Endangered boreal felt lichen. Photo courtesy Brad Toms.
A redacted email exchange recently obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed that on November 7, 2014, Allan Eddy, the associate deputy minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, was not happy with something he had just seen.
Eddy was attending the annual science conference of the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, a non-profit research centre located in the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve with a mandate to promote biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources. That year’s conference, held at the Lunenburg Fire Hall, was all about conservation science, featuring presentations about the status of certain flora and fauna of the province: the Blanding’s turtle, research on land birds, and plants of the coastal plains.
Robert Cameron, an ecologist in the Protected Areas branch of Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment, presented his latest research on lichens — the boreal felt lichen in particular — a species that had since 2002 been designated “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
In his presentation, Cameron raised concerns about the future of the boreal felt lichen as well as other lichen species at risk. Since the onset of intense monitoring of the species in 2003, the observed decline had been an alarming one, a result of climate change, air pollution, and clearcutting.
But it was slide #17 that caught the ire of Allan Eddy: “The level of forest harvesting on the landscape is ecologically unsustainable,” it read.
Immediately following Cameron’s MTRI presentation, Eddy contacted Jason Hollett, who at the time was the executive director of the Division that includes Protected Areas, to express his concern about Cameron’s presentation. Eddy’s email, with “Coordinated messaging” in the subject line, read:
Jason I am at the MRTI annual meeting. Rob Cameron just gave a presentation on Lichens. One of his slides was titled “level of harvesting on the landscape is not ecologically sustainable.”
[following two lines redacted] That having been acknowledged I think you can see the quandary our Minister would be in if that statement happens to make the headlines tomorrow and is attributed to NSE.
Rob’s statement may or may not be true, and this probably very much depends on the context with which you bound it. My challenge is to the casual observer it is a very broad ranging and powerful statement. As such should not be being tossed around without significant discussion between departments.
[following two lines are redacted] That however won’t stop the roller coaster if someone were to pick up on it.
Can we have a discussion on how best to ensure staff approach such issues with a more corporate consideration of potential impacts.
According to a subsection of the FOIPOP Act, I was only entitled to a partial record. Some of the information was redacted because it fell under “personal recommendations or evaluations of a third-party.”
But based on the email exchange that followed, Hollett and Eddy met in person and discussed the topic six days later. It’s impossible to know for sure what happened to Cameron after this since any repercussions, including an official reprimand, if one existed, would not be in the public domain unless Cameron wanted it to be. (I did reach out to Cameron in researching this piece but he did not want to be interviewed.)
However, a number of sources have confirmed that Cameron was in fact censured, perhaps formally. There are also concerns that Cameron’s ability to share his work with the public is being obstructed.
The DNR and NSE were both approached for a comment on Eddy’s email. Minister Lloyd Hines replied but did not address the issue raised in his response.Here was Minister Hines’ response: “My department takes its responsibility for species at risk very seriously. There is a special management practice in place for the endangered Boreal Felt … Continue reading
Eddy’s email raises a number of troubling questions, including why the DNR would be so threatened by Cameron’s research? After all, isn’t it the role of government to share important information like this with the public?
The short answer is “yes.”
That is, when government is working as it should. But Cameron’s research was in conflict with DNR messaging about the sustainability of forest practices. As I’ve reported most recently here, the DNR is actively engaged in ensuring a cheap supply of wood fibre to pulp mills and biomass plants. Its allegiances were made crystal clear recently when it released a progress report on the 2011 Natural Resources Strategy and revealed that instead of fulfilling its commitments and implementing a slate of citizen-led targets — including a significant reduction in clearcutting and prohibiting whole tree biomass harvesting — it abandoned them.
The provincial government is advancing commercial, industrial forest interests at the expense of the public interest.
And the boreal felt lichen appears to be getting in its way.
“A Lovely Swamp”
When Frances Anderson retired as a librarian about 13 years ago, it was the lichens that captured her imagination. “It’s hard to miss all the beard lichens hanging from the trees,” she tells me. “I wanted to know what they were, and discovered that it was difficult to find out because there were no field guides and no easily accessible books that could take me there.”
The field of lichenology is a cryptic one for sure. Until fairly recently, it was not at all accessible to the amateur naturalist unless they had a microscope and chemicals to identify the species. But then in 2001 Irwin Brodo’s Lichens of North America was published — the first ever colour guide book — and Anderson now had access to the mysterious and rather hidden world and she spent all of one winter collecting specimens.
“I was hooked. They are amazingly beautiful up close.” Anderson says Brodo’s book weighed more than eight pounds, and was too heavy to take into the field, so she took courses in lichenology and eventually, last year, co-authored her own (much lighter) field guide Common Lichens of Northeastern North America.
