‘Death by 1,000 cuts’: GTA West Highway exposes cataclysmic impact our addiction to urbanization has on wildlife
“Spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of colour and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.”
Rachel Carson — Silent Spring
Published nearly 60 years ago, Carson’s words in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring – widely credited for launching the environmental movement – detailed the plight of American wildlife and the “record of destruction and death” as a result of the widespread use of chemical insecticides starting in the post-war era.
The tragic tales told in its pages gave readers their first look into the devastation human activity was causing in the natural world, particularly bird-life, which was described in gut-wrenching detail.
“Although it lacked muscular coordination and could not fly or stand, it continued to beat its wings and clutch with its toes while laying on its side. Its beak was held open and breathing was laboured,” reads a description of a meadowlark caught in the chemical shower of an insecticide spraying.
Habitat of the eastern meadowlark lies in the path of the GTA West Highway. (Photo by Jim Richards)
The book’s revelations spawned today’s environmental activism and led to regulatory changes banning the use of DDT and many of the most deadly chemical cocktails that were being liberally splashed across rural fields.
The legacy of Carson’s book can not be understated. It effectively altered the path of human history. A clear line in the sand was marked showing how far we needed to go before profound harm to our pristine, natural world, would be irreversible.
Tragically, since the 1960s, that line has been continuously paved over by the spread of runaway urbanization.
The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, from 53 percent in 2018. These people will need places to call home.
In Ontario, projections from 2019 predict the province’s population will increase 32 percent over the next 27 years. The equivalent of almost two more Torontos will be added to Ontario. GTA municipalities, particularly those in Peel, will absorb the largest share of this staggering growth and all the pressure that comes with it.
“Make no mistake, Brampton is at a turning point from being a comfortable, suburban community to becoming over the next 20+ years, a big city,” reads Brampton’s 2040 Vision planning document.
It’s not just Brampton. The Region of Peel’s population is expected to grow to about 2-million residents by 2041.
The population growth may seem never ending, but the land needed to house these newcomers is not, and the way Peel has been accommodating people in recent decades is not compatible with preserving the natural world.
Comparing aerial imagery of the City of Mississauga in the 1960s, when Carson’s book was first published, to now, clearly illustrates the power of human populations to alter their surroundings. From a landscape blanketed by the patchwork neutral tones of farm fields and grassland, providing habitat, food and breeding grounds for abundant wildlife that had been natural to the area for thousands of years, the entire landscape has since been utterly transformed into a concrete and asphalt-covered blotter of suburban growth spreading like a rapidly metastasizing cancer that overcomes a body’s original form.
Much of the Earth, a 4.5 billion-year-old planet, is being rendered unrecognizable by modern, industrial human activity over the past 200 years.
In many ways, urban growth is inevitable. The trajectory of the world’s population is perhaps the greatest existential threat to humanity.
The planet has always been abundant with flora and fauna and the Earth has remained in relative balance throughout the vast majority of human history.
About 7,000 years ago, the roughly 5 million people who inhabited our planet caused very little disruption to ecosystems, the oceans and the millions of species we shared Earth with. Food supplies were abundant.
Today, there are almost 8 billion of us roaming the planet. And by the end of this century there will be almost 11 billion people in the world. In a little more than a hundred years, the population by 2100 will have doubled. It took about 300,000 years to reach a human population of 1 billion, and it will take about 300 more to reach 11 billion.
This is not sustainable.
Homes need to be built to house this unfathomable human growth. Cities are where we are settling. The way cities go about this growth in the coming decades will decide the fate of our animal neighbours, and humanity.
Environmental advocates, wildlife experts and climate scientists have been ringing this alarm bell for years, even as growth has persisted at a dizzying pace, especially in places like Southern Ontario.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly stated municipal leaders play a key role in addressing the impacts poor urban planning has on our changing climate. Despite the warnings, more species have been pushed to the edge of extinction. The “red list” created by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is the most comprehensive look at the world’s threatened species. Of the nearly 135,000 species it has assessed, approximately 1 in 4 face the threat of global extinction.
