Add invasive species to the list of crippling costs shouldered by municipal taxpayers
The increased movement of people has allowed viruses such as COVID-19 to spread around the globe in what seems like the blink of an eye.
In December of 2019 the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported the first cluster of COVID-19 cases. By early March of 2020 the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
The same way humans carry viruses and bacteria without knowing, plant and animal species are spread across the world posing a dire threat to native ecosystems.
Some news items have made light of Columbia’s recent problems with its booming hippopotamus population. The notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had imported four of the giant land animals in the ‘80s for his personal safari on a sprawling estate.
After decades of rapid breeding following the dismantling of Escobar’s illegal empire, the Columbian government is now desperately trying to protect the country’s sensitive ecosystems from this unexpected plague.
With their numbers now in the hundreds, and their prodigious appetite clearing wide swaths of local plant life, species native to the country are at risk of being displaced from specific habitats. Manatees, otters, caimans and a range of turtle species are among the local animals being impacted.
Here in Canada, the Emerald Ash Borer has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in destruction to local tree populations and forests across the country. The invasive wood-boring beetle native to parts of Asia arrived here more than 20 years ago and was first seen in Ontario in the summer of 2002.
Researchers believe the infestation probably spread after the first insects burrowed into wood shipping pallets and containers bound for the Detroit area about a decade earlier, then made their way to Ontario.
The federal government reports the invasive species has spread to about 30 U.S. states and five provinces, killing 99 percent of all ash trees “within 8 to 10 years once the beetle arrives in an area.”
A decade ago the City of Mississauga committed $51 million to manage the Emerald Ash Borer infestation that had decimated the municipality’s tree canopy. Critics questioned what the provincial government was doing to combat the rapidly growing problem of invasive species.
In the Great Lakes, zebra mussels were introduced as a complete accident. The mollusks, which are native to eastern Europe and western Russia, first made their way to North America through cargo ship ballast water — water stored in the bottom of ships to ensure the vessel floats at the right depth and remains stable — which is often flushed once cargo liners reach their destination. Zebra mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes as well as many other major water bodies across North America.
“With the global COVID-19 pandemic, people now understand the urgent need to act when a dangerous new virus or other biological threat emerges. The same is the case for responding to invasive species,” Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk wrote in a 2022 report. “Preventing their introduction is the most effective and economical solution for managing them.”
Clockwise from top left: Emerald ash borer, spongy moth, Dutch elm disease hemlock and woolly adelgid, are all invasive species impacting Ontario’s native trees. (Invading Species Ontario)
The audit published by Lysyk in November reveals these increased threats are not being met by environmental protections. Her audit determined the provincial government, specifically the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), is underperforming in its duty to protect Ontario from new invasive species and control alien species already present in the province.
“Overall, our audit found that the Natural Resources Ministry is not effectively monitoring and managing the introduction and spread of harmful invasive species in Ontario,” Lysyk stated.
While invasive species spread, climate change is becoming a growing concern. Peel Region is warming at twice the rate of the global average. A warmer climate is putting the region at risk for the arrival of previously far off species and pathogens. Blacklegged (deer) ticks were previously unheard of in Ontario, fended off by cold winters. But with increasing temperatures, the changing climate welcomes this new species to the ecosystem, and a new pathogen that comes with it: Lyme disease.
According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, invasive species are one of the five biggest threats to biodiversity, adding to the list of changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change and pollution. Ontario is at a higher risk of new introductions due to its proximity to international shipping channels, multiple land and water entry points and large volumes of imported goods. It has the highest number of invasive species of all the provinces and territories with at least 441 invasive plants and 191 non-native and invasive aquatic species in the Great Lakes. These are only what have been identified.
In her 80-page audit, Lysyk made 12 recommendations with 37 action items aimed at exposing the failure of the provincial government to protect Ontario’s natural ecosystems, and crucial steps for improvement.
Lack of collaboration with other levels of government
Lysyk’s audit brings to light the mismanagement of invasive species by the MNRF and looks at the role of other levels of government in combatting the growing problem. In Ontario, the MNRF is responsible for administration and enforcement of the Invasive Species Act and implementation of the Invasive Species Strategic Plan as well as providing funding to groups that deal with the management of non-native species.
Lysyk found there are significant gaps in collaboration between the Ontario Ministry and federal partners. For example, according to the Canadian Food Inspection agency (CIFA), it has been working since 2019 to coordinate provincial collaboration in response to the threat of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that kills hemlock trees. According to CIFA, the MNRF has not responded to any of its calls to action outlined in the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Management Plan for Canada which was published in 2018.
“The Ministry is responsible for working with and providing guidance to other ministries, partners and stakeholders in Ontario to coordinate actions that address the threats posed by invasive species,” Lysyk wrote.
The Auditor General’s office conducted a survey which found 85 percent of municipal respondents and 74 percent of conservation authority respondents did not know their designated role in the province’s response to invasive species.
Despite the lack of provincial coordination, municipalities across Ontario are implementing strategies to protect their communities from invasive species.
Mississauga has a specific Invasive Species Management Plan and Implementation Strategy and Brampton categorically deals with invasive species in its Natural Heritage and Environmental Management Strategy. In the 2023 Capital Budget, the City of Mississauga put forward $270,000 for invasive species management. An additional $4,050,000 is allocated for the Emerald Ash Borer Management Program and $100,000 for aerial spraying for LDD moth and cankerworm (LDD moth, or spongy moth, is an invasive species, cankerworm is not).
