Great Egret

Great Egret

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Developers win, nature loses.....again

This isn't really prime time to see a tallgrass prairie in all of its glory...late July or early August is undoubtedly the best time. I have written about Ontario tallgrass prairie in its prime in this blog. But it is a relevant time to raise an issue pertaining to one of the most significant tallgrass prairie complexes in Ontario. The issue will be described a bit later in this blog.

The area I am referring to is the Ojibway Prairie Remnants tallgrass prairie complex in southwest Windsor. I was first introduced to the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve (OPPNR) portion of this complex back in 1975, when a colleague and I visited it in August of that year. We had had a hint of the prairie and savanna types of ecosystem as we were both summer seasonal naturalists at Rondeau Provincial Park, which has a fair representation of species common to both habitat types. But the really magnificent stuff was at OPPNR. There were various members of the sunflower family, some reaching heights of 3 metres (10 feet) or more. There were vivid purple spikes of the iconic Dense Blazing-star throughout. There are more provincially and nationally rare species in prairie/savanna than any other habitat in Ontario, some of which will be illustrated below. Since the 1970s, numerous invertebrate species have been found in the Ojibway Prairie Complex that have never been documented in Canada before!

Over the decades of my career, I had a lot to do with OPPNR: writing vegetation management plans, adding to some of the inventory knowledge database, coordinating research projects, photographing (some of the photos in this blog are scanned slides taken years ago), promoting prescribed burns and being heavily involved with the planning and production of the 1992 North American Prairie Conference held in Windsor. This was the first time this conference had been held outside the USA. It was great fun to collaborate with the city staff, especially those of the nearby Ojibway Nature Centre, to bring this national conference to Windsor and show hundreds of people the spectacular prairie and savanna in southwestern Ontario.

Many people are surprised when one mentions that Ontario really is a prairie province, and some of the best examples occur in southwestern Ontario. In fact the most biologically diverse prairies in Canada occur in Ontario. This first image I took at the OPPNR while standing in a prairie portion, looking across to a savanna, which is the open treed area. The white candelabra style plants are Culver's-root (Veronicastrum virginicum). The tall green stems are of Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), not quite out in flower.

In the spring time, prairies are often burned, but with the sunlight and moisture they quickly green up. The two images that follow the fire were taken about 10 days after the burn.

There is a profusion of rare and not-so-rare plants that are largely dependent on prairie or savanna habitat of this prairie complex.
Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
 Numerous milkweed species occur, including:
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
 The only Ontario location for Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella) is in the greater Ojibway Prairie Complex. Even though it is limited to a few plants, it doesn't have any officially legislated Species At Risk status yet.
Milkweed are of course important for the Monarch butterfly, as are thistles.
Prairie Thistle (Cirsium discolor)
 The only known location for the Endangered Slender Bush Clover (Lespedeza virginica) occurs in the Ojibway Prairie Complex.
 Smooth Foxglove (Aureolaria flava) is soon to be evaluated for its Species At Risk status.
Smooth Foxglove
Colic-root (Aletris farinosa) (Threatened)
There are, or were, several populations of Colic-root in the Ojibway Prairie Complex, including by far the largest one in Canada. More on this a bit later.

The very tall Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) occurs here. It has huge sandpapery basal leaves and a flower stem that can be at least 3 metres tall with the obvious yellow sunflower types of flower heads near the top.
Prairie Dock
 Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera) is limited mostly to better quality prairie-like settings in extreme southwestern Ontario.
Prairie Rose
Impressive numbers of the iconic Dense Blazing-star can be found, in addition to the smaller Rough Blazing-star.
Dense Blazing-star (Liatris spicata)

Rough Blazing-star (Liatris aspera)

 Purple Milkwort (Polygala incarnata) occurs here in small numbers. It was first recorded in the Windsor area in 1894 by botanist John Macoun, and went unnoticed until I re-discovered it exactly a century later! The only other location for it in Canada is on the fine prairies of Walpole Island First Nation.
Pink Milkwort

Rare orchids occur here.
Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) (Endangered)
Purple Twayblade (Liparis liliifolia) (Threatened)
 There are historical records of Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris).

There is no doubt that natural areas in an urban area are at great risk for impact and loss. In the last decade, this has become even more evident in Windsor with the newly created/expanded access to the new international bridge crossing. Unprotected prairie and savanna sites have been sacrificed. This next image is of a prairie that used to occur at the northwest corner of Huron Church Line and Todd Lane. It wasn't pristine by any means, but since it had been left alone for a couple of years, the prairie species hanging on such as the Colic-root (the white spikey plants) came up nicely. I regret to say, however, that they are no longer there. Even though this population represented the largest single population of Colic-root in Canada, a legally Threatened species, that area was needed for highway expansion, so it was removed. The provincial condition on the permit was to allow their removal, as long as the threatened and endangered plants were transplanted to another more protected site.

What a tragic solution....transplanting is nothing more than large scale gardening!

When I was still with the former MNR and involved with the creation of the new Endangered Species Act in 2007, I was adamant that although some aspects of this legislation were valuable, the bigger issue was dealing with the habitats that such endangered species required to survive. The trailer that I had in my emails was "Dealing with Species At Risk instead of Spaces At Risk is like treating a life-threatening disease with an aspirin". What is going on in Windsor today, and numerous other places as well, is a prime example of this issue, and highlights a major flaw in this type of thinking regarding endangered species.

