Road Talk Winter Vol 23, no 3: Summer 2017


Biodiversity in the Highway Right-of-Way

Ontario is home to more than 30,000 known species inhabiting a variety of ecosystems, such as forests, lakes, wetlands and prairies. Collectively these species comprise what is called biological diversity, or biodiversity. Conserving biodiversity ensures a healthy environment, strong communities and a thriving economy.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) recognizes the potential threats of the transportation network to ecosystems. The ministry supports conservation by seeking opportunities to mitigate environmental impacts in the highway right-of-way (ROW) during highway planning, design, construction, and maintenance operations.

Prairie grasses in the highway right-of-way, south of Lampton Line, Highway 40, Sarnia, Ontario

Figure 1: Prairie grasses in the highway right-of-way, south of Lampton Line, Highway 40, Sarnia, Ontario

Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy and the Ontario Government’s Action Plan

A leader in biodiversity conservation, Ontario’s Biodiversity Council released Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy (2011), in 2011 identifying goals, objectives and activities for biodiversity conservation.

In 2012, the province released Biodiversity: It’s In Our Nature: Ontario Government Plan to Conserve Biodiversity  to advance biodiversity conservation through a strategic framework for conserving provincial species and ecosystems. MTO co-authored this plan and is the lead on six biodiversity actions. They include:

  • Develop best practices in highway design and construction to mitigate habitat fragmentation
  • Facilitate partnerships with organizations and municipal governments to relocate native vegetation removed from construction sites
  • Improve information systems to identify areas for habitat restoration or improvement
  • Support the improvement and expansion of Ontario public transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality
  • Continue the High Occupancy Vehicle Lane Network, Long Combination Vehicle Program, Electric Vehicle Incentive Program and Truck Speed Limiters Program
  • Enhance salt management on provincial highways.

Since the introduction of the plan, MTO has leveraged its Highway Infrastructure Innovation Funding Program (HIIFP) to partner with Ontario universities on biodiversity research. HIIFP provides research funding to explore innovative approaches to ministry business needs. University research findings offer the potential to advance MTO’s contributions to biodiversity.

Biodiversity Best Practices

The ministry integrates biodiversity measures during highway planning, construction and management. Measures are identified through the environmental assessment process and meet the requirements of provincial and federal environmental legislation.

MTO drafted and piloted the Endangered Species Act Best Management Practices (BMPs) for its road side maintenance activities, implementing project specific measures such as ecosystem-based habitat restoration and mitigation features such as the wildlife crossing structures which reconnect habitat disconnected by a highway. MTO’s efforts alleviate habitat fragmentation and protect, enhance or re-establish wildlife habitats.

Examples of recent major projects where the ministry has incorporated extensive biodiversity conservation include: the construction of the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway in Windsor; the expansion of Highway 69 from Parry Sound to Sudbury; and the Highway 407 East Extension. These projects collectively include conservation for reptiles, birds, aquatic species, and mammals, protection of habitats, the preservation of native plant species and the rehabilitation of degraded aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Biodiversity provides us with clean air and water and the fertile soil in which to grow the food we eat. Wood, fibre and other raw materials all come from the natural world.

On the Wind: Grasses, Trees and Birds

Tall Grass Prairies at the Herb Gray Parkway

There were several conservation opportunities for the preservation and restoration of tallgrass prairie throughout the planning and construction of the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway project. During the project, the ministry established a successful partnership with a Walpole Island First Nation-based ecological restoration business, and the Essex Region Conservation Authority, to protect rare native plants. Plants, grown from seeds collected in the future highway footprint, were grown in a greenhouse and transplanted to three Conservation Authority restoration areas. Partner Danshab Enterprises undertook a significant portion of the species at risk plant relocation and the ecological restoration efforts on the Parkway. A population in excess of 700,000 species at risk plants are currently being monitored. At year seven of a ten year monitoring program, the relocation efforts are a resounding success.

In the Parkway’s design phase, MTO reduced construction impacts to the Ojibway Prairie Complex, a 350-hectare area of parks and nature reserves on the west side of Windsor, representing a collection of five closely situated natural areas.

