It may take outside-the-box thinking to understand why a species of bird, salamander, or rare fish matters in decision-making. Species at risk in a modern, developing landscape such as Niagara-on-the-Lake can be seen as indicators of ecosystem health, with their presence alone telling us a couple of important things.
A species at risk is rather self-explanatory. It classifies our native plants and animals as a special concern, threatened, endangered, or extirpated.
The manner in which I’ve just listed those terms is generally the chronologically accepted progression of alarm for the species. Extirpated means the species is no longer found in a region where it once was, so it is not to be confused with extinction. However, it is a step toward that fateful word.
It should be understood that if a species has its name under the species at risk heading, as listed by the Ontario government, the odds are high it is a species that has been inconvenienced by human disturbance. This usually comes in the form of habitat loss. NOTL has lost about 90 per cent of both its original forest and wetland cover. The few remaining spots are where species at risk can find refuge, or a migratory stop, or can exist for an indefinite time with a small population. Like a gem, these natural spots are small but powerful.
These plants and animals not only have inherent value unto themselves and our natural heritage, but they also play important roles as cogs in the wheel for keeping ecosystem function healthy. A healthy ecosystem in NOTL helps keep floodwaters at bay and prevents valuable soil erosion from our farmlands. Wetlands and forests near our waterways recycle and filter nutrients, keeping our creeks and rivers healthier for both wildlife and summer swims. Keeping an eye on all of the little players, like the bird or the salamander or the fish, ensures that we have an ecological “team” that works for NOTL.
Who are some of these team members? Let’s start from the water and work our way up to the sky.
You could consider yourself lucky to spot the endangered lake sturgeon, a literally ancient fish capable of attaining sizes of more than seven feet long and 200 pounds. Hiking down by the Niagara River, I have seen the corpse of this dinosaur bottom-feeder, as well as the endangered spotted gar (a cigar-like, pike sort of fish). The beastly and beautiful fish steal the spotlight in the beholder and angler’s eye, but there is also the threatened lake chubsucker and the endangered, tiny redside dace, too.
On land, on to reptiles and amphibians (my personal favourite categories). Historically, NOTL’s section of the escarpment would have been home to a snake over six feet long known as the black rat snake, which has an endangered population hidden in a select pocket of habitat just a half hour drive from town. The snapping turtles you see crossing the lines and concessions in early summer are now listed a “special concern,” due to increasing rates of habitat loss and road mortality. Over the edge and into the Niagara Gorge, we have two endangered species of salamander found nowhere else in the whole province.
White wood aster is an ordinary-looking species of plant found growing on the forest floor on the outskirts of NOTL. It is also a threatened species, growing at its northernmost range here in Niagara. Many species of plants here are at a similar distribution limit, such as tulip trees and the stately, scraggly pin oak. In either of these trees, you may find the endangered prothonotary warbler darting around, or, if you’re very lucky, a bald eagle, which is now a species of special concern.
I was pleased to hear that earlier this month, Parks Canada took the initiative to educate people in an interactive and honest manner when they walked through the woodlots surrounding NOTL’s downtown. That’s a very proactive step to bridge the gap between the public and the government, as the past few years in Niagara have been difficult for the public sphere to trust in environmental decision-making.
This also brings awareness to the rare and wonderful natural world we have right in our backyards, including the species at risk you’ve just learned a bit about.