“We’ve got our foot on the pedal heading towards the wall,” says Anne Bell, the director of conservation and education with Ontario Nature. “You can kind of see what’s coming down the road. We’ve lost so much already. Just think of wetlands.”
In the GTA, over 85 percent of wetlands, key habitat for countless species, have been lost since rapid urbanization began in the 1980s. Approximately 68 percent of wetlands, originally present in Southern Ontario are now gone. These valuable ecosystems receive considerable attention as their benefits for flood protection, water purification and carbon capture capabilities are now in high demand from municipalities looking to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. However, every woodlot that is razed to make way for a subdivision, or every farmer’s field that is paved over for a new parking lot, is habitat lost for many species of wildlife.
Wetland loss across Ontario.
Habitat loss and fragmentation is the number one threat to many species today. As houses continue to be built where rabbits or mice typically den, or where large buildings continue to be erected along the migratory paths of birds, the risks continue to stack up.
“The last 100 years for birds have been a disaster,” says Bruce Murphy, the president of the Ontario Bird Banding Association and director of the Hilliardton Marsh Research and Education Centre. Migration routes are “hardwired” into birds, and when those routes are altered by human activity, creating obstacles or eliminating food stopovers, it poses a significant risk. “The migration routes have become increasingly challenging,” he says.
Species now at risk and the loss of biodiversity in a world with an exploding population and changing climate, means that protecting the habitats that remain is absolutely critical.
It needs to start immediately.
Many cities have recently begun analyzing methods for improving their sustainability and altering their footprint by shifting away from urban sprawl and building upward instead of outward. But there are still significant tests of our willingness to change. There is no bigger threat in Ontario right now than the GTA West Highway, or Highway 413. An analysis completed by The Pointer using data and mapping from the GTA West Highway project along with reports from the Natural Heritage Information Centre has found that nearly 30 species listed as critically endangered, threatened or a species of concern sit directly in the highway’s path.
Ontario’s Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC) collects data about ecosystems and sightings of endangered or threatened species throughout the province. The sightings are updated bi-annually, with a “major update” being completed in February 2021 the Ministry of Natural Resource and Forestry told The Pointer.
Using this information, The Pointer compared sightings in the areas surrounding the proposed highway’s route and its 14 interchanges.
The 4-to-6 lane highway is expected to run approximately 59 kilometres connecting Halton and York regions running just north of the border between Brampton and Caledon.
The Pointer confirmed 29 species either listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern have been spotted along the highway’s route in the last 6 months, 21 of them inside the areas where proposed interchanges could be built, transforming valuable habitat into a hub of automobile traffic and human activity.
This includes 6 species listed as endangered, 7 as threatened, and 8 species of concern. In many cases, the species are named on both provincial and federal government at-risk species lists, meaning their habitat is usually protected under government legislation. While species of concern don’t receive such protection, they are closely monitored due to their vulnerability to potentially becoming threatened or endangered.
Many of the species, The Pointer found, were spotted in the area of multiple interchanges, meaning the impact on them could be even more severe as the highway would destroy multiple habitats they rely on in one fell swoop.
The bobolink and the eastern meadowlark, both threatened species, have been spotted in all but 1 of the 14 interchange locations for the proposed GTA West Highway. The endangered butternut tree grows in 6 of the 14 interchange locations. The endangered rapids clubtail dragonfly has been spotted in 3 of the 14, and the redside dace, also endangered, has been seen swimming in the waterways running through 11 of the 14.
The endangered loggerhead shrike has also been spotted in the area, but they are not known to breed in this area, preferring northern alvar grasslands. The endangered rusty-patched bumblebee has also been recorded in the area. By some records, it hasn't been spotted in Ontario since 2002.
Close to 30 endangered, threatened and species of concern have been spotted along the proposed route of the GTA West Highway.
No less than 40 mixed wader nesting colonies are recorded along the route, signalling this as a key habitat for a variety of wading birds.
