Highway 69

16 August 2003

 

Snakeslikeit hot. So, in summertheybakethemselves on rocks, on woodpiles, on roadways — anywhere in theirterritorywherethere’s lots of sun and no shade.

To expectthem to seek out a long, dark, cold tunnel to travelfrom one place to anotherstrikes me as a major absurdity.

However, it’s one of the lesserabsurditiesrelated to the widening of Highway 69, whichrunsfromOrillia to Sudbury.

The snakemostpoignantlyaffectedis the Massasaugarattler, whichisclassified as threatened on Canada’slist of species at risk. And the tunnels I’mtalking about are culverts, 1.3 metres square, installed for drainage at various points across four lanes of dividedhighway on a 26-kilometre section justwest of Mactier.

This section willreroute the highwaythrough prime territory of the EasternMassasaugarattlesnake, and the onlyway the rattlerswillbe able cross itsafelywillbe to go through the drainage culverts, if theycanbepersuaded to do so.

In the planning stage for the new section, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation commissioned an environmentalassessment — and here’swhere the second absurditycomes in. The assessmentcalled for studies of Massasaugabehavioural patterns to see how the impact of the new section on the snakecouldbelessened. But the studieswere to beconducted as the new section wasbeingbuilt.

In otherwords, itwas: Build first; worry about saving the rattlerlater.

It wasaddle-brained. The first stepshould have been to do the studies first, and then plan the highway to avoidkillingsnakes.

The third, evenbiggerabsurdity, isthat no consideration at all has been given to the impact on otherwildlife — on bears, fishers, deer, frogs, foxes, raccoons, porcupines. On everythingelsethat moves.

In Europe, especially in France, Germany, and Switzerland, it’s routine to buildoverpasses for wildlife. They’recalled « green bridges, » and they’recoveredwithnaturalvegetation, eventrees and miniature wetlands. Part of normal planning is to identifywildlifeneedsbefore a single bulldozer moves on site.

The Mactier section isprettywellcompleted, and isscheduled to open nextyear. This meansthat if the ministrysuddenlydecideswildlifeis important after all, the cost of makingalterationswillberidiculously high.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Ministry of Natural Resources have been trying to figure out how to persuade the rattlers to travelthrough the drainage culverts, because the Massasaugais a creature of habit. Eachsnake has a territorythatitinsists on visiting, and if thathappens to be on the otherside of the new four-lane, dividedhighway, itwillmeancrossing a death zone.

Then, there’s the problem of hibernation. If a Massasaugarattlercan’tget back to whereithibernates, it dies. It doesn’t go looking for a new winterabode. In addition, femalesneed to return to the samenesting location everyyear.

So far, MNR officials are sayingtheyhaven’tgotpreliminaryfindings on how to protect the rattler. I wonder if whatthey’ve been findingissobadthatthey’re not releasing information for fear of embarrassing the government.

Whatthey’ll admit isthattheysimplydon’t know how the highway expansion will affect otherwildlife.

The next section builtwillrunfrom Nobel to the French River, and MOT officials are scheduling « open houses » to give people an opportunity to voiceconcerns.

The open houseswilloffer a greatopportunity to demand information about the green bridges Europeans are building. And to find out whenwe’llstart building themhere.

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