Point area have undergone invasive Phragmites control in a multi-phase strategy. Despite Covid-19 this work is slated to continue and build in 2021, largely through the Phragmites Working Group, with funding from the Canadian Wildlife Service, MNRF, US Fish and Wildlife Service and several other private supporters.

 

 

Before (left) and after (right) treatment for Phragmites in Turkey Point, showing native species re-establishing. Photo: NCC.

 

Private landowners can help manage invasive species

The Phragmites management program was initiated in the wetlands of Long Point but has since spread into the upper watersheds. In 2019, a subcommittee of the LPPAA developed an implementation plan for the entire Big Creek Watershed focused on engaging landowners and helping to provide them with control services for their properties.

The Big Creek Watershed Control Implementation Plan divides the watershed into 8 sections or “phases”. Since it’s inception it has been well received, enrolling over 200 parcels and completing control work on over 75 parcels of land with no sign of slowing down.

“Landowners are an important part of Phragmites control for two reasons,” says Brett Norman, Invasive Species Program Coordinator at Nature Conservancy of Canada. “For one, landowners can provide access for control of Phragmites on their properties. This ensures that their property is not a seed source for future infestations. Two, landowners can help pass on information. Many people don’t know what
Phragmites is, why it’s bad, or that control services exist. We invest a lot of time working with landowners to ensure they are aware of the issues.”

This program allows landowners to tap into the resources needed to target Phragmites, including professional contractor services, specialized equipment, and aquatic herbicides where applicable.

“These services are provided free of charge, allowing landowners to address an issue on their properties that they may otherwise not have the capability to do,” says Norman.

The program is now open to anyone who owns land in Norfolk County. Landowners wishing to join the program can do so by emailing the LPPAA at bigcreekphrag@gmail.com or by visiting our website at www.longpointphragmites.ca.

This map shows the aquatic control area of the Big Creek watershed where the LPPAA will be focused in 2021. All Norfolk County landowners not in the watershed will have dry land control services available.

Innovation in Phragmites control

Organizations in the Long Point area have adopted an integrated approach to Phragmites management involving a wide range of methods, each one required to deal with special circumstances, in an effort to eradicate Phragmites and protect our wetlands.

“An aquatic herbicide is used in the Long Point region under a special permission from Health Canada; this unique tool is not available anywhere else in Canada. Long Point was chosen to pilot this method due to the imminent impacts to wildlife, in particular Species at Risk. An urgent response was required, and aquatic herbicide were chosen because it is the most effective method of control for large scale applications,” says Eric Cleland of NCC.

Additional measures, such as rolling, cutting, burning or even a combination of these are often necessary to fully eradicate this aggressive species as part of an integrated pest management program (IPM).

Cleland notes that they’re always on the lookout for new control methods. “It’s always important. New methods can help reduce the impacts of control, show improved results for people and the environment, and reduce management costs.”

Tall, dense stands of invasive Phragmites block native vegetation from growing and reduce biodiversity

Biocontrol is not necessarily a new method, but it’s one that’s gaining traction and being investigated for use in the area. It involves introducing a natural enemy of an invasive species to re-establish a natural balance.

“One of the best examples of a successful biocontrol in Ontario is for Purple Loosestrife, where the release of European leaf-eating beetles achieved wide-scale control,” explains Cleland. “The beetles are natural enemies of purple loosestrife, and they feed primarily on the plant. This biological control of purple loosestrife can reduce populations by up to 90 per cent and allow native plants to re-establish.”

Building on over 20 years of research in the area, two moth species which are natural predators of invasive Phragmites have been found to be promising biocontrol agents. They pose a minimal risk to native species and if successful could offer an additional tool to control Phragmites as part of an IPM.

While no single method can rid our wetlands of invasive Phragmites, it’s exciting to see the ongoing research and work being done by dedicated organizations to help mitigate its impact.

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