Embracing the Urban Coyote

A few years ago, while traveling back to London, Ontario, I stopped in Cambridge to give my Red and White Husky a little exercise reprieve. In an isolated part of a heavily vegetated park, I briefly let her off leash. I paused a moment, then gave a peering, baffled look; we were seemingly staring into a mirror. A wild dog-like being of the near exact colour markings of my dog stared back at us from a really close distance just ahead on the pathway. Some might say, “Was it rabid? Did you report it? How did you save your dog and self from the terror before you?” In fact, I reveled in the experience and wished it would have lasted longer. I felt no fear. Was I just lucky?


Not long after this chance encounter, some people started really talking up fear about these animals moving into urban areas. “They’ll attack you and your pets. They’ll pass along disease. They’re so destructive.” No, I’m not talking about humans. I’m talking about Canis latrans; the relatively ‘new species on the block’, the Eastern Coyote.

Known in some indigenous cultures as the trickster or joker, the coyote also symbolizes the deep magic of life. They are also known to be the revealers of truth behind illusion. I feel in this day and age we could use all the magic and truth we can get.


My late dog Faith – a Siberian Husky and E. Coyote look-a-like, perched up on a log, off leash in a dog park.

Coyotes are a heck of a lot like humans. Intelligent, they are opportunists. They learn quickly and adapt. They love their families (even more so than many human families!). Also remarkably similar, E. Coyotes, like European settlers and recent immigrants, aren’t technically native to S. Ontario. Paradoxically, the inception of these animals was borne out of the early and short-term successful efforts to blast away all predators from the province. Our misguided settler-ancestors killed off the Eastern Wolf – nearly – except for a small population in the Algonquin Park area. A common saying in ecology is ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ With the near destruction of the wolf population, few medium sized predators remained and there was a huge void. The much smaller Western Coyote moved into Eastern North America newly decimated landscape. In an extremely rare case, a speciation event before occurred before our very eyes. Western Coyote hybridized with the few remaining Eastern Wolves. The hybrid created was a slightly larger animal, the Eastern Coyote. Western Coyotes were pushed back to the south, and west. This all occurred between the late 1800s until the 1930s or so. Since then, E. Coyotes have spread across Eastern North America, not just in rural landscapes, but taking up residence in cities, now fully a part the urban ecosystem.

For the record, E. Coyotes have on rare occasions in the past, interbred with dogs gone feral. This virtually never happens today. The terms ‘Brush Wolf’, ‘Coywolf’ and ‘Coydog’ and general descriptive terms that refer to E. Coyote and not some other hybrid animal that’s ‘out there.’ And what is out there? You can be sure that E. Coyotes are. Like magic, they are often present but almost never seen. If they do appear, it’s in a flash and are gone just as fast.

Ecologically, Coyotes might just be a key savior in the recovery of our loss of biodiversity (the number of species of plants, animals, and other life forms in a given area). It’s like the story on how the return of the wolves completely transformed Yellowstone. Our natural areas are besieged with plants from other parts of the world (non-native species). You would think adding plants from other parts of the world increases diversity. The opposite is true. We lose species, primarily because non-native plants displace our native plants. Rich diverse soils are best created by a wide range of native plants that in turn provide food for insects. Insects convert plants to protein, providing the building blocks  (food) for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibian diversity.

One non-native grass you might be familiar with is Poa pratensis – Kentucky Bluegrass or the common lawn grass. It’s not from Kentucky…it’s form Europe and Asia. Forming thick mats of dried dead grass, this species proves a tough place through which recently germinated oak acorns try to emerge. If the oaks can survive the allelopathic effects of the grass (another story completely), they have another major barrier; voles, mice, shrews and other rodents. This non-native grass has allowed for the proliferation of explosive numbers of rodents. Young oak seedlings are delicious to rodents and so, the smorgasbord of Quercus is chewed up liberally and biodiversity gets socked solidly in the mid-section.