I arranged to meet Anderson a few weeks ago just outside the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) property at Deep Cove, on the Aspotogan Peninsula on the province’s south shore. In 2008, the NCC, with the help of the federal and provincial government as well as a number of foundations and private individuals, purchased 336 hectares of land from a private landowner. The land is adjacent to another provincially protected area, the Blandford Nature Reserve, the two areas combine for a total of nearly 700 ha of conserved land.
As we walk down a hill into the boggy area where many of the lichens are found, Anderson talked about what was so special about the place: the old forests, the bogs, and what’s believed to be the largest stand of jack pine in the province. Then we got to the forested bog where some of the rare lichens live. I’ve walked in forests most of my life, but this time I felt like I had entered a world that was previously invisible to me.
As Anderson darts from tree to tree, magnifying lens in hand, she tells me about how the lichens are a result of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an algae.Earlier this year, a study published in Science reported that yeast is a hidden third partner in some species of lichen including Bryoria (bear hair lichens). Whether it’s present in all or … Continue reading When you look at the astonishing detail up close you begin to appreciate the intricate and complex relationship between its various parts. Essentially the fungus provides the structure and the algae feeds the organism by turning moisture and sunlight into starches and sugars. “The trees are not a source of nutrients, they are just a place to live,” she says.
“Many things depend on them, for many reasons,” Anderson tells me. From tiny insects — the beginning of the food chain — to creatures that use them for nesting material. Flying squirrel nests, for instance, are about 85 per cent bear hair lichens. In the boreal forests elsewhere in Canada, the woodland caribou, designated by COSEWIC as a “threatened” species, depend on large quantities of terrestrial and arboreal lichens for food in winter — lichens that happen to found in old growth black spruce and jack pine forests, forests that are disappearing.
In general, the presence or absence of lichens is an indicator of the health of an ecosystem, and certain types of lichen are often among the few nitrogen-fixing organisms in some habitats, making them crucial to plant life. And, because they absorb nutrients directly from the atmosphere and the water that washes over them, they are sensitive environmental indicators. Many species die when air pollution is too great.
But it’s Anderson’s next point that is most striking to me. “You get a lot of diversity from the lichens.” She points out that in just the area we were standing, surrounded by red maple, white spruce, balsam fir, and tamarack — four tree species — there were no less than 60 species of lichen. Anderson found 10 different species on just one tree.
“One of the reasons this area is so terrific is because not only does it stick out into the ocean — so it has fairly high humidity — but the fog comes in and comes off the mountain and lies down in here and keeps the moisture in. All kinds of lichens thrive on this high moisture environment. They love it down here. It’s a lovely swamp.”
With the older forests for protection, the cool dampness of the coast not far away, and lots of mature balsam fir — the lichen’s preferred tree — the forests at Deep Cove contain prime boreal felt lichen habitat.
At one time it even had boreal felt lichen. But things changed.
Northwest of where Anderson and I were, at the base of a north-facing slope, is a wet area with large red maples and old fir trees. “The actual area was in a bit of a bowl, protected on several sides by elevations,” says Anderson.
Anderson says when the bowl and its boreal felt lichen was first recognized, there were some requirements in place about how close a timber harvest operation could come to it, but the cutters came too close, beyond where they were supposed to go. “By the time we went back a couple years later, [the boreal felt lichen] was completely gone, though the tree was still standing.” Anderson says that something could have eaten the lichen — a subject we’ll return to — but the clearcut also left the lichen much more exposed.
“If you start taking out all the trees, the moisture starts to evaporate, there’s not as much shade, and there’s more exposure to weather and wind,” she says. These “edge effects” change the conditions the lichen need to thrive. It also makes it harder for them to reproduce.
Anderson spies a red maple with blue felt lichen, a species that is considered “vulnerable” in Nova Scotia. It reproduces just like the boreal felt lichen does, as if by magic. “It has these red fruiting bodies that are producing fungal spores and for this lichen to reproduce itself the tiny fruiting bodies shoot out these spores that are microns big — just microns — and these things have to find the right algal partner.” In the case of the blue felt lichen or the boreal felt lichen, the algal partner is a blue-green algae called a cyanobacterium. If the microscopic spore finds this particular microscopic partner it then has to find a place that’s hospitable to settle down and then those conditions have to remain fairly stable.
“When you start taking out all the trees, these areas get more exposed to wind, so when the spores come out they blow too far away and they don’t maintain their viability long enough,” she explains.
“They are really susceptible to habitat change.”