Further, three “restricted species” have been spotted in the area of Interchange 6 where the GTA West Highway is proposed to connect with Highway 410 in Brampton. These “restricted species” are those vulnerable to commercial exploitation, like trophy hunting, or species whose habitat is so vulnerable to disturbance, that the information of their location is kept secret from the public.
Clockwise from top left: The chimney swift, loggerhead shrike, gold-winged warbler and bobolink, all species at risk, have been spotted in the path of the GTA West Highway. (Photos by Jim Richards)
The Pointer’s analysis was limited to the area directly along the route and around the proposed interchanges, it does not consider the area around the highway which would become prime developable land following the highway’s completion. In total, hundreds of square kilometres of habitat could be lost in an area recently identified as home to some of the highest number of species at risk in the country. The March 2021 report from Nature Conservancy Canada identified nine “crisis ecoregions” across Canada, one of which is in Southern Ontario.
This is in addition to the potentially devastating impacts the highway will have on the watersheds in the area by reducing the water quality and tree cover in the northern reaches of the GTA that supports much of the southern ecosystems.
“Canadians have this view that we have an inexhaustible resource because we’re such a big country, but really there is no place in Canada that wildlife isn’t being impacted in some way. Human activity is having an impact everywhere, there’s no such thing as pristine, wild spaces anymore,” says Lance Woolaver, the executive director of Wildlife Preservation Canada, an organization that works to save some of Canada’s most endangered species through hands-on recovery efforts. “If we keep developing and keep chipping away, then at some point, it’s not too far in the future, it’s going to be gone.”
Lance Woolaver with Wildlife Preservation Canada has spent close to 20 years working with critically endangered species.
“It’s going to be a knife in the heart of Ontario’s biodiversity,” says Ryan Norris, a professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. “It’s going to be catastrophic.”
Browsing Ontario’s list of species at risk and reading about any of those listed as threatened or endangered, the reader would be left with the impression the government is taking swift and definitive action to protect these animals. The Province’s website has a page dedicated to each of these animals, listing the threats they face, and the action the government is taking to protect them. Many of these species also receive double-plated armour from the federal species at risk legislation which protects them as well.
“Threatened species and their general habitat are automatically protected,” the Province’s website states.
Unfortunately, this is not true.
Anne Bell at Ontario Nature says that Ontario’s Endangered Species Act used to be the gold-standard for species at risk law in Canada, requiring any developer harming the habitat of an at-risk species to provide an overall benefit to the species. This meant either preserving or investing in habitat elsewhere which would leave the at-risk species better off than they were before the development. Since it was introduced in 2007 it has been stripped of its power through regulatory exemptions and amendments.
“The Act is supposed to accomplish many things, but that fundamental piece about the prohibitions against activities that harm species or damage its habitat, those fundamental prohibitions have been so weakened that the law is just a shadow of its former self,” Bell says. “It is not adequate to protecting species at risk in Ontario. It’s a big problem.”
Coyotes and deer, while not at-risk, will also be impacted if the GTA West Highway is built. (Photos by Meghan Wetmore)
One of those exemptions is for highway infrastructure. Meaning that there is nothing to protect the list of at-risk species that lie within the path of the proposed highway if the Province decides to pave its way through.
The PC government has said it has no intentions of developing within the Greenbelt, despite the highway clearly running right through its southern edge, and has vowed to expand the Greenbelt following consultation with the public. While this goes on, the Province is pulling another bait and switch with smaller, but no less important, wetlands and green spaces elsewhere in the province, overriding municipal land use planning with Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZO), some of which have affected the most pristine of Ontario’s remaining wetlands.
The rainbow trout is a prized trophy for anglers, and there are few spots better to pull one of the speckled beauties from Ontario’s cold-water streams than Duffins Creek.
Steelheads, known for a prominent splash of red across their side, use the streams of Duffins Creek in the spring months to escape the cool depths of Lake Ontario to spawn in the warmer, shallower water. Small spinners, flies, and wobbling crankbaits all hit the waters as fishermen test their luck from the creek’s edge.