Quercus, the genus of oaks comprised of dozens of species in N.A., is the top supporter and producer of many insects (see Douglas Tallamy’s tally of this ‘Best Bets: What to Plant‘ to Bringing Nature Home)

Here’s where Coyotes in healthy numbers in our urban and rural landscape can build biodiversity back; a major food source is rodents. Ever see your dog do this jump up and pounce thing (see photo of Coyote below)? My young Siberian Husky is currently the average weight and size of an Coyote (40 lbs). She sniffs out and pounces on Short-tailed Shrews in our backyard. She can catch at least 3 or 4 a day, in a tiny area in an urban setting. While more research needs to be done, Coyotes must be having an impact (and similar to the Wolves in Yellowstone, Coyotes provide similar ecosystem aids here as well).

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E. Coyote feeding on top prey item – small rodents. If you’re a dog owner, you’ll be familiar with this ‘pouncing posture.’ Rodent numbers are up and in some cases, are impacting ecosystem recovery.

But everyone (ok, many people) wants to talk about the (perceived) negative impacts of Coyotes.

What is the ‘risk of Coyote’ in perspective with other wildlife? Let’s take the White-tailed Deer. An average of 200 people each year die from collisions with deer on highways in North America. Thousands more contract Lyme’s disease from rising population of deer and thus deer ticks.

And family dogs? About 40 people each year in N.A. are killed from the results of domesticated dog attacks. How about dogs killing other dogs or killing cats? The numbers are through the roof. How about Coyotes? The average human deaths per year caused by Coyotes – zero.

Yes, E. Coyotes can attack, injure, and, in extremely rare cases, even kill your dog or cat. If you’re really concerned, keep an eye on your pets and keep them on leash, avoid dusk and dawn walks if that will make you feel safer. Don’t leave garbage accessible; this only draws in urban wildlife. As for deer on the highway, similar precautionary approaches apply; wear your seat belt, don’t speed (especially at night), and be vigilant about scanning the road as your drive.

Again, the important point is perspective; the stereotype of Coyote as ‘big bad wolf’ just does not hold water. Remember, without even knowing it, every day, millions of people and or their pets are within a few feet of where a Coyote had been a few seconds earlier.

A few days ago I saw a Coyote down in a 175-acre urban natural area (The Coves) a stone’s throw from my house. It was just a glimpse, as I had really startled this animal and she ran away quickly. It got me thinking about this recent spate of fear-based rhetoric about these animals and this is why I have written this article. The facts speak for themselves; the risks are small, and the incidents are isolated. Coyotes are scapegoats in a world in which we continually overplay risks using fear-based statements that morph into ‘facts’, while ignoring larger and real looming issues, easily traced to truths. Fittingly, this is what the indigenous traditional knowledge tells us about what Coyotes represent; revealers of truth behind illusion.

It’s clear that Coyotes have great voices of their own, revealing truth and the magic of life in many ways. Most of us refuse to listen; about 400,000 Coyotes are deliberately killed each year in North America. Changing their pack structure and breeding strategies when targeted, Coyotes rebound to recover their population losses by the very next year.

We can’t out-smart the Coyote. We don’t even need to. As a part of planet in dire need of ecological recovery, our efforts can shift to gratitude and appreciation of Coyotes – they are so much like us – while focusing on the science-based solutions to issues that we know truly matter.



Fall in Love for Nature this Autumn

Here are some tips to grow a great relationship with your yard and local ecosystem, now that summer has finally flipped off the calendar. While you and I are just proverbial drops, our landscape actions accumulate, and then fill the bucket (our local ecology) with a certain flavour – pollution or purity, resilience or climate change fragility, sharing with other species or taking away from them. Let’s be clear; this is a choice.

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Walking into the sunset in one of the final days of summer.