A Lichen in Freefall
In 2005 the boreal felt lichen was finally listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), but it was researcher and botanist Wolfgang Maass who was first to document the lichen’s decline. Between 1980 and 1995 he and his colleague recorded 46 sites with boreal felt in Nova Scotia. When lichenologists went back to these sites in subsequent years they could only find lichen at three of the original sites. By 2006 all but one site with the lichen identified by Maass had disappeared.
But more intensive surveys and monitoring found other sites.
Brad Toms is the wildlife biologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI) that leads a government- and industry-funded research and monitoring program that monitors the boreal felt lichen.The program is funded by Environment Canada, NSDNR, Port Hawkesbury Paper, and Northern Pulp and the database is then shared with government and industry. Staff lichenologists visit every site at least once every two years to monitor the health of the lichen and/or whether it’s still there.
Toms says that while increased effort has been able to locate many previously unidentified sites, the boreal felt lichen are “following a similar downward trend.”
Between 2005 and 2015 there was a 30 per cent decline in the species: in 2005, 400 trees in the province had boreal felt lichen growing on them and by 2015 only 283 trees had.According to Toms, the number of trees fluctuates as the MTRI lichenologists locate new sites and visit older sites where the lichen has disappeared. Toms says that 89 per cent of the lichen occur on crown land, six per cent are in protected areas, and five per cent are on private land, some of which is owned by forest companies. Today Nova Scotia has one of only a few known populations remaining worldwide, with sites on Cape Breton Island, the Eastern Shore, and in Halifax, Guysborough, and Shelburne counties.
COSEWIC identifies habitat loss and deterioration as a result of forest harvesting, air pollution, climate change, and predation by introduced slugs as the main threats to the species. In an attempt to stop or reverse the decline a recovery strategy was developed in 2007—a legal requirement when a species is listed—and the recovery team recommended a 100 m buffer around sites occupied by boreal felt lichen to reduce the “edge effects” caused by forest harvesting.The boreal felt lichen recovery team includes members from NSDNR (5), MTRI (3), independent lichen experts/volunteers (2), NSE (1), Nature Conservancy Canada (2), St. Mary’s University (1), Port … Continue reading
David Richardson is a professor in Environmental Science at St. Mary’s University and the Editor-in-Chief for the International Journal Symbiosis. He has published widely on lichens, including two books, and he also sits on the recovery team. “Clearcutting or disturbance of the habitat or microclimate is damaging to the species,” he says. For this reason, special forestry practices have been introduced on crown land which involve pre-harvest surveys and the establishment of buffer zones. Richardson also points out how other forest practices are also damaging to the species: “Alien slugs distributed on vehicles and machinery during forest activities, as well as aerial spraying to reduce regeneration of deciduous species after forestry activities, may also be harmful to boreal felt lichen.”
The pre-harvest surveys Richardson refers to are carried out by the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute. The MTRI uses a “geographic habitat model” that helps lead lichen experts to the boreal felt lichen by locating the habitat it likes best. When a forest company is going to cut on crown land that overlaps with the habitat model, the company is required to contract an independent third party — the MTRI lichenologists — who check the harvest block for the boreal felt lichen before cutting can begin. If the lichen is found, then it’s subject to a Special Management Practice (SMP) where a 100-metre no-cut buffer is applied.The 100-metre buffer has been practiced informally for about seven years and the formal Special Management Practice (the searches the industry now pays for) for about three years.
But by 2013, what had been an informal practice of leaving a 100-metre buffer around the endangered lichen wasn’t working. NSE Protected Areas ecologist Robert Cameron and his colleagues had returned to areas that had been clearcut, where the islands of lichen habitat remained but found the lichen were dying. They reported their findings in an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Journal of Forest Research. Industrial-scale clearcutting nearby was altering the light, wind, and temperature — essentially the microclimate — of these sites, making them less hospitable to the lichen. They found that forest harvesting within 500 metres of the boreal felt lichen increases the probability of mortality and that the closer the harvest gets to the lichen, the more likely it is to die. They concluded that a wider buffer was needed.
About a year later, in 2014, the recovery team proposed changes to the Special Management Practices. They wanted the buffer increased. Robert Cameron and Brad Toms, co-chairs of the recovery team sent a letter to Sherman Boates and Mark Elderkin of the DNR Wildlife Branch. Cameron and Toms try to impress upon them that the significant levels of mortality (with the 100-metre buffer) indicated that the buffer should be increased. They asked for a 500-metre Special Management Zone that would continue applying the 100-metre no-cut buffer but would involve an additional radius of 400 metres (500 metres in total from the centre-point) where cutting is permitted to happen but where the cuts must be small, nothing more than 15 hectares. They also stipulated that each subsequent harvest within the 400-metre radius should be delayed until the previous cut block becomes fully stocked with regenerating trees at least three meters in height. As well, if any habitat is discovered that is suitable to boreal felt lichen in terms of future colonization, then that too should be retained. The team considered it a “compromise” position since stricter measures could be taken.
