How to help wildlife cross roads


If communities exist only within their collective awareness, then along the gravel roads that twist through the Canadian Shield where I live, Frances Bryan has been indispensable. She’s the keeper of memories. Her recollections have rounded out our sense of time and place.
She lives about a fifteen minute walk from us, and knows every family in the area back four and five generations. She has shown me where Indians used to camp, just past a nearby bend in the road. And where the farmer from a neighbouring property used to load his boat with sacks of wheat, and row to the mill in Lyndhurst. And she knows all about the young man, across the township, who’s gone wrong, and all about his father, and his father’s father.

She was born and grew up only ten kilometres away, and has lived on our road ever since she married, sixty years ago.

I enjoy talking with her, and so, when she telephoned last week, I was delighted. « You’ll never guess what I just saw,’’ she said, and paused for dramatic effect. « A black bear. He was right there, as big as life.’’ Just on the other side of her patio door.

Isn’t it remarkable, I thought, that she’s not the least fretful. Simply glad to see it arrive in our neighbourhood. « When was the last time you saw a bear?’’ I asked.

« I never saw one before,’’ he said. « In fact, I never heard of anyone ever seeing a bear around here until about five years ago.’’

The arrival of the bear got me thinking about the movement of wildlife, and about the barriers we build that impede their travels, especially major highways, and most recently, the concrete safety barriers erected along medians. So I called Bill Jones, a supervisor of environmental planning with the Ministry of Transport at Downsview.

Jones says the ministry will assess the need for wildlife underpasses when a problem has been brought to it’s attention. And it will install them when it’s satisfied they’re needed, and if it’s practical and cost effective to do so.

He gave two examples, both relating to construction of Highway 410 to Brampton. A bridge over a ravine was raised to make it high enough for deer to pass underneath. And, at another location, a large culvert for wildlife passage was placed beside a culvert that was being installed for drainage.

For class A projects — new highways and new alignments of old highways — a public environmental assessment is always held, he says, and if need is shown, the ministry looks seriously at whether something can be done.

For class B projects — major reconstructions, such as adding a lane, or building an interchange or bridge — an environmental study is undertaken. The public gets 45 days to review the study, and people can ask the minister to order an environmental assessment if they think it’s necessary to protect wildlife or the environment.

Is that good enough? I called Gray Merriam to find out. He’s a retired professor of landscape ecology from Carelton University, who now runs a private consulting firm from his home in Arden.

He’s grateful for what the ministry is doing, but points out that it’s based on receiving expressions of concern from some other source — and no, he says, that’s not good enough.

The problem is that concerns, need to be backed up by data, and precious little data has been collected. The ministry should accept that any highway will disrupt wildlife, he says, and so it should shoulder the cost of collecting the necessary data and of minimizing the impact of all highway construction. Otherwise, he says, and he slips into the language of economics, the ministry is simply externalizing its costs. In other words saving itself money, and transferring costs to wildlife.

So, as the province expands its highways, and extends concrete protection barriers, the message to the public is clear: Speak up for wildlife. If you don’t, the ministry may not.

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