Overall, the Parkway project preserved and restored an estimated 100 hectares of tallgrass prairie, a globally rare ecosystem. The ministry’s integrated landscape plan for over 160 hectares of greenspace, involved:

  • planting more than 119,000 native trees and shrubs, and
  • using 15 seed mixes incorporating 106 different native species.
Photo A: The tallgrass prairie is an ecosystem native to North America. Less than three per cent of this ecosystem remains in Ontario; the largest remaining prairie remnants are found on Walpole Island and Essex County.

Photo A: The tallgrass prairie is an ecosystem native to North America. Less than three per cent of this ecosystem remains in Ontario; the largest remaining prairie remnants are found on Walpole Island and Essex County.

Tall Grass Seed Mix for the 407 East Project

Under the HIIFP, McMaster University, in partnership with MTO, developed and is testing pollinator-friendly customized seed mixes which include Milkweed, a native Ontario plant species and other plant species which are attractive to pollinators. A customized seed mix was included on the 407 East Extension project to enhance Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark habitat and to attract Monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators for diverse plant pollination.

Photo C: Milkweed is common to southern and northern Ontario and can be found in pastures, meadows, and along the roadsides.

Photo C: Milkweed is common to southern and northern Ontario and can be found in pastures, meadows, and along the roadsides.

McMaster University research will continue through 2019, to identify the cost/benefits of using native seed mixes on Ontario roadsides, and comparing the life cycle costs of native seed mixes versus standard roadside mixes.

Invasive Plant Mitigation

McMaster University is also using its HIIFP funding to test the effectiveness of native seed mixes in controlling the spread of Phragmites, an invasive plant species proliferatinginOntariohighway corridors. Not to be mistaken with native Phragmites, invasive Phragmites, also called “Phrag”, can grow over 15 feet tall and spread over 10 feet per year. Its roots produce toxins, inhibiting the growth of, and even killing native plants. Phrag seeds and plants are spread by wind, water, animal, and human movement. For example, plant material may adhere to boats, trailers, ATVs, and construction equipment. Additional research at McMaster, under separate HIIFP funding, will provide MTO with best management practices for controlling the spread of Phragmites during highway construction and operations.

From 2006 to 2016, the ministry mapped the spread of invasive Phragmites in highway corridors throughout Ontario. Researchers from McMaster University are using high-resolution remote imaging data for the first time to scientifically assess the effectiveness of the most commonly used methods to control invasive Phragmites. This research commenced in summer 2016, and will continue through winter 2018.

Photo H: This photo depicts the height of the invasive species, Phragmites. Photo courtesy of Janice Gilbert, Ontario Phragmites Working Group

Photo H: This photo depicts the height of the invasive species, Phragmites. Photo courtesy of Janice Gilbert, Ontario Phragmites Working Group

Tree Conservation

The ministry took a strategic approach for the Highway 407 East Extension project by developing and implementing an ecological vegetation restoration plan to meet the environmental assessment commitments for forests and wetlands. The ministry maximized restoration opportunities to ensure the connectivity of existing natural and/or restored habitat areas. For example, the ministry commissioned the planting of 69,800 trees and 5,200 shrubs to restore and enhance lands owned by the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority.

The Highway 407 East Extension project created an opportunity for local conservation groups to preserve rare native plants by removing them to prevent any impacts caused by construction activities. The ministry partnered with the Forest Gene Conservation Association (FGCA) to archive Butternut tree specimens. The Butternut species is threatened by a fungus and has nearly disappeared in Ontario. It is listed as endangered and conserving its genetic material is essential to its future presence in Ontario forests. The endangered tree material was preserved by FGCA through grafting. Nine Butternut trees were grafted and will be monitored by FGCA over the next five years.

Photo B: Depictions of healthy Butternut trees. The species lives in the wild in Ontario but is facing imminent extinction. The Butternut was already assessed as endangered when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008.
Photo B: Depictions of healthy Butternut trees. The species lives in the wild in Ontario but is facing imminent extinction. The Butternut was already assessed as endangered when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008.

Photo B: Depictions of healthy Butternut trees. The species lives in the wild in Ontario but is facing imminent extinction. The Butternut was already assessed as endangered when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008.