Leaves. Leave them. Ok, not all of them, because you probably want some lawn and thick leaves on grass will kill it or set it back some in spring. You can shred the leaves. Then add them back to your lawn. It’s free fertilizer and more. Leaves represent many nutrients and minerals that trees have ‘mined’ from the Earth. When trees release leaves back to the Earth’s surface, they are like gold to the topsoil layer. Imagine spending all that energy to rake up, bag, and then ship away the free ‘gold’ that rains down on your yard (then we go and buy fertilizer to replace this loss)?!

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Let it go. Enjoy the leaves. You don’t have to go to all the effort to get rid of them!

Ok, I recognize that while a few like to go lawn-less, most want some green grass. However, without a few yards with leaves on the ground over winter, we would not have many species we enjoy and even revere, like Fire Flies (which are actually beetles) and many others.  Indeed, many others. The Red-backed Salamander is a lung-less amphibian that lives in a few ‘more natural’ yards in Wortley Village. Like the Firefly, it needs this golden, life-giving leaf cover. Another species, which used to live here when we had more floor leaf cover and natural forests, is the Wood Frog. It actually hibernates in the leaf litter. Over 50% of its body mass freezes solid like an ice-cube. Come the warm rains of early spring, this small brown frog with a black mask then thaws and hops into active life again. And leaves, twigs, old seed heads and other organic offerings from the active season are the chief ingredients to grow healthy diverse soils. Soils are the foundation for healthy trees, shrubs, next year’s garden, and more.  A healthy teaspoon of forest soil alone contains millions of important life forms.

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Yes, leaves can be a (golden) mess, but then again, how clean is the rest of life? Messes sometimes are for good reasons!

Another loving thing to do is leave another type of mess – or at least, a perceived mess to some. Dead and dried flowers and seed heads are highly valuable to local wildlife. Yes, sometimes this doesn’t jive with the nice English Garden or Wortley Village Victorian motif some of us have going on. But again, you don’t have to leave all, but leave some. In winter, many birds, like the American Goldfinch, feed on plant seeds from Woodland Sunflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and others. I recently learned that the juicy, dark purple berries from Pokeweed, or Purple Dangleberry are favoured by Mourning Doves and others. (Homing Pigeons, temporarily blown off course , have been known to show up at yards to feast on Pokeweed berries for hours at a time!). One of the main reasons we spend millions of dollars in the bird seed industry is because we’ve removed natural seed sources from native plants and cut away the few that remain at the end of summer to ‘clean up’ our yards!

If you live in Southern Ontario, you are blessed to live in the region in Canada that has the most number of species of plants, animals, and fungi; this is to say that Carolinian Canada has the highest species diversity. In some of my previous blogs, you may have noticed that I’m really pulling for people to join our http://www.inthezonegardens.ca program. This isn’t a frivolous new trend or the latest gig of some out of touch non-profit.  Returning to our roots with native plant gardening is a whole movement. It’s based on solid science. With due respect, the ‘ground zero,’ the common troubled ground we share, is one that has been assaulted by climate change, heavily impacted by introduced species, and has experienced the complete disregard for the protection of our ancient natural areas that used to ‘have our backs.’ While these big issues need care, attention, and local heroes, the choice before us to make change on our private landscapes is always our own.

Growing Some Weed(s) in My Village

It’s not officially illegal, but some question whether it should be. It can grow in between you and your partner, splitting you into camps, for it or against it. It can ruin a life or more; it can nearly take down an entire ecosystem.

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Strangely, after cutting a ‘Mother Tree’ of European Buckthorn, a Great Blue Heron appeared in the forest to inspect our work. Near Wortley Village, Old South, London, Canada.

