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Theme: Science/policy interface

Key finding 21
Biodiversity monitoring, research, information management, and reporting

National key finding
Long-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.

Evidence from Ontario

Despite being home to 53% of Canada’s population,444 and having a high level of access, the Mixedwood Plains has limited data with which to deliver a meaningful ecosystem assessment.  Most of the data available for this ecozone+ was generated to answer specific research or management questions and was not part of a long term monitoring program. Generally, long term, broad-scale monitoring programs which would provide data to support initiatives such as ESTR have not been designed, resourced, or implemented for this ecozone+.

At the landscape scale in the Ontario portion of the Mixedwood Plains, reporting is limited by the lack of a forest inventory (to allow monitoring of changes in tree species) and by the fact that no commitment has been made to the updating of the Southern Ontario Land Resource Inventory System (SOLRIS) which is a coarse scale land cover layer which would allow the tracking of broad scale landscape change over time.  In addition to having only coarse grained, non-updated land cover data, there is little understanding of the amount and configuration of natural vegetation that is required to protect biodiversity and ecological services. The recent State of Ontario’s BiodiversityReport, 2010 used 25 indicators that related to the Mixedwood Plains ecozone+. Of those indicators, eight had high data confidence, 15 had medium data confidence, and two were not assessed either due to lack of data or the lack of analysis of existing long-term data.213 At present, only 16 of those indicators will have data available in the future which will allow them to be re-examined.213

For terrestrial species, much of our long term trend data comes from “citizen science”.  Bird and amphibian data such as that collected by the Breeding Bird Atlases, Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, Marsh Monitoring Program, Amphibian Road Call Count, and Frogwatch Canada are examples of such citizen science. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters runs two citizen science programs in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources both of which relate to invasive species: the Invading Species Watch program which specifically deals with testing of water samples for spiny water flea (Bythotrephes longimanus) and zebra mussel veligers (Dreissena polymorpha), and the Invading Species Awareness program which allows citizens to report sightings of invasive species.239 These programs, along with others like them, are able to provide scientifically reliable, long-term data over large areas445,446 while allowing citizens to participate in the conservation of their local biodiversity.447 However, these programs are not able to cover the full breadth of monitoring that is required as they need to use data collection protocols which lend themselves to use by non-scientists.445 In addition to the citizen monitoring, many species at risk now have monitoring data being collected for them through the direction of their recovery team. Much of the SAR monitoring data collected in Ontario is stored at OMNR’s Natural Heritage Information Centre, however there is no specific requirement for standardized monitoring protocols or the storage of the data in a centralized repository.448 Since most of the species found in Ontario are neither SAR, invasive species, or suitable for citizen monitoring, data which allows for the examination of broad scale, long term trends is not available for them.

There has been very little standardized species monitoring and inventory for aquatic species done in the Ontario portion of the ecozone+ since the 1980s.161 When hydrometric data was examined across Canada,449 it was found that in the lower St. Lawrence (southern Ontario west of the Lake Simcoe) 25% of the area was highly deficient while about 50% was deficient of gauging stations and that while the network appears dense, the large deficit areas suggest that the network was poorly designed. While the middle St. Lawrence, which stretches from the around Lake Simcoe to the Montréal area, had only 27% of its area with insufficient gauging stations which indicated a somewhat better situation in this area.449

Our understanding of how ecosystems function is also very limited. Primary information on carbon flux, primary productivity, nutrient cycling and loading, ground and surface water relations, and groundwater flow and quality are all lacking. Epizootics (white nose syndrome in bats being a key example, see Rapid change and thresholds) and cumulative impacts of human activities and contaminants have little base data and are poorly understood.161

The lack of primary ecological data also limits our abilities to do ecosystem valuation work. Many authors have identified the lack of data as a major impediment to the creation of accurate estimates of ecosystem goods and services values.319,321,450,451,452 Though there is an overall lack of data, grassland ecosystems (prairie, alvar, savannah) have even less information available about them than other ecosystem types.319,453

To further complicate matters, information on a single topic may be collected using different protocols between jurisdictions making analysis across boundaries highly problematic or impossible. Within the Ontario portion of the ecozone+, there are three federal departments, six OMNR Districts, about 30 Conservation Authorities, more than 200 municipalities, and an unknown number of non-governmental organizations, involved in environmental monitoring in some capacity.161 Currently, most organizations monitor only ecosystem trends directly related to their mandate and geographic jurisdiction, and then, only those that they can afford.161 A strategic ecosystem assessment framework is needed which incorporates broad scale inventory and monitoring programs at coarse and fine scales. Long-term monitoring requires long-term funding. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario recently indicated that the amount of the provincial budget allocated to the environment (0.36% of the total) is not in line with public expectations of what should be spent.454 These jurisdictional issues along with lack of funding have lead to little monitoring information being available in the Ontario portion of the ecozone+.

