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Posts Tagged ‘roadkill’

vulture

Recently, when we were exiting the highway and rounding the curve of the exit ramp, we were surprised by the sight of four large Turkey Vultures in the middle of the road in front of us. They were picking over the remains of a porcupine, nature’s clean-up crew in action. Three took flight as we approached, but the fourth held his ground, and I was able to take this photograph from where we had stopped at the side of the road.

The expansion of the road system has been good for Turkey Vultures, but not so good for pretty much any other member of the wild kingdom. One optimistic take on roadkill suggests that the numbers of dead animals littering the road is a good sign, an indicator that there are plenty of others living in the woods. Sadly, the real truth is that plenty of roadkills are only a sign of one thing: more roads.

Check out these two maps. The first shows the Southern Ontario road network in 1935, while the second shows the same region in 1995. The growth in our road network is glaringly obvious.

1935roads-small

1995roads-small

In fact, you are never more than 1.5 kilometres away from a road in Southern Ontario. Nor is it simply a matter of more roads. The quality of the roads has changed too. The graph below shows how, where once roads had mostly gravel or even dirt surfaces, the majority are now paved.

Road-changes

Paved roads mean cars travel faster. Cars travelling down a paved road are generally moving at a speed that is incomprehensible to an animal. An animal may dart across the road in front of an approaching car feeling safe in the knowledge that it can escape well before, say, an approaching fox could nab it. Or, in the case of a porcupine or skunk, safe in the knowledge that its natural defenses will protect it from all comers. In this they are sadly mistaken. Cars defy the rules of the natural world.

It’s not only the cars that kill animals. They are also impacted indirectly by road construction. Important factors include things like lose of habitat. There are also less obvious impacts. Road salt, for instance, is washed off roads and into waterways, where it disrupts the natural salinity of watersheds. The map below shows the salt burden born by roads. Southern Ontario is heavily impacted. Roadkill as a sign of a healthy population? Probably not.

Salt-loadings-by-maintenance-district

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Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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rocks

Yesterday’s snowfall has left a couple of inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. Even though, with the temperature hovering around 0 C, snow is melting off the roof and splashing on these rocks near the door, we’re not likely to be seeing any snowdrops like those featured by Huckleberry, over at Huckleberry Days, any time soon.

When out driving yesterday morning, I did see one sure sign of spring on the roads: a dead raccoon. All winter long, raccoons spend most of their time holed away out of the weather, waiting for spring. When the warmer weather arrives, raccoons start searching for food and that’s when the annual raccoon catastrophe begins. Many end up under the wheels of a racing automobile. Opossums and other small animals also are at risk, but around southern Ontario, raccoons seem to be particularly susceptible. There is even a joke about it: Why did the chicken cross the road? To prove to the raccoon that it can be done.

Raccoon Catastrophe

Raccoon Catastrophe

Having raised several raccoon kits, I can attest to the fact that raccoons are very bright. But thousands of years of evolution has left them poorly equipped to deal with rushing steel monsters. Unlike animals such as rabbits, who use their lightening speed to save their lives, raccoons climb trees or, as fierce fighters, take a stand. These tactics don’t work well with cars.

The real problem isn’t the raccoons. It’s the roads. There are so many of them! They go everywhere. In southern Ontario, the network of roads has burgeoned since the car became king. The imperilment of raccoon lives is just one small cost of roads. Fragmentation, habitat destruction, and contribution to global warming are others. The Wildlands League has produced a publication that looks at the true costs associated with roads. It is titled Roads: More than Lines on a Map.

When it comes to paving over paradise, there is no end in sight. With city infrastructures crumbling, the limits to urban sprawl gaining recognition, and the need for improved public transit drawing attention, you’d think governments would have better things to do with our money, but we don’t seem to have turned that corner yet. One good example is the proposed Mid-escarpment Highway, an anachronistic plan left over from another era.
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