I’m talking about weed(s). The weed in question is European Buckthorn. A beautiful shrub in its own right and in its homeland in England, this plant that grows to the size of a small tree. It becomes loaded with dark blue berries that are favoured by many of our birds. E. Buckthorn has wreaked havoc on our natural areas and has quietly infiltrated Wortley Village (London, ON) via bird droppings. It often goes unnoticed and unidentified by homeowners. Before you know it, you’ve received a complimentary bird-planted Buckthorn for ‘free.’ The cost, however, of keeping this plant around in this neck of the woods or neighbourhood, is exorbitant. The City of London (Canada) alone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove it from our sensitive natural areas. From one little 2.5 acre plot at the corner of Rachel and Phyllis Streets, just south of Emery, the city and the Friends of the Coves Subwatershed removed several dozen tons (see pile in photo below) of this plant from the forest understory.

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E. Buckthorn seedling I found in my garden this morning (5:30am) when I thought about this article. I pull them often and can almost always find one ‘one demand.’

By definition, E. Buckthorn is an invasive, non-native species It outs competes our native plants for space. So you might be wondering, are our native plants just wimpy and unable to hold their ground? No, this isn’t the case. What happened in this case is that E. Buckthorn was commonly planted in fencerows when it was first introduced in our area in the late 1800s to keep cattle in specified fields. While some large native trees were left, there were next to no natural areas kept fully intact. When grazing pastures and orchards were abandoned, E. Buckthorn were among the most common plants remaining, enabling birds to seed them across our landscape. As such, this plant has taken our over natural areas.

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Note the large pile of cut European Buckthorn and the dark understory in the background – that’s all E. Buckthorn as well! The white ground herb in the foreground is Goutweed, resulting from an adjacent landowner dumping garden clippings on the edge of this natural area.

Other detrimental non native species that we have commonly growing in Wortley Village and S. Ontario that majorly impact our natural areas include Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Goutweed (white plant in above photo), and Periwinkle. I jog a 5km route around Wortley Village with my wife. Today I paid attention, noticing from the sidewalk, about fifty E. Buckthorns either growing ‘rogue’ along the edges of various houses, or stealthily in peoples hedges, or overtly as manicured lawn trees. See this great guide (http://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/resources/grow-me-instead/) put out by the Ontario Invasive Species Council called, “Grow Me Instead” to give you ideas for replacement native species. For starters, I’ve highlighted a native shrub that will nicely replace your E. Buckthorn, should you chose to move towards native plants; Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia. Its form is a beautiful multi-tiered stacked ‘pagoda’, while the flowers are whitish-green in spring and the berries are blue.

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Alternative-leaved or Pagoda Dogwood. Wortley Village, Canada. Plant it instead of E. Buckthorn.

Glenn, a friend and neighbour on my street inspired this article. He reminded me that a weed is really an unwanted plant, or one for which we haven’t yet found or identified a use. I find this wholeheartedly true. While I have reverence for E. Buckthorn, there is a proper place for it. It turns out it is sorely needed in England, where a species of butterfly (Brimestone Butterfly – below) is in decline, astonishingly and ironically because E. Buckthorn is vanishing from their countryside! Yes human induced landscape changes everywhere are having large ripple effects causing extinctions and inducing climate change. One sure fire way to mitigate these trends are to get ‘In the Zone’ (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and plant one or more native plants on your private landscape.

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The Brimestone Butterfly; it’s desperately in need of Buckthorn (in England). Photo Copyright Matt Berry.

A slightly modified version of this appears in the Wortley Villager Magazine, September Issue.

London, Canada (Day); 150 and 300 Years Ago

This article was recently published in Wortley Villager and also on my LinkedIn (apologies if this is a triple repeat):

Surprisingly, in 1867 in the area now called Wortley Village (London, Ontario, Canada), we didn’t have the virgin old growth forests transected by pristine freshwater streams and rich pockets of tallgrass prairie that we might imagine. In fact, 150 years ago was about a decade after the vast majority of the systematic removal of the deciduous forests of eastern North America, including most of the natural cover found in Wortley Village. At this monumental time in our history, many farms were well established. London was a barren place. Remaining woodlands and other natural wonders were few and far between.