These cold water streams, located between Pickering and Ajax, east of Toronto, are some of the healthiest in the GTA, and support the life-cycles of many fish species, including brook trout, pike and coho salmon, to name a few. The cocoa-coloured waters also host the redside dace, a small fish with a fiery red stripe emblazoned on their side. The tiny swimmer is listed as an endangered species by both the provincial and federal governments.
“Changes in water quality and quantity, situation, and the clearing of streamside vegetation are threatening the survival of this species,” a 2018 report from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) reads. The TRCA, which has jurisdiction and duty to protect the wetland, has been working with Environment and Climate Change Canada to prevent further destruction and restore the area.
Until recently that is.
The Duffins Creek is an ecological gem in Ontario’s urban jungle, with the highest proportion of natural cover of any watershed in the TRCA’s jurisdiction, the healthiest waterways in the GTA, and therefore some of the most abundant aquatic life communities in Southern Ontario. The area was deemed “provincially significant” in 2005. It is some of the strongest protection that can be placed over Ontario’s natural spaces, but the legislative armour is not impenetrable, especially when it is being stabbed from behind by the same government that vowed to protect it.
The Province’s 2017-2030 wetland strategy was designed to protect wetlands in a more effective and efficient manner. The 2017 plan was put in place by a dying Liberal government and inherited by the PCs, who are now doing the opposite of what it lays out. Over the course of 2020, while Ontarians struggled to build the mental and physical strength to deal with a new pandemic world, the PCs were busy knocking down legislative barriers that were designed by previous governments to protect valuable green space. Duffins Creek is only the latest in a long line of wetlands to fall into the crosshairs of urbanization.
A portion of the Duffins Creek Wetland Complex was recently the subject of an MZO to allow the construction of a warehouse. The proponent backed off the project following strong backlash.
An MZO from the PCs threatened to pave over a portion of the Duffins Creek wetland complex to be replaced with a warehouse and casino.
This very real threat to one of the province’s last remaining wetlands on the north shore of Lake Ontario was immediately met with strong backlash from local conservation and naturalist groups when the news broke late last year. Ontario Nature and nearly 100 environmental organizations wrote to the government in protest. Shaun Collier, the mayor of Ajax stated he had never seen a development proceed in such an expedited manner.
The Ford government showed little sign it would listen to the hundreds of organizations, including those on its own Greenbelt Council and First Nations Chiefs — who were not consulted — who have spoken out against the MZO and the province’s abuse of sensitive lands. It was only after a lengthy list of concessions from the TRCA, and demands for rehabilitation and wetland compensation elsewhere in the province that the proponent of the project backed off, leaving the land untouched.
It was a victory for the environmental groups, but one that left many people shaken.
Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, the organization which, alongside EcoJustice, challenged the Provinces MZO in court, said if Duffins Creek had fallen, it would have opened the floodgates.
“If a wetland of this size in an urban setting, that is this rare, can be destroyed, then there is nothing that is going to be off limits in the future,” he said during a recent Environmental Defence webinar.
The problem is, Duffins Creek is not the only habitat at risk. These battles are being fought across the province, and while environmental groups have to continually fight and fight and fight to gain a victory for a single piece of land, the developer only needs to win once.
“If you lose the battle once, it’s over, the habitat is gone forever,” Murphy says.
Bruce Murphy, president of the Ontario Bird Banding Association.
Habitats in Southern Ontario have been doing a lot of losing over the last several decades. It’s gotten to the point where many environmental advocates say if we don’t stop our path of urban sprawl and habitat loss, it may soon be too late.
“These islands of green are the last refuges for so many of our plants and animals and unless we are willing to let them disappear then we have a responsibility to stop the destruction. But how can we do that when we don’t have a government that is willing even to implement its own law?” Bell says.
The small redside dace, unseen by many, but unmistakable with its fiery red stripe, is also found in the waterways that will be directly impacted by the majority of the Highway 413 interchanges. It could spell the end of the tiny minnow in that area, Bell says.