Bird Habitats

Barn swallows often live close to people, building their cup-shaped mud nests on natural features and human-made structures such as open barns, under bridges, in culverts and in ministry patrol yard salt and sand domes. Although listed as Threatened under the ESA, barn swallows are seemingly ubiquitous within the highway ROW across the province. They prefer to nest near foraging habitats (waterways and field grasses) where insect populations are higher. To meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act during bridge construction activities, the ministry has created freestanding kiosks as alternate nesting habitat for barn swallows with varying levels of success. Researchers at St. Lawrence College, in Cornwall, are conducting a review of barn swallow kiosk designs for the ministry, to identify which features, for example partitions for privacy, and which types of kiosks report successful fledging of the species.

The ministry, in partnership with St. Lawrence College, is conducting HIIFP research into the Whip-poor-will and their habitat along Georgian Bay to reduce the impacts of the Highway 69 project on this at risk species. While research is underway, MTO has developed a Whip-poor-will habitat plan for areas temporarily impacted by ongoing and future construction, and will create over 100 hectares of Whip-poor-will friendly-habitat to remain throughout the duration of highway construction.

In the Waterways: Wetlands, Aquatic Species, Turtles and Reptiles

Brown and yellow turtle sign Brown and yellow Snake sign

Beyond plant life protection during highway projects, the ministry designs watercourses to maintain and enhance habitat links across highway corridors. Opportunities for MTO to reconnect wetlands bisected by the highway are identified during project planning.

The creation of a wetland and fish habitat, integrated with species at risk habitat restoration, provides enhanced habitat connections. During the 407 East Extension project, wetlands were established at the outlets of storm water management ponds to enhance nearby Redside Dace habitat, a fish species at risk.

National and International Impacts

At national and international levels, Ontario is contributing activities to support the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, developed in 1995, and the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada (2015) and the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity global Aichi Biodiversity Targets. This includes 20 time-bound, measurable targets to be met by the year 2020.

Waterways and Wetlands

During construction of the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway, MTO preserved over 45 hectares of provincially significant wetland as an offset to the direct loss of five hectares of wetland habitat. Over three hectares of new fish habitat were created near the Parkway, including the construction of a large area on the Lennon Drain to serve as spawning habitat for various fish species, such as Northern Pike.

Along Ontario’s waterways, species-friendly wildlife underpasses (culverts) are incorporated into highway designs to maintain habitat connectivity, and enhance ecosystems. Currently, HIIFP is funding Queen’s University research to identify a turtle-friendly means of excluding beavers from culverts. A turtle-friendly beaver exclusion system is intended to provide safe passage through culverts for turtles, but exclude beavers that tend to dam up culverts. Queen’s University is also investigating options for reptile exclusion fencing.

Reptiles

In eastern Ontario, the ministry partnered with a consultant to conduct a pilot research program to explore an alternative mitigation measure using conservation dogs. The dogs are being trained to identify Blanding’s Turtle egg locations in an effort to identify nests and protect the eggs prior to highway construction. This is the first effort to train detection dogs to locate the eggs and nests of Blanding’s Turtles. The project was undertaken to support mitigation measures for rehabilitation of a section of Highway 28, roughly one kilometre south of Long Lake Road to Peterborough Road 504.

The majority of the dogs were able to detect buried eggs in artificial nests during training, demonstrating the recognition of turtle eggs and nesting material. The conservation dogs require additional training to help determine if detection dogs can be used as a mitigation tool for the protection of Blanding’s Turtle eggs.

Photo J: Conservation Dogs search for Blanding’s Turtle Eggs

Photo J: Conservation Dogs search for Blanding’s Turtle Eggs

Photo K: Blanding’s Turtle eggs recovered from a nest of eggs laid in the wild are used to train the Conservation Dogs. Staff from Scales Nature Park in Orillia, Ontario recover turtle eggs, and incubate them in hopes of releasing the turtles when they hatch.

Photo K: Blanding’s Turtle eggs recovered from a nest of eggs laid in the wild are used to train the Conservation Dogs. Staff from Scales Nature Park in Orillia, Ontario recover turtle eggs, and incubate them in hopes of releasing the turtles when they hatch.

In the interest of protecting and enhancing ecosystems where highways pose a significant threat, the ministry considers reconnecting habitat on either side of a highway during construction in areas of high wildlife-vehicle collisions. This is achieved by installing underpasses and fencing to reduce road mortality.

