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Science & NatureGreen TalkMammals on our continent: winners and losers

Mammals on our continent: winners and losers

 by Theresa Peluso

 If you were to take the long view – the really, really long view – and look at the evolution of mammals all the way back from prehistoric times, who would you bet on as the winner?  Why do you consider them winners?  What attributes do they possess that enabled them to win?

 Roughly 100,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era, large animals such as the mastodon, woolly mammoth, horse, dire wolf, short-faced bear, sabre-toothed cat, stag-moose, woolly rhino, giant ground sloth, and the American camel populated the plains and forests of North America.  Their subsequent extinction about 90,000 years later has been attributed to rapidly changing climate at that time, but scientists now think climate was not a significant factor.  According to The Epoch Times (April 23, 2012), “Researchers at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee analyzed mammal families from 56 million years ago, when the Eocene began, through to 12,000 years ago, when megafauna such as mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers died out during the Pleistocene or Ice Age extinction.”  The researchers found that many of these mammals succeeded in adapting to extreme changes in climate because they were able to regulate their body temperature, or migrate to more favourable territories.  Many of them survived extreme average temperatures that varied from 6 degrees Celsius warmer than today, to 12 degrees Celsius colder, which is quite a range!

Although some animals were unable to adapt to climate change and perished, many of the fossil remains discovered in the last century have provided evidence that humans killed significant numbers of them.  Weapons found in the vicinity, such as bone projectile points and other stone tools, and signs of butchered carcasses, suggest that despite the primitive weapons of the time, early humans slaughtered these animals for food, hides, and self-defence.  According to Brian Kooyman, an archeologist at the University of Calgary, he and his assistants found at one excavation site “seven killed horses and one camel, so here it is likely they made up about one-eighth of the meat diet.” (Smithsonian.com, March 13, 2012)

This suggests that it wasn’t just modern man, armed with gunpowder and machinery, who was bringing down these large, powerful animals.  These primitive men were armed with spears and stones, and used their wiles to outwit and overpower their prey.  Unfortunately, they seem to have lacked the wisdom to curtail their killing.

Let’s move forward in time to the early 1800s. As quoted in A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County (Community Stewardship Council of Lanark County, 2008): “In the early 1800’s the virgin forests of Lanark County abounded with foxes, wolves, raccoons, beavers, otters, martins, minks, squirrels, hares, rabbits, muskrats and other mammals.”

(Bell, W. (1824). Hints to emigrants: Letter XXIII from Perth, Upper Canada. Lanark County Genealogical Society) At this point, the humans living there, the Anishinabe Algonquins, lived in equilibrium with wildlife surrounding them.

 Their food sources came from hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering. From spring to fall they fished, hunted and gathered berries, nuts and wild plants. In the winter they hunted and trapped, predominantly interior forest species such as timber wolf, lynx, black bear, moose, marten, otter, mink and beaver. The habitat within the deep woods was virtually unaltered by humans. (A Place in Time)

But then this balanced, harmonious relationship between humans and other animals changed.

With the arrival of the first French settlers, a thriving fur trade with the First Nations began. Fish were also dried and traded. The United Empire Loyalists, who settled on the shores of the Rideau River beginning in the late 1700s, wrote home about the abundance of birds and fish, the many  varieties of wild flowers and plenty of game in the woods. The wildlife  seemed so abundant that game, fish and fowl were harvested year round  as though they were an unlimited resource. In 1890, however, Ontario established a Royal Commission on Fish and Game to deal with the noticeable loss of wildlife. In 1916, the Treaty on Migratory Birds was signed to prevent the hunting of certain bird species that had already become endangered and in 1917 legislation put an end to unregulated  market hunting…As the forests of Lanark County were razed and the wetlands drained to clear land for crops and settlement, many species experienced the loss of their native habitat. These changes led to the disappearance of wildlife that relied on the larger tracts of mature forests and the abundant wetlands that had dominated the county before settlement. (A Place in Time)

 The virgin forests that once covered Lanark County consisted of a variety of trees (red and white pines, maple, ash, elm, beech, basswood, black oak, ironwood, birch, hemlock and cedar).  The white pines were often over 40 metres (130 feet) high and more than 2 metres (6 feet) wide, and the forests were so dense that light rarely penetrated to the forest floor. As these forests were cut and burned, the animals that lived there, such as grey wolf, eastern cougar, lynx, bobcat and wolverine, were forced to move north. Very few martens now remain in Lanark County.  The grey fox, eastern wolf, and eastern cougar are now considered to be endangered. The eastern elk became extinct.

 Settlement also resulted in the loss of vegetated shorelines and wetlands as farmers tilled their fields right down to the edge of streams, lakes and rivers, and drained the bogs and marshes. Many animals living there, including otter, mink, moose, bog lemmings, bear and deer were displaced, not to mention the plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds that also depended on these habitats.  Fragmentation of wild areas, so that fields, roads and buildings chopped up the landscape, made it difficult, if not impossible, for many of these animals to find new homes.