But their request seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
DNR Lip Service
Earlier this year Nova Scotia’s Auditor General, Michael Pickup, cited the DNR for not meeting its legislated obligations for the conservation and recovery of species at risk. The report noted that 60 species were at risk in the province — 28 of which were in imminent danger of extinction. In addition to the boreal felt lichen, moose (mainland population) and Canada lynx are listed as endangered, as well as numerous bird species such as Bicknell’s thrush and the rusty blackbird, and plants such as ram’s head lady slipper. And the numbers keep going up. In 2013 an astounding 19 species were added to the list of provincial species at risk. Even though a legal listing of a species is not required for governments to initiate a recovery strategy, it does automatically result in one.However, it should be noted that it isn’t always the case that a species that has been designated as endangered by COSEWIC will be officially listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). For … Continue reading Listed species are supposed to receive legal protection.
But Pickup discovered this wasn’t happening within the DNR. “Although the Endangered Species Act outlines specific duties to conserve, protect, and recover endangered species, the Department has not met all its responsibilities,” he wrote.
Among Pickup’s findings was that more than half of the plans for species at risk were not created, some more than seven years late, and that special management practices did not cover all listed species. Pickup also raised the issue that the DNR was not responding to recovery teams in a timely manner.
One of the issues Pickup referred to was that the DNR had not responded to the recommendation by the boreal felt lichen recovery team to increase the buffer to 500 metres:
Staff told us coordination between the recovery teams and Department management was not always functioning well. For example, in June 2014, a recovery team sent the Department a letter recommending change to certain forestry practices developed by the Department for the species. The team was concerned the current practices could lead to further decline of the species. At the time of our audit, almost two years later, the Department had not responded to the recovery team or addressed its concerns.
The DNR responded to Pickup’s concerns by saying it would address “any outstanding recommendations from recovery teams” by October 31, 2016 — a deadline that has come and gone with no decision provided. The DNR is presumably still reviewing the team’s recommendations.
Although Pickup was clear and concise in outlining the department’s failings, he didn’t address what could be motivating its intransigence. But another group did.
A year before the Auditor General’s report, East Coast Environmental Law made a similar assessment and found the DNR was not fulfilling its legal obligations with regard to the province’s endangered or threatened species. But East Coast Environmental Law also noted this:
At the same time that the DNR has failed to meet certain legal obligations to species at risk, it has moved forward with issuing new forest logging permits to forestry companies on lands that may overlap with habitat for some species at risk. In the absence of core habitat, the Endangered Species Act provides virtually no protection to species at risk from damaging forestry practices.
The report authors were concerned that DNR’s resource extraction focus may be interfering with its legal obligations. They also recommended that responsibility for species at risk should be moved from the DNR to the NSE, given NSE’s legislative mandate over the province’s biodiversity.
Bigger Buffer means more forests “offline”
Andrew Fedora is the Leader in Sustainability and Outreach at Port Hawkesbury Paper, a pulp and paper company located on the shores of the Strait of Canso.Port Hawkesbury Paper is formerly NewPage Corp., which is formerly Stora Enso. In 2012, the NDP government under Darrell Dexter injected a $125 million aid package into NewPage, the ailing pulp … Continue reading In 2014, Fedora was providing the company’s Forest Advisory Committee with an update on the recovery team’s proposed changes to the special management practices for lichen on crown land — changes that would impact the company perhaps disproportionately since it depends almost entirely on crown land for its wood supply.PHP doesn’t have any private landholdings of its own so manages about 522,000 ha of crown land and is also guaranteed about 200,000 m3/year from private sources — an amount that has been written … Continue reading The Committee was first established in 2001 with volunteers from the seven eastern counties of the province where the company’s crown holdings are located.
As recorded in the minutes of the meeting, Fedora questioned the science and methodology used to designate species at risk in general and the boreal felt lichen in particular. I spoke to Fedora to ask him to expand on what he meant by his comments.
“It doesn’t seem to me that the amount of data that has been collected is enough to come up with the hypothesis that the buffer should be expanded to 500 metres,” he says. At the time of the Committee meeting, Fedora would have been referring to the 2013 article co-authored by Robert Cameron that appeared in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. But if there were issues with the science — the sample size too small or the scope too narrow — the study would likely have been flagged and rejected by the reviewers in the peer-review journal the article was published in. Instead it passed the scrutiny of other knowledgeable scientists and the editor of the journal.