Between the 1820 and the late 1860s many settlers suffered through the removal of our forests, felling trees many of which were over 35m (120 feet) tall and over a thousand years old. While some of this wood was sent to a few saw mills to build the early houses of our region, the vast majority of these ancient, giant trees was stacked and burned, since the necessary infrastructure wasn’t in place to saw, transport, store and sell the wood. Hundreds of piles of trees were stacked and burnt in what today is Wortley Village.  Species in the pile would have included American Chestnut, several species of oak, cherry, maple, beech and elm to name a few. Burning, going up in smoke, each pile would have been worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s market.

Forest clearing was tough and dangerous endeavour. Many early settlers were maimed or killed in the 30 to 40 years of the process of removing nature for farmland and industry. New town and city streets and the edges of farms were void of ground cover, shrubs and trees. The thinking was, “Why plant a tree after the decades-long misery and struggle in the bush with the saw, horses and overworked men?” Also at this time, many streams and wetlands in the village were sent underground by infilling by these early settlers.

How about a glimpse of what Wortley Village looked like 300 years ago? The Iroquois lived in the area in Long Houses and certainly had some influence on the appearance of what is now called Wortley Village. The Village Green may have been one of a few small fields cleared for cultivating corn. Vast tracks of old growth forest (see photo above; courtesy Appalachian Forest Museum) would have grown across most of the current neighbourhood, providing this culture a huge array of wild plant edibles and medicines, like Paw Paw (Fruit) Trees, Wild Ginseng, Mayapples and literally hundreds of others. These woodlands were also natural depots for home construction materials. Streams leading to Antler River (now called Thames by many) would have been crystal clear, healthy enough from which to drink and rich enough to catch fish literally by wading into the water. Black Bears, Eastern Wolves, Eastern Cougars, Timber Rattlesnakes, Wood Bison, and Woodland Elk, kept the Iroquois on their toes; both for safety and for hunting opportunities. Transportation happened either by water (canoe) or by foot on trails that, in some cases, were hundreds of years old and stretched hundreds of kilometres, with a number of trees tethered and pruned when young, to point in certain directions and called, ‘marker trees.’

Nature was indeed a respected repository for sustenance and quality of life; the more intimate one was with nature, the smoother and more enjoyable life was. Considering climate change, erosion, issues with invasive species and other environmental challenges and crises, our community and greater society are well served to look to cultures that exhibit strong stewardship values and practice conservation. This way of life is a daily commitment to a solid legacy for seven generations of people to follow.

Climbing Up 25′ Where I Dropped An Acorn 25 Years Ago

In terms of hope, there’s much to be felt from the simple task of clutching an acorn in one’s hand.

A saying I recently read on the trailer used by ReForest London to transport trees, popped into my mind: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today.”

A few weeks ago I went back to visit the trees from the acorns that I dropped in an open farm field close to a quarter of a century ago. It was exhilarating. I found it hard to stop smiling. I was literally filled with wonder from the cause and effect of a few simple actions. Get some land. Collect some seeds. Plant them in the right place. Then, patiently wait….

Of the 12,000 tree seeds dropped in 1994, it looks like about a thousand took hold. They include many types of Oaks, Hickories, Walnuts, Hawthorns, Cedars, Maples, Sycamores and more. Squirrels, Blue Jays, the wind, and other vectors planted additional trees and other plants. The vision was clear; plant the land with trees and watch the birds (…snakes, salamanders and toads) return.

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The next best time is today.”

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I might be wrong, but it’s hard to fully understand the impact you can have on a landscape until you see it in person more than a couple of decades later. Here I rest against a Red Oak wider than my waist. Not long ago, the seed of this very tree snugly fit into the palm of my hand. Photo by Jarmo Jalava

After a few months of working with the amazing people at Carolinian Canada, I’m passing over the reigns of the program Landowner Leaders to it’s returning champion. There’s much opportunity to get support to plant trees, build wetland or prairies, or help out specific Species at Risk. Maybe you have some land? Maybe you’re thinking of getting some? Even if this is not the case, take a simple nature-supporting action and watch the fruits of your labours over time. I assure you that much joy and many rewards will be yours.