Despite Queen’s Park’s responsibility, the financial toll is being felt by municipal property tax payers. It is estimated that invasive species-related costs for 2021/2022 incurred by municipalities and conservation authorities were over $50 million. Meanwhile, the MNRF dedicated less than $4 million annually to invasive species programming. The combined amount spent by municipalities, conservation authorities and Ministry of Transportation on a single invasive species, phragmites, was higher than the total the MNRF spent on all invasive species programming the same year.
Mismanagement of monetary and staffing resources
According to a study commissioned by the Invasive Species Centre in 2017, the economic impacts of invasive species across all of Ontario’s sectors is estimated to be $3.6 billion per year — the provincial government invests only $4 million annually in invasive species programs.
The MNRF is not properly staffed to deal with the worsening problem. According to the audit, the ministry has only five staff dedicated to full time invasive species work within its Biodiversity and Invasive Species Section. It had the equivalent of just one staff member performing risk assessments for invasive species when the audit was conducted.
In 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, MNRF requested additional funding from the Treasury Board to acquire more staff for invasive species work. The Board denied the request for funding but directed the MNRF to divert the funds from other programs and projects. The Ministry did not follow these instructions leaving the positions unfulfilled.
Municipalities have been forced to step in.
In 2022, the Invasive Species Centre published a Canada-wide survey of 2020 budgeting that determined Ontario municipalities were struggling more than those in other provinces and territories to finance invasive species work. Ninety-one percent of respondents reported insufficient funding, limiting their ability to address dire problems.
“Credit Valley Conservation Authority’s invasive species strategy identifies 31 priority actions, but its staff informed us that it does not have the funding nor staffing resources to undertake a comprehensive approach to managing invasive species within the Credit River watershed,” Lysyk wrote, adding that not all conservation staff are even properly trained in identifying invasive species.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) is supposed to receive program funding to help manage invasive species and hires approximately 20 to 25 summer staff each year to deliver community level outreach, species monitoring and management activities across the province. In 2019/2020, the MNRF abruptly reduced the project’s funding by 43 percent, but did not communicate it with the OFAH until after work contracts were signed. As a result, the OFAH cancelled that year’s work. The program has since been reinstated, but with a decrease in staffing.
Failure to provide proper tracking and monitoring of species
As a result of the lack of staffing and financial resources, Lysyk found there is a significantly prolonged time frame for identification and response to invasive species. In January 2022, 12 new invasive species were regulated (excluding wild pigs which followed a separate process). On average, risk assessments for these regulated species took approximately four years, leaving a large gap between species sighting and regulation.
Invasive phragmites can choke out native species of plants and trap small animals within its thick reeds.
The Invasive Species Strategic Plan was implemented in 2012, before the implementation of the Invasive Species Act in 2015, and predates modern technologies that could now be used to control a range of problems. Following the Strategic Plan, the Ministry never developed an implementation plan or action plan, and in the 11 years since implementation, the Strategic Plan has not been updated, which Lysyk said has “led to largely fragmented and localized activities across the province”.
With a lack of uniformity around an implementation plan, there are a significant number of threats that are going undetected. The audit found 33 high risk species that have been detected in the province but are not being tracked and reported on by the Ministry. A multinational study conducted in 2017 found Canada ranks in the top 10 of all countries tracked for the sum of recorded invasive species. In 2002, it was estimated there were at least 1,442 alien species in the country. More species have likely arrived in the 21 years since the estimate, and many may still be undetected.
A significant proportion of species sliding by unnoticed are terrestrial plant species. The audit concluded they are receiving insufficient assessment compared to aquatic species.
“This lack of focus increases the risk that new introductions and spread will occur in Ontario,” Lysyk wrote.
The import and sale of invasive terrestrial plant species is largely unaccounted for. Importation of plants for landscaping and ornamental purposes make up 52 percent of all intentional introductions of invasive plants in Canada. The audit found that 6 of 30 unregulated terrestrial plant species are being sold in garden centres and nurseries across the province. In 2016, the Ministry established a tool to evaluate ecological impacts of aquatic invasive species in Ontario, but in the seven years since, a similar tool has not been made available for terrestrial species.
Across the province, there is no unified framework to identify and respond to invasive species. The closest thing Ontario has to a widespread system is the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS). Anyone can use EDDMapS to report invasive species sightings. Rebecca Rooney, a wetland ecologist and associate professor at the University of Waterloo, said easy to use, digital reporting tools like EDDMapS and iNaturalist are excellent ways for faster and more widespread identification of species.
“That's really allowed a new level of surveillance that even five years ago, was kind of inconceivable, we have these apps now that really detail the distribution of all these species,” she said. “More eyes on the ground capacity for rapid responses are really important.”
But even with the availability of these tools, public knowledge is waning. A study conducted by the Auditor General’s office found 66 percent of Ontarians did not know how or where to report invasive species sightings. But even with the tools for reporting, proper coordination is required for further action on invasive species management.
“If you get rid of whatever invasive species in this part of the watershed is just going to reinstate. You have to get rid of a whole watershed and that really requires some kind of coordination,” Rooney said.
She stressed the importance of continual measures to monitor environments for invasive species. Otherwise, taxpayers will continue to pay for the consequences of inaction, and our ecosystems will continue to be devastated.
Just visit an urban forest that was once populated by vibrant ash trees, with their petrified skeletons now scattered across the ground.
“We started the game really ambitious in 2015,” she said. “And we fail to live up to that ambition.”
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