Secondly, when the 100-metre buffer was originally put in place it was done as a precautionary measure until more research could determine steps forward. Sort of like putting an old shirt over gushing wound: you could stop to analyze all the options and take the risk that the person will bleed to death, or you could do something quickly and hope the bleeding stops.
Despite the official listing and the threats identified in peer-reviewed studies, Fedora questions the role of clearcutting. “Most of the literature suggests that one of the largest reasons for why we see boreal felt lichen dying off has more to do with climate change and air pollution — a lot of things that are out of our control in Nova Scotia, let alone within the context of forestry.”
Fedora says that ever since the company was required to contract an independent third party to go out and verify whether the lichen is present on land it’s going to cut, there have been more positive finds in these areas than people were expecting. “It seems, to me at least, since we’ve been doing more and more assessments and we’re finding boreal felt lichen in greater numbers that the situation might not be as dire as some people think it is.”
But according to Toms, this representation of what’s happening doesn’t reflect the reality. It’s true, in recent years there has been a concerted effort to find boreal felt lichen — forest companies that harvest on crown land have been required to conduct and pay for lichen surveys, which cover about 600 square kilometres of ground a year — but even with this tremendous increase in effort the discoveries remain relatively rare and the status of this globally imperiled species remains unchanged. In other words, even though more locations are being found, many more are disappearing.
“The population is still at risk of going extinct in a very short time period if something is not done to reduce mortality,” says Toms.
Then we finally get to what’s really at stake: the wood supply.
“If there was a requirement to leave a 500-metre buffer around positive boreal felt lichen finds on crown land,” says Fedora, “I think that would likely have a significant impact on the forest industry right across Nova Scotia because we’re not the only ones subject to this — any crown licence or anyone wishing to operate within the boreal felt lichen zone, 20-25 kilometres from the southern coastline of the province and a few other pockets of areas — so that would take a significant amount of land offline in terms of what we’re allowed to manage.”
Fedora explains that the restrictions proposed by the recovery team to what can be cut within the 500-metre radius make it prohibitive. “You can remove a certain amount of wood volume in stages but the operational logistics behind that make it unfeasible, so we wouldn’t be able to go in and do that work. You need to appreciate that the costs of putting roads and infrastructure in place and floating equipment in there becomes too prohibitive.”
If the 500-metre special management practice is approved by the DNR, “it would make it difficult for us to reach our wood supply targets,” he says.
It is worth noting here that not long after Cameron’s piece in the forestry journal was published, there was a significant change within in the provincial DNR. The NDP government lost the election to Stephen McNeil’s Liberals, who then hired Jonathan Porter as the Executive Director of the department’s renewable resources branch. Porter is the former woodlands manager of Resolute Forest Products (formerly Bowater), which shut down in 2012. The McNeil government also appointed Allan Eddy, a former senior forester with Nova Scotia Power, as Associate Deputy Minister. They joined Jonathan Kierstead, also formerly of Bowater, who had been hired a couple years earlier as the Director of Forestry.
If there was ever a time when the government would be willing to develop forest policies in the public interest, it had surely passed.
Lost forests, lost habitat
Species at risk are classified at the federal level through COSEWIC and subsequently listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the provincial Endangered Species Act. They are the species that are supposed to receive legal protection. But there are actually dozens more species that are at risk in the province that are considered rare or potentially at risk, but because they haven’t been officially “listed” they are not legally protected.
The reality is that forest loss as a result of development and forest harvesting have a greater impact on those species that depend on forests for their survival, either for food, shelter, breeding, or some other critical aspect of their life cycle.Known forest-dependent species in Nova Scotia classified as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered: http://novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/biodiversity/species-list.asp
Like a number of other species, boreal felt lichen are forest dependent and vulnerable to “edge effects,” the result of fragmentation caused by clearcutting or roads. For the lichen, as we’ve seen, clearcutting changes the conditions — the microclimate — and can also lead to slug invasions. For other species, roads are a danger, or they may be unlikely to traverse large openings in the forest.
In 2010, Global Forest Watch found that “intact forest landscapes,” blocks larger than 500 hectares in size, made up 17 per cent of Nova Scotia. Between 2000 and 2007 the greatest loss of intact forest landscape — cutting of blocks larger than 1,000 hectares — took place in Annapolis, Guysborough and Shelburne counties, amounting to a combined reduction of 42,000 hectares.