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Key finding 22
Rapid change and thresholds

National key finding
Growing understanding of rapid and unexpected changes, interactions, and thresholds, especially in relation to climate change, points to a need for policy that responds and adapts quickly to signals of environmental change in order to avert major and irreversible biodiversity losses.

Three diseases, white-nose syndrome (WNS – Geomyces destructans sp. nov),455 chytridiomycosis(Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), and viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHSV Genotype IVb) which are currently impacting the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone+ provide striking examples of fast spreading, as yet poorly understood threats to our ecozone+’s ecological function and biodiversity.

White-nose syndrome (WNS- Figure 40) is a disease of hibernating, cave-roosting bats and was confirmed as occurring in Ontario in March 2010.456 WNS was first documented in cave near Albany, NY during the winter of 2006457 and since that time it has spread (Figure 41) and been responsible for the deaths of more than one million bats in the northeastern United States.458 Deaths from WNS often exceed 75% of the bats in infected hibernacula , but in some hibernacula, nearly 100% of the bats have been killed.458,459 Bats with WNS may have visible rings of white fungus around their muzzles, and on their wing membranes and ears, the fungus penetrates the bat’s tissues filling hair follicles and sebaceous glands.455 Affected individuals suffer severe weight loss and emaciated bats have been found outside of major hibernacula during winter, presumably searching for food (the bats would normally be hibernating).459 Species which have been impacted include the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), and tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus).455

Scientists are uncertain about where WNS came from, but, the disease causing fungus was recently identified in a bat from France458 which though obviously having the fungus appeared to have no ill effects. This led the researchers to suggest that the fungus may have been present in Europe for a long time and that bats there have an immunity to it.  If turns out to be true, the fungus must somehow have been introduced to the United States and has now spread to Mixedwood Plains. The implications of WNS are extensive since more 13.5% of the ecozone’s mammal diversity,429 and 20% of global mammalian diversity is in bats,458 and bats play and important ecological role in our ecozone+. A little brown bat, for example consumes about its own body weight in insects per night. If vast numbers of bats are lost, then massive amounts of insect biomass that would normally be consumed will be available to eat crops and have other ecological and economic impacts.459

Figure 40. Bats with white-nose syndrome, Craigmont Mine, Ontario
Bats with white-nose syndrome

Photographer: Lesley Hale, OMNR Peterborough

Figure 41. Spread of white-nose syndrome in bats.
Map of Eastcoast of North America
Long description for Figure 41

This map of the Great Lakes area and eastern United States indicates the extent of white nose syndrome and bat hibernation areas for April 19, 2010. The areas affected by white nose syndrome (WNS) are categorized as follows: Mortality – Winter 2006/2007; Confirmed – Winter 2007/2008; Likely – Winter 2008/2009; Confirmed – Winter 2008/2009; Likely – Winter 2009/2010 and Confirmed – Winter 2009/2010. The map also shows bat hibernation areas and probable transmission pathways. The Mortality – Winter 2006/2007 category is confined to a single area in eastern New York State. By the winter of 2007/2008, WNS was confirmed in New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, Connecticut, eastern New York State and east of Lake Ontario near the Canadian border. In the winter of 2008/2009, WNS was confirmed in additional areas of New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York, and was also confirmed in Vermont, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and was thought to be likely in eastern Massachusetts and central New York State. In the winter of 2009/2010, WNS was also confirmed in Tennessee and considered likely in Missouri. It had also moved north of the border into Canada and was confirmed in two locations in Quebec, east of Ottawa and north of Vermont; and in Ontario west of the Ottawa River, north of Lake Ontario and southwest of Georgian Bay. The map also identifies a stretch of mostly-connected bat hibernation areas from east of the Great lakes, down the eastern seaboard and curving westward to Missouri and Arkansas. Probable WNS transition pathways are identified as moving outward from the mortality area of 2006/2007 in New York State, southwest along these hibernation areas, and northward into Maine, Quebec and Ontario. Isolated hibernation areas in the American Midwest and southwestern Ontario do not appear to have been affected by WNS as of April 2010.