 These nationally significant prairie and savanna remnants making up the Ojibway Prairie Complex are almost completely surrounded by urban development, including residential and commercial uses. One of the properties immediately adjacent to Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve and the city owned Ojibway Park is the former Windsor Raceway. It has not been operational as a raceway for quite a few years, and some of the area closest to these two prairie parks had begun to revert to its former likeness of tallgrass prairie. Not only were some of the legislated prairie plants becoming re-established, but some of the faunal elements, including the endangered Eastern Fox Snake, were as well.

Unfortunately the former raceway property has changed hands, and the new owner wants to turn the property into a big box complex. This has been a contentious issue for many, and there have been appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board. The issues are mainly:
  • does south Windsor really need another big box complex, when others in that city are apparently not doing all that well, and the long-term economic development plan indicates that Windsor already has more capacity than needed for at least the next 20 years? There are other large undeveloped or 'brown' (i.e. failed development or abandoned) properties available elsewhere for this type of development if more is necessary;
  • what about the loss of rare species and habitat not resolved by the permit issued by MNRF (see below)
  • what about the major impacts to the species at risk on the adjacent park properties, not to mention the numerous species that are not officially 'at risk' quite yet? The new development calls for a major expansion/widening of the access roads, which currently separate Ojibway Prairie PNR from Ojibway Park, and will result in a major increase in traffic on the road separating these two parks. This will result in more and more animal life to be killed on the road.
  • will the new development interfere with the prescribed burns needed for short and long term prairie health?
Admittedly the new owners have been issued a permit by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to allow them to build, if they comply with the conditions such as transplanting some of the plant species that will be affected. There is also a portion of the property to not be subject to development and will be added to the city-owned Ojibway Park.

But residents and non-residents alike are questioning the need for such a huge development as well as the short-term and long-term impacts on the nationally significant prairie and savanna ecosystems and the species that make them up. The OMB dismissed the appeal to protect the significant prairie habitat, but residents are still actively involved in seeking a better solution. You can read much more about the issue and the public reaction here in the Windsor Star. 

Many residents are requesting that the city council reconsider their approval for this project, and the local MPP is asking the owner/developer to reconsider it as well.  Note the request in the article in the Windsor Star for signing a petition to be sent to the mayor. Please make your voices heard!

"Dealing with Species At Risk instead of Spaces At Risk is like treating a life-threatening disease with an aspirin"


  1. Great post Allen, your Spaces at Risk mantra speaks volumes. I'm now curious what went on at Dainty Foods a few days back.

    1. Thanks, Patrick. I figured this topic would be of interest and concern to you. (I'm not sure about the Dainty Foods comment.)

    2. Patrick: I've since found out about the Dainty Foods issue, which occurred about a kilometre or so west of the OPPNR and adjacent to the Black Oak Woods part of the Ojibway Prairie Complex. An article is in the Windsor Star here:

      More destruction, and this time apparently not authorized or permitted, but an investigation is underway. I'm not holding out much hope that it will be rectified even if the actual culprit can be found out.

  2. You have got to wonder, if this location is not enough to stop a development application...what is? There are good spots to build, and this is not one of them.

    1. Hi Nate: it makes one wonder indeed. Windsor and Essex Co are, unfortunately in some respects, located in one of the most biodiverse parts of Canada, so development almost anywhere will have some impact on species at risk. However when this development is right beside two of the most significant and biodiverse prairie/savanna sites in Ontario, the impacts are potentially much greater. Hopefully this development can be halted or scaled back considerably before it does irreparable damage.

  3. Well written. I have published it on my twitter account. We have requested the federal government consider designating the region an urban national park, perhaps purchasing additional land around the park.

    1. Thanks for passing this a little farther along. A national urban park would be wonderful for this amazing complex of prairie, savanna and woodland.

    2. Allen would it be possible to use the photos on my twitter account for the same campaign?

    3. Sure...if they can be helpful, then you have my permission for this.

  4. Spot on Allen - unfortunately. Completely disheartening. Makes me kind of glad I no longer work for an organisation that purports to protect species as risk, but isn't willing to to ever say "no" to anyone, just impose a few conditions that seem akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic... Sigh.

    1. Thanks, Deb. Yes it is unfortunate that the agencies that are supposed to be on the front lines for protection of these species and their habitats fail to realize their responsibilities and leave it to grassroots organizations and individuals. Politics at its worst.

      At least now I can say what I feel about it, and not worry about repercussions from upper management.

  5. Thanks for the good post Allen. There was quite a rally in Windsor last night. I found it disturbing that Species at Risk evidence wasnt allowed to be presented at the OMB hearing in August, yet testimony from a Dillon Consultant with a three day Reptile and Amphibian course was. It doesn't seem to be a very balanced process.

    1. Glad to hear the rally went well, Ken. Unfortunately in the way things unfold in the hearing process, lawyers and others do their utmost to prevent or at least minimize anything given as evidence that might damage their clients plans. It isn't balanced or fair at all!