“That little colourful minnow is going to go belly-up if things like this continue. The expression is death by a thousand cuts and that’s exactly what is happening,” she says. The small fish is very sensitive to temperature changes in the water, and the construction of bridges and culverts within its habitat will only further degrade the streams the fish relies on.
“It will be amazing if redside dace in Ontario persist,” Bell says. “An endangered species like redside dace needs the political will to say no. We need to recognize that it is these projects one after the other — ‘it’s just this’, ‘it’s just that’ —which at the end of the day the cumulative impact is too much. That’s the story of our species at risk.”
“To me, it’s remarkable that the question is even asked, that do fish feel pain? As a scientist, it’s common sense,” says Sylvia Earle in Seaspiracy, a new documentary from Netflix detailing the unthinkable amount of destruction industrial fishing is causing to the oceans. “We feel pain, we feel touch, but fish have a lateral line down their sides that senses the most exquisite little movements in the water, so you see a thousand fish moving like one fish.”
Earle, a marine biologist, the first female chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and founder of Mission Blue, believes that those who say fish don’t feel pain, clearly haven’t spent much time with them.
“I think it’s an excuse for doing dastardly things to innocent creatures,” she states in the documentary.
For Canadians, wildlife are embedded into our lives in such a significant way, they are sometimes taken for granted. For a country that adores its wildlife to the point of putting them on its currency, it can come as a shock to learn that across Canada, species are being threatened by human activity at a rate never before seen.
Like fish, these are beings that feel pain, fear and affection.
Lance Woolaver with WPC has spent nearly 20 years working to recover species at risk. The majority of that time was spent working with the world’s most critically endangered animals — species down to only four or five left on the entire planet — on the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar.
“Anybody who works with animals, at any level, basically every decision or everything that they do is based on an emotion,” he tells The Pointer. “You definitely can’t say they don’t feel things.”
Woolaver’s work has included restoring the populations of Mauritius kestrel (at one time down to 4 birds); the california condor, once extinct in the wild and recovered by breeding in captivity; the kakapoa, a large flightless parrot; the echo parakeet and the pink pigeon, both of which had dwindled down to about 20 birds before recovery efforts.
Throughout his time in Mauritius, Woolaver worked hands-on with these animals in order to ensure their preservation. He’s seen some remarkable behaviour.
During one recovery effort, an echo parakeet had been released into the wild where it survived for months. Then one day it showed up back inside the release enclosure, having broken its leg — most likely the result of a newly introduced monkey species on the island.
“She basically knew that we, the ones who had released her, are the ones that could help her, which we were able to do,” Woolaver says.
The same thing happened during conservation work with the pink pigeon.
“They could have gone anywhere, but they came back,” he says. “Almost every single decision that an animal makes, it’s obviously based on evolution, but it’s also based on an emotion.”
This level of appreciation for the life of an animal, and this sense of wonder at what they are able to do is shared among many who work closely with wildlife.
Murphy, who bands birds practically year-round at the Hilliardton Marsh, seeing birds return year after year, often from startling journeys across continents, is simply awe-inspiring.
“It’s just amazing to me that a bird that winters in Nicaragua can find its way back to the marsh year after year,” he says. According to Google Maps, that’s a journey of approximately 6,500 kilometres.
A sampling of the Murphy’s banded birds. The Hilliardton Marsh is currently experiencing a “Central Park effect” with birds flocking to the marsh due to a lack of green space anywhere else.
This level of appreciation may be arising among the general population in Ontario. Suffering under one of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the entire world, the only solace people have been able to find from the constant stress and anxiety COVID has bred, is that which exists outside their homes.
“People are noticing things because people are home more, people have slowed down,” Bell says, noting that interest in birdwatching has sky-rocketed during the pandemic. “There’s that element of people really understanding the beauty, the intricacy of the natural world around us and really noticing in a way they haven’t before and understanding how good it makes them feel, how happy it makes them feel.”