Among the conservation opportunities implemented on the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway, MTO incorporated a tunnel top wildlife passage over Highway 3 and Highway 401. This ecopassage, which is the size of nine National Hockey League rinks, reconnects natural areas that are home to two endangered snake species; the Eastern Foxsnake, and Butler’s Gartersnake. A culvert has been installed under a multi-use trail that traverses the eco-passage to facilitate snake movement. A number of snake habitat features such as brush piles and protected egg laying sites have also been placed along the ecopassage.

Photo L: Aerial view of the tunnel top ecopassage at the Herb Gray Parkway project.

Photo L: Aerial view of the tunnel top ecopassage at the Herb Gray Parkway project.

A state-of-the-art monitoring system, along the entire length of the tunnel top “eco-passage” will be installed in 2017; the first time this monitoring technology will be used on such a large spatial scale for reptiles. Monitoring data will be used to identify and reduce impacts to snakes and to evaluate the effectiveness of the ecopassage.

Permanent snake fencing was installed on the Parkway, adjacent to Butler’s Gartersnake and Eastern Foxsnake habitat, to prevent snakes from accessing the freeway and service roads. Eastern Foxsnakes from a wildlife rehab centre were used to test different fence designs and heights as this snake species has the ability to climb. Testing resulted in the installation of thirteen kilometres of a uniquely designed permanent snake barrier. Noise barrier designs were also modified to include a smooth surface which prevents snakes from climbing the barriers and entering into the highway.

Photo O: The smooth lower panels of this noise barrier wall prevent Eastern Foxsnakes from accessing the highway.

Photo O: The smooth lower panels of this noise barrier wall prevent Eastern Foxsnakes from accessing the highway.

For the Highway 69 project, the ministry funded research to study Massasauga Rattlesnake, their habitat, the impacts of highway construction and habitat removal. To date, the ministry has installed 35 kilometres of reptile fencing, 17 concrete box culverts and 25, 1.8 m diameter culverts to promote crossing but divert reptiles away from the highway. The ministry is currently installing another 15 kilometres of end-to-end large mammal and reptile fencing, four dedicated large wildlife crossings, one joint-use crossing for use by snowmobiles and wildlife, and seven dedicated species at risk crossings.

The remaining Highway 69 project sections, currently in the design phase, incorporate plans for 70 more dedicated crossings for species at risk with end-to-end fencing, ten dedicated crossings, two joint crossings, 14 opportunities to incorporate crossings at structure abutments and additional end-to-end fencing.

Photo P: Combined reptile and large mammal fencing provides exclusions from the highway for all species.

Photo P: Combined reptile and large mammal fencing provides exclusions from the highway for all species.

Off the Road: Pathways for the Protection of Wildlife

Specifications for large mammal and reptile fencing along provincial highways are in development and will identify the types of fencing to be used in specific settings for species conservation.

In the meantime, the ministry has expanded its Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping data to include wildlife hotspots. Using small animal mortality and large animal collision hotspot data, the ministry identifies opportunities for permanent wildlife mitigation measures along the provincial highway network. This GIS feature facilitates provincial highway planning and contributes to the achievement of improving information systems while identifying areas for habitat restoration.

To raise habitat awareness for motorists, the ministry has proposed the posting of Wildlife Habitat Awareness (WHA) signs in the ROW where endangered and threatened species at risk populations are at the highest conservation and mortality risk. Early testing of the WHA signs on several highways across the province demonstrates favourable speed reductions when motorists are exposed to the proposed signs. Samples of the brown and yellow signs are featured in this article.

Brown and yellow turtle sign Brown and yellow Snake sign

Ontario’s expansion of Highway 69 from Parry Sound to Sudbury includes several measures for reducing wildlife collisions. In particular, the ministry installed approximately 30 kilometres of large mammal fencing with 15 more kilometres of fencing currently underway, to divert animals such as deer, moose, bears and wolves from crossing Highway 69. In the Burwash area, the fencing directs animals toward a wildlife overpass, a unique bridge located 1km north of Highway 637. The wildlife overpass, built in 2012, is the only one of its kind in Ontario; it traverses Highway 69 and is monitored by motion sensor cameras, which show its extensive use by wildlife, including bobcats and deer.

Photo Q: Large animal crossing traversing Highway 69.

Photo Q: Large animal crossing traversing Highway 69.

Photo R: Aerial view of the large animal crossing traversing Highway 69.