According to a study cited in the 2016 Auditor General’s report, loss of habitat was a factor in approximately 84 per cent of species at risk. The 2006 study that appeared in BioScience found that protection of habitat goes beyond protection of endangered species individually to that of their supporting ecosystems and that species protection is impacted by other legislation and involvement of other government departments and stakeholders.
Indeed, if the DNR agreed to the 500-metre special management zone for the recovery of boreal felt lichen, that would protect habitat and benefit not only those species with similar habitat needs, but would have an indirect positive impact on other plants and/or animal species in the vicinity.
Bob Bancroft is a retired DNR wildlife biologist and the current president of Nature Nova Scotia, an umbrella group for birders and naturalists. For eight years Bancroft was a volunteer member of the mainland moose recover team, a species that was “listed” as endangered in 2003 and in 2007 was the subject of a recovery strategy. At the time, the recovery of the species was “considered technically or biologically feasible,” but Bancroft has stated that during the eight years he served, “the team was unable to do one thing for one moose.” He says the government response has been inadequate and that regardless of there being a recovery strategy in place, moose are “continuing to die off because of overcutting in their habitat.”
When it comes to boreal felt lichen, Bancroft says “the big problem is that we should not be clearcutting Acadian forest anyway. If it was being ‘well-managed’ instead of being skinned alive, we could simply leave a wide buffer around any felt lichen that is found…in order to maintain the moisture regime.”
Bancroft says “working” forests should be managed for a few “key” wildlife species whose habitat requirements represent a wider range of species. For example, managing for barred owls or flying squirrels who regularly nest in holes in trees would accommodate most “hole users” and provide old tree/dead tree habitats for a range of mammals, birds and amphibians. “If one combined that with management for deer or some other wider ranging mammal, says Bancroft, “there would be accommodation for many other mammals/browsers. Avian canopy occupiers and speckled trout would be other candidates. Owls and salamanders might be a good, popular public combo.”
If managing for these other species didn’t capture all the needs of the lichen, then stepping in with species-specific management, like the 500-metre buffer, would be completely justified, he says.
But he adds he has very little hope that harvest practices will be amended for a lichen.
Tom Duck is an associate professor in the department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University. He’s also on the advisory board of Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that works to safeguard the integrity of science and protect scientists’ right to speak.
Last year Duck published a piece in The Tyee following up on the federal Information Commissioner’s investigation into the Stephen Harper government’s muzzling of government scientists — an investigation, which is apparently still ongoing. Back in 2013, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and Democracy Watch launched a joint complaint documenting the silencing of several federal scientists who were not allowed to freely discuss the subject of their research with the media.
Instead, requests for information went through communications staff, and a series of approvals were sought before the scientist was allowed to respond, if at all. If and when the scientist was allowed to speak they were often given “media lines,” developed by communications staff and if interviews were permitted, the government sent a “media minder” along to monitor and record what was said, a move which many said amounted to intimidation. In some extreme cases, managers have even blocked scientists from publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Occupational free speech was being eroded, particularly when it pertained to the environment.
“The government program of total message control let it advance its priorities while suppressing information that raises troubling questions,” writes Duck.
In an interview, Duck tells me that the first action of the new federal Liberal government was to eliminate the policies that allowed muzzling, but he says to his knowledge they didn’t replace it with anything. “Having no policy isn’t good either. It should be made explicit that scientists are able to speak publicly about science,” he says. The US government has a policy that allows scientists to speak about scientific matters. “It’s in the public interest and they guarantee the right to do that. We need similar kinds of provisions here federally, but apparently we also need them provincially as well.”
I provided Duck with some of the background to this piece, including Robert Cameron’s MTRI lichen presentation, the subsequent email exchange between Allan Eddy and Jason Hollett, obtained through a freedom of information request, as well as Cameron’s scientific papers on the boreal felt lichen. In a nutshell: Cameron was actually doing his job. Says Duck:
Government scientists should always be able to speak to evidence, to what they’ve discovered in the process of their studies… their primary role is to protect the public interest. So they are collecting data that’s in the public interest and it’s used to advise the minister, who in turn would take all the different sources of information and design good policies. What I see in [Cameron’s MTRI presentation] is a conclusion from the science that is directly linked to the data. He was speaking to evidence.
According to Duck, it’s actually the scientist’s responsibility to share this kind of information with the public. The government also has a responsibility to do that, but in this case have decided not to. He continues:
That’s very troubling because one of the only ways we have to hold our government to account is to know the evidence upon which they’re basing their policies. So that they’ve decided here to keep us in the dark, is another way of saying they don’t want the public to be able to hold them accountable.