Making A Lake Great Again: Erie Prospects for Un-fresh Waters

It was 1993 – the year I first really got intimate with Lake Erie. As an aspiring graduate student, our accommodations were meek tents on Pelee Island. Showers were hard to

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Lake Erie off the tip of Fish Point, Pelee Island. May 2017.

come by. The island’s sandy, limestone and broken boulder shorelines were excellent launching pads for some serious and not so serious bathing sessions. We’d float in the calm waters of small inlets to ease the frequent pain of poison ivy blisters.  Wading in the waters would soothe the lashes the brambles had repeatedly incised on our shins. After riding dozens of kilometres on our bikes each day, the water cut the dust and settled the saddle strain.  During days of great winds, we’d feebly body check the ‘big rollers’

Ben Break in Lake
Cooling off my fieldwork legs in the clean waters just off Fish Point, Pelee Island, 1993. Thanks to Ilford Film for the black and white 35mm support. Photo by Bo Porchuk.

– massive waves – that thrashed us like rag dolls onto the soft sandy lake bottom. A video made in the latter half of 1993 indicated that water just off the shore of the Erie islands was ‘near drinking water quality.’ In short, Erie to us was a great lake, in spite of what many of us had heard to the contrary.

Brought back from the brink in the 1970s when a highly contaminated section of the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (1969) in Cleveland, the late 80s early 90s saw the alien Zebra Mussels ratcheting up the water quality through their combined efforts to filter millions of gallons of water per day. The word on the street was that these bivalves were in fact making the water too clean; local fisheries, especially in the shallow section of the lake, the western basin, were suffering from a lack of food particles and increased solar penetration. Wow. One extreme to the other.

L Erie Watersnake Adult B Porchuk

What’s a Porchuk post without a snake? Here, the gentle, yet sometimes curious Endangered Lake Erie Waternsnake awaits her fate based on our  human-induced contamination of her home (dah, dun, dahhhh). Enough learning. Time to clean up our waters for good.

As reptile researchers, we saw good signs for the endangered water snake populations and their prey. Their overall numbers were down from several decades earlier, but they were still abundant.  We had noted occasional evils resurfacing from the dark days past. Extreme winds, with ensuing mega-waves, would stir sediment from the shallow lake bottom, bringing up heavy metals laid down over several decades previous, from careless industrial pollution.

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It is photographs like this that keep us in denial that everything, at least on the surface, is ok. (for the record, this isn’t Lake Erie).

And of course recently, there was yet another rubber flip flop oscillation in the waves of water quality. Was it around 2015 or so? Toxic water returned yet again. You couldn’t even filter the water to drink (did you know, millions of people get their household water from L. Erie?). Thousands of cases of bottled water were handed out in lakeside communities mainly on the southern shores. Algal blooms bloomed big time. Beaches were littered with green. Fish died, washed up smelly. Get out the bell-bottoms. Fire up the Ford Fairlane. The 1970s have returned.

My kids outright refused to beach at Port Stanley, Long Point, and even beautiful Rondeau Provincial Park was struck off the list. Situated with luxurious choice in London, Ontario, selection power was indeed in our favour. Forty-five minutes to Lake Erie or 55 minutes to Lake Huron? The choice was easy and I really felt for the residents, the merchants, the communities, and the entrepreneurs using Erie as a drawing card.