The pandemic has made many people rethink their connection to nature and the lives of the animals we share our world with. (Photos by Meghan Wetmore)
That’s no fluke, studies have shown that birds have a calming effect on our brains. Researchers at the University of Exeter, during a study in 2017, found the presence of trees and birds in a person’s neighbourhood correlated with lower levels of all stress, anxiety and depression. It didn’t matter if they were an avid ornithologist or a rookie backyard birder.
“Given that most people cannot distinguish between species, benefits may be provided through directly experiencing abundance, with richness contributing when people can see multiple species within a relatively small timeframe, such as around a feeder,” the study found.
This newfound appreciation for nature could even be transitioning into action. During an Environmental Defence webinar discussing the impacts of the PC government’s Schedule 6 — legislation that stripped the power of conservation authorities to challenge development applications — over 1,000 people listened in.
It’s a hopeful sign that people are realizing we have skin in this fight too.
“We’re animals just like other wildlife, we’re part of this, and if we destroy the last remaining wildlife habitats in our immediate surroundings, we’re destroying ourselves to a great degree.”
“I think the population needs to buy into the idea that enough is enough,” Murphy states.
The future of the GTA West Highway in many ways, will be decided by what happens on (or before) May 4, when the federal government makes a decision on whether to step in and review the project through its own federal environmental impact assessment process.
The call for a federal EA has been supported by all of Peel’s municipalities, and would see the project scrutinized under some of its most significant analysis to date.
Many critics have pointed out that the PC government is attempting to expedite the EA process for the project, even allowing for early work, including bridge construction, transitway construction and bridge replacements to begin before the assessment is even completed.
“It’s the exact opposite of a cautionary approach, it flies in the face of informed decision making. If we want to understand what the potential impacts are, then we need to take the time to look at them carefully and closely,” Bell says. “What is the rush here? Why is the government so determined to move this forward without taking a proper look at it?”
Premier Doug Ford’s connection to the development industry has been well-documented, with a recent joint investigation by the National Observer, Hamilton Spectator and Toronto Star reconfirming what many had known for years. Those who stand to benefit most from the highway are the developers who own the land along its length, many of which are heavy PC party donors.
Both the provincial Liberals and NDP have vowed to scrap the project if elected, and municipalities all along the route, including Peel Region have come out in opposition to the highway. MPP Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, used the occasion of Earth Day today to once again call on the PCs to cancel the Highway 413 project.
“We don’t need another highway that will pave over farmlands, destroy wetlands and habitats, cut through the Greenbelt and cause more sprawl,” he said in a released statement. “A healthy planet means healthy people. We need to push forward with bold ideas that are in the best interests of future generations and the planet. Not ill-advised highways influenced by politics, money and ideology.”
It means if work doesn’t begin this term, and the PCs lose their majority in the 2022 election, the GTA West could be put back on the scrap heap (the Liberals tossed it there in 2018), and many party donors will not be happy.
Norris at the University of Guelph states that, when it comes to specific species along the route, particularly the redside dace, there is an argument to be made that the environmental assessment should actually be extended to a multi-year assessment. The redside dace doesn’t always use the same streams for its migration routes, and only by observing the streams over multiple breeding seasons can an observer gain an accurate picture of populations.
Whether the federal government decides to step in on the project or not, Ontario remains at a crossroads. If it isn’t the GTA West Highway, it will be another development somewhere else that jeopardizes the home of any number of wildlife species, some of them even threatened, endangered or at risk.
Bell says unless there is a shift in our thinking, these battles never cease.
“When I think of those future generations and our responsibilities to ensure there is something that remains for them, not just something, but thriving, rich habitats and clean air and clear water. We need to look at these things long-term,” she says.
In Carson’s Silent Spring, she equated humanity’s position at the cusp of Robert Frost’s forked path.
“But unlike the roads in Robert’s Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster,” Carson wrote. “The other fork of the road — the one ‘less travelled by’ — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”
It is eerie how much those words, written more than five decades ago, fit with Ontario’s dire situation today.
As Carson concludes: “The choice after all, is ours to make.”
“I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.”
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