Duck says withholding information and “preventing it from seeing the light of day” — in this case about the ecological effects of forest operations in the province — is “anti-democratic.”
In 2016, a study appeared in the journal Botany. In it, Cameron and Toms reported that without increased protection and conservation efforts the boreal felt lichen population in Nova Scotia will decline by 50 per cent within 25 years.
In a press release that accompanied the publication of the article, Cameron said that adult populations needed to be “actively” protected “from forestry and other developments that would alter the moist micro-climate required” by the lichen and that the loss of mature or old forest may be another main factor leading to the declines.
And there’s no question the forests are getting significantly younger. Using inventory data collected by the DNR between 1958 and 2003, the percentage of young forest up to 20 years old increased by more than 300 per cent and the 21- to 40- year-old age class increased by 103 per cent. During the same time period, the old forests have disappeared: the 61- to 80-year-old age class dropped by 65 per cent; the 81- to 100-year-old age class by 93 per cent; and the 101+ year-old age class by 97 per cent.I’ve been trying for nine months to get GIS-derived age class data from the DNR to update these figures, but the DNR has been less than forthcoming. You can read about my escapades with Freedom of … Continue reading
For the endangered boreal felt lichen, this worrying trend in forest age is the opposite of what it requires. I’m reminded of the morning spent with Frances Anderson in the NCC forest in Deep Cove. Reproduction of the species depended on the chance encounter of a microscopic spore and a similarly small algal partner. And then they had to find the right tree and the right conditions. Toms says “the wonder is that the lichen is perfectly adapted and has been for thousands of years and could continue to be as long as we allow those perfectly evolved conditions to persist.”
But instead we’re messing with those perfectly evolved conditions. Boreal felt lichen is a long-lived species — the average age at which adults reproduce is 30 years old. It needs mature balsam fir trees, in the range of 40 or 50 years of age. But we’ve degraded the forests so badly in this province, clearcutting on “short rotations” — after 45-50 years — that I have to ask: If we do manage to save the last remnants of this species, will there be anywhere left for it to go?
Toms says that for so many rare and lesser known species, where we don’t have an accurate baseline inventory to go on. We’re “learning on the fly and adapting while we try to keep species from declining and disappearing.”
But what Toms says next is most worrying. The decline of the boreal felt lichen is a “signal.” As the lichen disappear, so too does the ecological integrity of our forests, he says. “Other species are likely to follow.”
Now that sounds like something our government should be telling us about.
2002 – The Atlantic population of the boreal felt lichen (BFL) is designated “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
2003 – BFL listed as “endangered” under the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act.
2005 – BFL listed as “endangered” under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Governments are now legally required to protect it.
2007 – Boreal felt lichen Recovery Strategy released. The recovery team recommends a 100 m buffer around sites occupied by boreal felt lichen to reduce the “edge effects” caused by forest harvesting.
(Sept) NSE ecologist Robert Cameron and two other colleagues publish an article in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, in which they conclude that forest harvesting within 500m of the BFL increases the probability of mortality and that the closer the harvest gets to the BFL the more likely it is to die. This is because industrial-scale clearcutting nearby may be altering the light, wind, and temperature (i.e. the microclimate) of these sites, in turn making the sites less hospitable to lichen.
(Oct) The NDP government lost the election to Stephen McNeil’s Liberals who a year later hired Jonathan Porter (formerly with Resolute Forest Products) as the Executive Director of the department’s renewable resources branch. The McNeil government also appointed Allan Eddy, (formerly with Nova Scotia Power) as Associate Deputy Minister. They joined Jonathan Kierstead, (also formerly with Resolute/ Bowater) as the Director of Forestry.
(April) Recovery team proposes changes to the Special Management Practices for BFL. Studies show that conservation efforts are still resulting in a 60 percent probability of mortality.
(June) Letter sent by Brad Toms and Robert Cameron (both co-chairs of the Nova Scotia Recovery Team) to Sherman Boates and Mark Elderkin of the DNR Wildlife Branch. The Recovery Team asks for a 500 m special management zone.
(Nov) COSEWIC re-examines the status of the BFL and re-confirms “endangered” status. They report: “These declines are projected to continue in the future” and the “main threats include habitat loss and deterioration as a result of forest harvesting, air pollution, climate change, and predation by introduced slugs.” The assessment points to clearcutting as being a leading cause of the progressive loss of the species, as it results in “some loss of natural forest regeneration, as well as rotations shorter than the natural life span of balsam fir trees,” the host tree for the BFL.