The culprit? Agricultural runoff of nutrients (excess fertilizer); Phosphorus. Simply put, for better yields, farmers/farm corporations flood their fields with fertilizers. Added to this, was excess animal waste from pig, cow and chicken farms. More frequent and intense rain storms (hmmm…., climate change?) then wash it away through the tile drains, into the drainage ditches and canals, into streams, creeks, rivers, and thence into the big water bodies. These nutrients feed algal blooms. Algal blooms suck up the oxygen in the lake, causing huge death zones and deadly, in-consumable (inconceivable! too) waters. Before I go all big and angry against agro-business, I remember how much I


Perfect pack of peppers; just the way we like ’em…always available, blemish free, bright and big. Changing expectations of ‘perfection’ will go a long way to helping us conserve our landscapes and save our Great Lakes.

appreciate inexpensive food. I have to remember the erroneous, blemish-free high quality produce I (often subconsciously) demand.  I am still a willing member of society that wants high quality, ever present stocks, and low price. Are you one of these people too? I am one tiny but important cog in the wheel that supports efficiency at all costs on our landscape.  An algal bloom in Lake Erie is one of the products of our choices.


Snapping Turtles are harbingers of bio-accumulation; do you know what water-soluble contaminants may have concentrated within you?

What can be done? At the grassroots level, these are exciting times. Consumers and citizens have power on either side of the drainage basin. With more and more urban communities providing spaces for community-share gardens and food forests, the more our populations are getting reconnected to the wonderful process of growing food and caring for the land. Offering organic and locally grown foods facilitates education and more and more people are becoming aware of the problematic issues and impacts of some larger scale farms. This is one key shift that is happening and will continue to grow.

If you have a hand on the make up of any piece of land, from either a small front or backyard to a larger rural property* of few acres or more, your positive impact can be magnified hugely; put in some native plants. If you don’t have any land at your disposal, volunteer on some land that is looking for the help (www.inthezonegardens.ca). Native plants filter water and clean it. They prevent further erosion. They are glue in the resiliency of ecosystems. I recently learned that most of our southern Ontario streams carry hundreds of thousands of tons of farmland soil with them out to the Great Lakes. This is a new thing (like within the last couple hundred years, new); plants used to hold the soil on the landscape.

And to stop the large scale problem right now? To my knowledge both US and Ontario farmers in the watershed grow mainly cash crops; corn, soybeans, wheat, canola. Many large scale animal farm operations are spread out across the watershed. Not all pollute, but many do. To date, the only real tentative plan that may see Ohio and Ontario to agree to reduce the Phosphorus runoff by 40% by 2025. How does this sit with you? I find it a tough pill to swallow; ‘let’s plan to plan for less than a half reduction in 7 years.’


The Thames River as it flows through London, Ontario. It not only will end up carrying much Phosphorus with it from the surrounding farmland, but it will carry some raw sewage from London to Lake Erie as after affects from many summer storm events. Gross, yes.

In the meantime, algal blooms will continue. It’s been largely cools so far for late spring and early summer 2017 but the consistent rains have likely carried much Phosphorus to the lake where it resides and waits for warmer water temperatures.

There’s more we can do. We can start or continue to be a voice with your local government. Many politicians are big fans of Simon and Garfunkel (The Sounds of Silence). One doesn’t have to be a radical to mention this story to a councillor, a mayor, an MP, an MPP or a senator. Start a conversation. Connect with them personally first. Then, if the opportunity presents, lay out the plain facts. The more sound bites that come from all different walks of life, the less the message sounds radical and the more it sounds reasonable.

I saw our mayor the other day sitting, having a beer by himself. He waved and said, “Hi there!” to which I replied a friendly greeting. I kicked myself later for not engaging him at least in an introductory conversation about how he’s doing personally and maybe even get to the wet weather we’ve been having lately…

Lastly, spread pieces of writing commentary like this. I’d love to infiltrate this voice in a number of small communities. Do you know anyone rural you couldn’t kindly annoy with this? Please share. We are on the precipice of destroying the world’s 13th largest freshwater lake, or choosing to make it Great again (for real).

* Rural property owners may qualify to get funds for habitat restoration here – https://caroliniancanada.ca/landowner-leaders

Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

Young Screech Owls B Porchuk

After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).