Where the bulldozer hits the beach
In a popular Lake Huron beach town, a war wages on between a bulldozer-wielding municipal council, and a tiny endangered bird. The conflict has progressed into a drama of shocking brazenness that poses a serious risk to the survival of the piping plover, a species so endangered there were only eight nesting pairs in Ontario this year.
The piping plover was nearly lost to Ontario completely until it returned to the province in 2007 and nested on Sauble Beach, in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula.
The rare and fragile bird has returned every year since and Sauble Beach is one of only two locations the birds consistently call home. Over the years, plovers have slowly returned to more locations in the Great Lakes and successfully fledged chicks on other Ontario beaches, contributing to a minor comeback for the species.
In most cases, the communities that plovers nest in welcome them with open arms. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Sauble Beach, where a strong dislike of their nesting needs has meant townordered bulldozing and the illegal destruction of their beach dune habitat.
The town mayor has publicly framed protection of the bird’s habitat as incompatible with tourism, and claimed that in order to maintain the beach, raking and bulldozing is necessary.
However, removing beach vegetation in piping plover habitat is harmful to the birds, illegal under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, and definitely not the solution to co-existing with an endangered species in a popular tourist destination.
As a result, the Town of South Bruce Peninsula is now facing not one, but two charges under the Endangered Species Act and is subject to a stop work order from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
The experts have weighed in, and their combined decades of experience and knowledge are in stark contrast of the mayor’s assertions. Through the provincial hearing process biologists and ecologists collectively and unequivocally demonstrated that the work done on Sauble Beach has put the plover’s surviv- al at risk. They state clearly that the beach dune ecosystem is not only a provincial treasure, but is internationally significant habitat for a bird on the brink of extinction.
Sadly, the experts also noted that the damage that has already been done may have created long term impacts to plover habitat. The dune removal will lead to increased erosion risk for the sand, which is a finite resource that will not replenish.
The dune removal has also led to financial risks for the town, which is facing potential fines of up to $1 million for each Endangered Species Act charge. The town was due in court last November to face these charges, however, after they failed to appear the court date was moved to Feb. 13.
When the results do come, they need to be clear: threatening endangered species’ survival will not be tolerated in Ontario. The government should uphold the stop work order to prevent further damage being done, and we hope that the fines levelled by the court next month will be a real deterrent, not just a slap on the wrist.
The response that the new provincial government takes toward this case in the coming months will serve as a litmus test for how it will treat endangered species going forward. Will the Endangered Species Act be upheld with integrity, or will nothing be done when people clearly set out to violate its requirements to protect the most vulnerable species in our province?
Sauble Beach’s decision to destroy the piping plover’s beach dune habitat is illegal and not the solution to co-existing with an endangered species, Kelsey Scarfone writes.
Kelsey Scarfone is the water programs manager for Environmental Defence.