(Nov) Robert Cameron gives a presentation on lichens at the MRTI annual conference. He links forest harvesting with lichen mortality. The 17th slide in his presentation reads, “Level of forest harvesting on the landscape is ecologically unsustainable.” Allan Eddy is at the meeting. He sends an email to Jason Hollett, the Executive Director of the Division that includes Protected Areas branch. He asks to meet Hollett to discuss how “messaging” can be “coordinated” in the future.
(June) The Auditor General of Nova Scotia, Michael Pickup cites the DNR for not meeting its legislated obligations for the conservation and recovery of species at risk. Pickup reports that at the time of the audit the DNR had not responded to the 2014 recommendation by the BFL recovery team to increase the buffer to 500m. The DNR responded by saying it would address “any outstanding recommendations from recovery teams” by October 31, 2016. (see below)
(June) Article by Cameron and Toms appears in Botany. Their findings show that without increased protection and conservation efforts the BFL population in Nova Scotia will decline by 50 percent within 25 years.
(October 31) The deadline came and went with no decision provided. The DNR are presumably still reviewing the recommendations made by the Recovery Team.
|↑1||Here was Minister Hines’ response: “My department takes its responsibility for species at risk very seriously. There is a special management practice in place for the endangered Boreal Felt Lichen, which is designed to protect the species in habitat where it is known to occur. The special management practice includes surveying and tracking all locations where Boreal Felt Lichen are predicted to occur on Crown lands. Locations are then entered into a central database. Government requires forested buffers of a minimum of 100 metres in radius around each Boreal Felt Lichen occurrence on Crown lands. DNR is currently reviewing recommendations from the Boreal Felt Lichen Recovery Team regarding the special management practice. We are committed to science-based decision making that contributes to ecosystem-based management of our forests.”|
|↑2||Earlier this year, a study published in Science reported that yeast is a hidden third partner in some species of lichen including Bryoria (bear hair lichens). Whether it’s present in all or most of the other 18,000+ species has yet to be determined. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/lichen-yeast-1.3689468|
|↑3||The program is funded by Environment Canada, NSDNR, Port Hawkesbury Paper, and Northern Pulp and the database is then shared with government and industry.|
|↑4||According to Toms, the number of trees fluctuates as the MTRI lichenologists locate new sites and visit older sites where the lichen has disappeared.|
|↑5||The boreal felt lichen recovery team includes members from NSDNR (5), MTRI (3), independent lichen experts/volunteers (2), NSE (1), Nature Conservancy Canada (2), St. Mary’s University (1), Port Hawksbury Paper (1), Northern Pulp (1), Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council (1), Environment Canada (1), Nova Scotia Nature Trust (1), and NB Museum (1).|
|↑6||The 100-metre buffer has been practiced informally for about seven years and the formal Special Management Practice (the searches the industry now pays for) for about three years.|
|↑7||However, it should be noted that it isn’t always the case that a species that has been designated as endangered by COSEWIC will be officially listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). For instance, even though four stocks of Atlantic cod have been identified by COSEWIC as “endangered,” they have not been officially listed. This is because of what are called “socio-economic” consequences, which in the case of the cod, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) concluded to be excessive. Among the reasons given by the DFO not to list cod was that it could “extinguish any hope” that the cod fishery might return, increasing the out-migration from rural communities. It also argued that listing cod would prohibit selling it and while there are still cod fisheries open, this would result in the loss of jobs. Listing would also affect other groundfish fisheries, namely yellowtail flounder, skate and redfish, in which cod is often caught incidentally as a bycatch. The decision not to list cod ultimately came from the federal cabinet, but that decision was based on the recommendation from the Minister of Environment, who was following marching orders of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. Listing cod would mean being legally required to protect it and this would mean having to change the way we fish.|
|↑8||Port Hawkesbury Paper is formerly NewPage Corp., which is formerly Stora Enso. In 2012, the NDP government under Darrell Dexter injected a $125 million aid package into NewPage, the ailing pulp giant, on top of the $37 million it spent to keep the bankrupt mill in “hot idle” while they found a new buyer. The mill reopened in 2012 with a new name (Port Hawkesbury Paper) and half the employees.|
|↑9||PHP doesn’t have any private landholdings of its own so manages about 522,000 ha of crown land and is also guaranteed about 200,000 m3/year from private sources — an amount that has been written into its 50-year licence agreement with the province.|
|↑10||Known forest-dependent species in Nova Scotia classified as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered: http://novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/biodiversity/species-list.asp|
|↑11||I’ve been trying for nine months to get GIS-derived age class data from the DNR to update these figures, but the DNR has been less than forthcoming. You can read about my escapades with Freedom of Information requests and reviews. Here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Stay tuned for Part 4.|