Wildlife Habitat Protection

by: Ellinor Williams
FALL 1996

For a long time hunters and fishermen have been concerned with the conservation of wildlife. Now they are being joined by more and more city dwellers, seeking release from the pressures of urban living, who turn for recreation to the observation of wildlife either in the field or on film. They have all come to recognize that providing and protecting habitats will guarantee a place to see, photograph or hunt wildlife.

One concern raised by these Nova Scotians is that wildlife considerations should be a part of all land management activities in the province. Decisions on developments like powerline or pipeline corridors, highways, housing, landfills or industrial expansion that may conflict with wildlife habitat, must be balanced with considerations for wildlife - itself becoming a multimillion dollar business. To protect habitat many government departments must be involved.

Wildlife habitat refers to the land and water that provide the food, shelter and opportunities for reproduction that wild creatures need to survive. In Nova Scotia more than 250 wildlife species require different combinations of food, water and shelter. The abundance of each species is determined by the availability of habitats supplying these vital needs as well as by its adaptability to changing environmental conditions.

Some species have demanding habitat requirements for their continued survival, for example, undisturbed sand beaches, islands or caves. Other species are capable of withstanding habitat alterations and may, in fact, thrive when changes bring about habitat conditions more favourable to them.

Often different species share a habitat. And some habitats are used for only short periods, such as during the nesting season or just before migration while other habitats are required year-round.

The piping plover, an endangered species protected by international law, nests on the sand at the foot of sand dunes - a favourite haunt of riders of all-terrain vehicles. These nests are hard to spot and can be easily destroyed by ATV activity. Furthermore, even the most careful beachcombers may scare an adult bird off the nest, leaving the eggs exposed to predators as well as fatal changes in temperature. Unless suitable beach areas are set aside as protected nesting habitat, piping plovers may be unable to raise their young successfully and will vanish from Nova Scotia.

Similarly, bald eagles nest in mature forest areas close to water where they capture fish for food. Eagles prefer tall trees growing on the shore or in ravines. Such specialized nesting areas are becoming hard to come by, and if these habitats are not maintained, bald eagles may disappear from the Nova Scotia landscape.

In the fall, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds descend on the tidal mud flats of the Bay of Fundy to feed and accumulate the fat reserves required for their long journey south. If these mudflats are disturbed, the entire migration pattern of these birds would be upset.

In Nova Scotia, extensive efforts have been made to protect wildlife habitats. However, while it may be feasible to bring major, significant wildlife habitat areas under government control and protection, most of Nova Scotia's wildlife habitat resource remains in private hands. If the many smaller pockets of wildlife habitat which in combination make up a very significant area, are to be preserved, con cerned property owners must be encouraged and assisted.

The major agency responsible for wildlife conservation in the province is the Department of Lands and Forests. But it has little or no authority over activities of other Departments which may adversely affect wildlife habitats. For example, some agricultural drainage programs result in the elimination of productive wetlands. Power line rights-of-way may open previously inaccessible lands to human disturbance. In some cases an alternative location can be selected for these projects, and precautions can be taken to minimize wildlife disturbance. Obviously, a mechanism to incorporate wildlife management into government resource development programs was required.

In 1985, the provincial government issued the publication "Provincial Policies for the Conservation of Wildlife Habitat". (Copies are available from Maritime - Resource Management Services, 1660 Hollis St., P.O. Box 2254, Halifax, N.S. B3J 3C8). This document recognizes the need for wildlife research and the evaluation of wildlife habitat as well as for the integration of wildlife management into the management of all resources. It also emphasizes the need for increased public awareness of the importance of wildlife and wildlife habitat.

To implement the policies, a Wildlife Habitat Advisory Committee was formed with members from the Department of Lands and Forests, Education, Fisheries, Environment, Municipal Affairs, and Agriculture. Its first task has been to launch a broad-based public information program to reach Nova Scotians, from children and fishermen to power company executives, with a message about the importance of conserving wildlife habitat.

Its second priority is to develop an appropriate system for evaluating wildlife habitat sites proposed for protection. The present system considers the rarity of the site, the variety and number of species and the potential for human disturbance both beneficial and detrimental. This system is being refined as the Committee tests it on several sites already selected as significant and requiring protection. These include Evangeline Beach, where large concentra tions of shorebirds are found; Hayes Cave, the home of a very large bat colony; and St. Mary's Bay marsh, an area with potential as a highly productive managed wetland. Eventually, the system will be used to evaluate all wildlife habitat sites presented to the Committee for designation and protection.

In the longer term, the Committee's third priority is to work with government agencies to protect wildlife habitats which might be adversely affected by government programs or projects. At the same time it will involve foresters, farmers, hunters, hikers, landowners and others in an advisory role to find ways of combining the economic use of land with the conservation of wildlife habitat throughout the province.

The committee's ultimate goal is to protect our most valuable habitats and advise on ways to reduce any negative im pact of human developments. Maintaining dialogue among government departments on this vital topic should keep the public's interest in the future of wildlife at the top of any development priority lists.