Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
An aerial shot of a seemingly un-ending suburb shows human habitat encroaching on wilderness.

Why sprawl affects all

The world’s urban areas can be crowded and polluted, yet humanity thrives there — often at the expense of the surrounding natural world. Given Canada’s vast expanse, one might be tempted to see plenty of room for these animals to live, even if urban areas encroach on their habitat. Nevertheless, rampant urbanization has brought urban ailments such as smog to even the most pristine of wildernesses, leaving their inhabitants with no place left to run.

Effects of urbanization on local species

Urbanization occurs when humans congregate in greater numbers: towns flourish into cities and cities grow into megacities, while animals cease to flourish and plants cease to grow. Moreover, urbanization often goes hand in hand with road construction, an increase in one often leading to an increase in the other.

The construction of a new road often opens up an area to urban development. Animals and plants living in this previously remote space soon begin to feel the effects of this improved access. The most obvious and immediate impact is road kill. Animals such as wolves will take to the newly constructed roads, as at first they appear easier to navigate than travelling through thick woods. Here they can get run over by vehicles or shot by newcomers. Other animals cross the road for a promising green patch on the other side, only to end up dead in a ditch, terminating a future generation.

A less-obvious effect of road construction is the slow degradation of the environment, including poorly drained roads or pollution generated by passing cars. Herbicides may keep roadsides free of vegetation that inhibits driver visibility, yet it also eliminates a source of food for many species, as well as a place for them to hide from predators.

Another facet of increasing urbanization is decreasing farmland, including orchards. In Canada, there are four main areas where orchards thrive — Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, parts of Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the South Montreal Plain, Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. These regions are also of prime real estate value, especially the Niagara Peninsula and the Okanagan Valley, due to their temperate climates. Farmers often make more money selling their land to developers rather than to other farmers. Taking orchards or other fertile land out of the ecosystem affects prospects of animals that use them for food and shelter.

Urbanization affects any species that depend on that area for survival — and in turn any species that depend on those species. Some animals, such as the coyote, use urbanization to their advantage, adopting human garbage or even pets as food sources. Others, such as the Blanding’s turtle, suffer mercilessly as roads interfere with their delicate life cycles. Road building carries on, but the turtles may not, a prospect that calls for discussions of alternate routes.

Canadian Geographic retrospective

The harm our roads do to nature and wildlife

By David J. Oxley and M. Brock Fenton
May/June 1976

In this article, co-writers David J. Oxley and M. Brock Fenton tackle the issue of expanding road systems damaging nearby animal and plant populations, and the environment as a whole. Their story, which ran in the mid-1970s, was one of the magazine’s first articles related to the theme of urbanization.

History of waterways, railways and finally roadways in the country show the evolution of major travel in Canada, the latter of which has seen an explosion or road travel over the last two centuries. This growth was especially fast after the Second World War.

The authors note that the average citizen in the 1960s felt the impacts of roads were seen as a necessary byproduct of progress. They call for a review of this attitude in the 1970s, and hypothesize that scarcity of gasoline in the future will cause people to use roads less and thus make their construction less important.

The way highways and freeways end up containing animals to territories bordered by roads is brought to light here, as are roadside herbicides that end up in the diets of the animals grazing there. The practice of mowing roadsides to make for clearer lines of vision for drivers is decried as taking away further habitat of the resident animals.

This in-depth article lists factors that influence animal mortality including amounts of roadside vegetation and habits of a given species. The authors hope to educate the public to a problem that may not be so obvious to people enjoying a road trip or simply using their cars to run errands.

Blowin’ in the wind

By Mary Vincent and Steven Fick
May/June 2000

The magazine mapped smog concentrations in relation to burgeoning city centres in “Blowin’ in the wind” by Mary Vincent and Steven Fick in the May/June 2000 issue. The piece clearly depicts Canada’s smoggiest places and how they got that way. In some cases, like Vancouver, local traffic is to blame. In Atlantic Canada, though, at least half of the smog blows in from the United States.

In greater Vancouver, the map notes that about 80 percent of ground-level ozone is generated by vehicles. The area has the highest per-capital car ownership in Canada, and vehicles are by far the largest source of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The region is bordered by the Coast and Cascade mountains to the north and southeast, geographical features that, combined with sea breezes off the Strait of Georgia, restrict air-flow patterns and contribute to the ozone problem.

The region with the worst air quality in Canada runs from Windsor to Québec. While much of the smog is generated locally, about 50 percent of the ozone comes from the Ohio Valley and the Cleveland and Detroit areas. Canada is negotiating with the United States to reduce the crossborder flow or air pollutants.

In Atlantic Canada, around the Bay of Fundy, southern New Brunswick and parts of Nova Scotia southwest of Halifax, 50 to 80 percent of the smog is caused by cross-border pollution from the northeastern United States or emissions from central Canada. Smog is concentrated around the Saint John region of New Brunswick where local sources of sulphur dioxide include a large petroleum refinery, two oil-fired generating stations and several pulp-and-paper mills.

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