Photo R: Aerial view of the large animal crossing traversing Highway 69.

Five large wildlife underpasses on Highway 69 are completed, improving driver safety and promoting habitat connectivity for large wildlife and small animals. The remaining sections of the Highway 69 expansion project incorporate plans for an additional ten large wildlife underpasses and 68 kilometres of large mammal fencing.

The ministry has also integrated wildlife pathways at the abutments of the Lovering Creek and Murdock River bridges, both large water crossings in the Burwash area along Highway 69.

Photo S: Wildlife pathway at the Lovering Creek Bridge abutment.

Photo S: Wildlife pathway at the Lovering Creek Bridge abutment.

Photo T: 5m x 5m culvert passage for wildlife and people, under Highway 69, north of the wildlife overpass.

Photo T: 5m x 5m culvert passage for wildlife and people, under Highway 69, north of the wildlife overpass.

Mitigation Features throughout the Province

Other MTO projects incorporating biodiversity considerations include:

  • Highway 26 New Construction Project – This project includes two dedicated wildlife crossing structures for large animals along 8 km of Highway 26, and over 8,000 new plantings of a variety of native shrubs and trees. Cuttings and live stakes will be incorporated into stream enhancements. Recently, watercourse barriers were removed to provide fish passage, allowing upstream migration of Rainbow Trout.
  • Highway 401 Expansion Project – A retaining wall was constructed in the City of Mississauga to protect vegetation within Jefferson Salamander habitat. To mitigate construction impacts to Little Brown myotis, a bat species at risk, bat boxes with artificial bark were installed along the Highway 401 corridor within the Meadowvale Station Woods woodlot area. Artificial bark is used as a habitat enhancement tool specifically designed for long -term habitat improvement for bark roosting bats.
  • The ministry also replaced a culvert at Fletcher’s Creek in Brampton with two new bridge structures, as part of the Highway 401 expansion project. The new clear span bridges will provide increased crossing opportunities, light and air penetration, as well as a dry passage for wildlife under the widened highway, such as white-tailed deer.
  • As part of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) Credit River Project, MTO is consulting with the First Nations partners involved in the area’s archaeological investigations for input regarding significant native vegetation for the area, and is working with the City of Mississauga to identify and relocate prairie grass species.
  • In eastern Ontario, on Highway 15, in the Township of Rideau Lakes, MTO replaced corrugated steel pipe culverts with oversized concrete box culverts to accommodate the safe passage of turtles.
  • In western Ontario, MTO installed an innovative culvert liner to promote fish passage beneath Highway 21, near Southampton. Through a series of baffles, the liner allows fish to climb the steep grade upstream. The ministry partnered with Saugeen Ojibway Nation to facilitate the successful completion of this on-reserve project.
  • In 2018, MTO plans to include oversized culverts and exclusion and funnel fencing for turtles, as part of the reconstruction of Highway 24, between Brantford and Cambridge. Alternate turtle nesting habitat will be provided behind exclusion fencing to discourage turtles from nesting in the road shoulder.

MTO’s Ongoing Commitment

Protecting the diversity of life on Earth requires broad societal participation. The Ontario Biodiversity Council is encouraged and inspired by contributions from all sectors, government and individuals, who share ideas, knowledge and a vision for the future.

The ministry continues to educate staff regarding the provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), and partners with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to develop, enhance, monitor and re-examine mitigation measures to confirm their effectiveness.

As MTO moves forward with the planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance of future projects, it will continue to seek opportunities to re-establish habitats, enhance and protect the environment and native species and explore opportunities to collaborate with provincial partners to advance the Ontario government’s biodiversity vision, goals and objectives. Road Talk will continue to report the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s contributions to biodiversity conservation.

For more information on Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy or Biodiversity: It’s In Our Nature, please contact:
Natalie Boyd, Transportation Planning Team Lead,
Policy and Planning Division,
at (905) 704-2727, or at Natalie.Boyd@ontario.ca

For more information on MTO’s University Research Funding Program (HIIFP), please contact:
Max Perchanok, Coordinator - Innovations and Sustainability,
Provincial Highways Management Division,
at (905) 704-3998, or at Max.Perchanok@ontario.ca

All photos, unless otherwise credited, are the property of the Government of Ontario

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