 Some wild mammals have thrived as a result of the increase in open areas and forest edges, or because they have been able to adapt to a variety of environmental conditions (including finding food in human settlements); for example, grey squirrels, chipmunks, beaver, raccoons, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, skunks, deer mice, rabbits, and black bears.  Bats also flourish here, but the discovery of a fungus, commonly called “white-nose syndrome”, in New York in 2006, has since killed more than five million bats in the northeastern U.S. and looks likely to affect populations here as well. Despite their survival skills, these animals are no match for humans.  For those animals that don’t end up as roadkill, humans resort to guns, traps and chemicals to kill them.

So, it would seem that of all the mammals on our planet, humans will emerge as the winners hands down.  But winning also means losing.  Reducing biodiversity disrupts the natural cycles that preserve a balance among the flora and fauna in our environment. Polluting the air, water and soil means killing our food sources and poisoning ourselves as toxins build up in our bodies.  Destroying wetlands, forests, and shoreline vegetation increases the death and destruction caused by ensuing floods and droughts.  Burning fossil fuels increases the rate of climate change and extreme weather events.  As this deterioration in our environment increases, those humans who have survived these catastrophes will compete for what remains of clean air and water and arable land, leading to war and further death.

What we need to do is change the way we humans see ourselves.  Our purpose is not to dominate earth, taking what we want without regard for the other species that also live here.  Our purpose is to live sustainably, in harmony with all living things.  Many of us are now trying to make amends for humanity’s previous disregard for the environment, and there are some positive signs. In Lanark County, new forest-management strategies have been restoring forests at an average rate of 1 per cent per year since the 1970’s.  Our forest cover, at 57.6 per cent, is high in comparison with surrounding counties.  We now have stands of trees 80 to 120 years old, thanks to ensuring that companies logging on Crown land do so sustainably.  Despite such efforts, Lanark County is still considered to be in a zone at medium risk for habitat degradation. Because almost 90 percent of the forests in Lanark County are privately owned, sustainable forest-management strategies on these lands can’t be enforced, but the County is providing private woodlot owners with information and guidance about how such practices can benefit them.

 Other concerns remain.  Human activity, in the form of higher population and more housing estates, greater road density, pollution, fragmentation of wild areas, as well as climate change and competition from non-native species, continue to threaten the survival of many species of plants and animals.

 We therefore need to take additional measures to preserve our environment. Regarding forest management, although we like to keep our houses and yards clean and tidy, the same does not apply to forests and the other wild areas that surround us.  Dead and dying trees, forest debris and animal carcasses are an important source of habitat and food for a rich variety of plants and animals.  Even chickadees and nuthatches can be found visiting a dead deer to eat the fat for sustenance during our freezing winters.

 Observing the hunting and trapping regulations for our area will ensure that only mammals that are abundant are used for human purposes. To avoid encroachment of wildlife on your property, remove attractions such as food and easily accessible nesting sites.  Although vehicle-deer collisions and damage to farm crops from browsing deer are still a problem, increasing hunting quotas is one solution.  A better solution might be to encourage the settlement of top-level predators such as wolves, bears and foxes, which keep these populations in check, and also control the spread of rodents and other smaller animals.  An additional advantage is that, unlike human hunters, these large predators target weak, sick and old prey, ensuring that the surviving animals are healthier and fitter.  Sheep and cattle farmers might object to this solution, and need to continue their current strategies to protect their animals.  According to the 2007/08 Annual Report to the Legislature by the Environmental Commission of Ontario, “The loss of biological diversity is, unequivocally, a global crisis….Mammalian predators are an integral component of Ontario’s biodiversity that merits concerted attention by the Ministry of Natural Resources. It is no longer reasonable to manage mammalian predators primarily as pests to be eradicated or game and fur-bearing mammals to be harvested. A broader and better informed approach guided by the precautionary principle, which seeks to ensure the integrity of Ontario’s ecological systems, is warranted. Wild species should be maintained for their inherent value above all else. They should not be managed simply as a commodity to be rationed amongst stakeholder groups for consumptive (or even non-consumptive purposes), as seen in MNR’s recent management of wolves.”

 Of course, if we don’t want wild animals encroaching on our property, then we should take care not to encroach on theirs.  Ensuring that all animals have wild areas in which to make their homes, raise families and find food, and corridors to travel from one forest or wetland to another as needed, will make undesirable encounters less likely.

 The benefits to protecting our wilderness are not only to ensure clean air and water for ourselves, improved flood and drought control, and sustainable sources of food and lumber, but also to provide an enriching, scenic environment for our enjoyment, whether it be swimming, boating, hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, skating, fishing, hunting, or bird watching. On the journey of life, it’s not a question of winning or losing; it’s about sharing the journey, and getting help and giving help as needed.




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