Source: Szymanski et al., 2009460 Base map by Bat Conservation International

Chytridiomycosis (also known as frog fungus) has been found in more than 200 species of amphibians on five continents461,462 and is considered a problem of central importance to biodiversity conservation. The disease was found to be present in 12 common amphibians from five Canadian provinces and seven American states, including 30 of 69 locations examined in the St. Lawrence River valley of Quebec.394 It. is believed the fungus has its origin in Africa and that it was spread through the international trade of African clawed frogs  (Xenopus laevis).461,463 There is some evidence that our native species of  bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) is a potential carrier of the infection, which is lethal to many other amphibian species.464

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) was identified in the 1960s and originally known as a disease of freshwater rainbow trout in Europe.465  The virus (viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus VHSV) was detected in the Pacific Northwest of North America in the late 1980s where it was found in sea-run chinook and coho salmon. It has since been detected in a variety of marine fish species.466 It emerged as a serious disease in Lake Ontario in 2005 as it was detected in a die-off that resulted in approximately 100 metric tonnes of dead freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) in the Bay of Quinte.467 The virus was later found in an archived muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) sample from  Lake St. Clair in 2003468 indicating that the virus has been present in the Great Lakes for several years. The virus is now known from multiple locations in all of the Great Lakes (although the detections in lake Superior are unconfirmed at the time of writing469) and has been detected in approximately 30 Great Lakes fish species. Many, but not all of these detections were from significant morality events within the Great Lakes (Figure 42).466

Figure 42. Distribution of Viral Hemorrahagic Septicemia Virsu (VHSV) positive fish in the Great Lakes, 2003–2008.
Map of Great Lakes
Long description for Figure 42

This map shows the locations where VHSV was detected in diseased or dead fish in each year and identifies four invasion hotspots. In 2003 and 2004, VHSV was detected in each year in Lake St. Clair, north of Detroit. In 2005, it was detected in Lake St. Clair and in Lake Ontario near Kingston. In 2006, VHSV was detected in Lake St. Clair, in 3 locations along the north east edge of Lake Huron, in 4 locations along the southern shore of Lake Erie and 4 locations along the south shore of Lake Ontario and the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River. In 2007, it was detected in one location in Green Bay, 3 locations along the south shore of Lake Erie, and 4 locations along the south shore of Lake Ontario. In 2008, VHSV was detected in 2 locations along the southeast shore of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. Invasion hotspots are identified in the westernmost tip of Lake Superior; on the eastern side of Lake Superior in Whitefish Bay and St. Marys River; from the southern tip of Lake Huron through the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River to the western tip of Lake Erie; and from the eastern tip of Lake Erie to the western tip of Lake Ontario.

Source Bain et al., 2010466

Sport fish are not the only group that can carry the virus, bait fish such as spottail shiner (Notropis hudsonius) have also been found with the virus466 and there is a concern the virus could spread through the transportation of bait fish. The virus destroys the endothelial cells, the cells lining the interior of the blood vessels and the vessels are unable to retain blood and hemorrhaging occurs.  Other signs of the disease associated with VHS include, “pop-eye”, a distended abdomen, and discoloration and sores on the body. As a pathogen that is listed by the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) as reportable, the finding of VHS in a new location has significant implications for trade both nationally and internationally.465 Questions remain about how the virus came to the Great Lakes and on how it is spread. Shipping has been implicated as a possible vector for the spread of VHSV but a recent paper466 found no current relationship between centres of shipping or boating activity, invasion hotspots (for non-native invasive species) and the occurrence of VHSV (Figure 43).

Figure 43. Distribution of VHSV positive fish and water and sites associated with shipping, boating, and open shorelines.
Map of Great Lakes
Long description for Figure 43

This map shows the location of shipping harbours, boating centres and open shoreline along the shores of Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River and the distribution of VHSV associated with them.

Four shipping harbours, two boating centres and two open shorelines are located along the northwest shore of Lake Huron and at St. Marys River. Of these, VHSV has been found in fish at one shipping harbour, one boating centre and one open shoreline, and the remainder have shown no VHSV.

On the western shore of Lake St.Clair and along the Detroit River, there are two shipping harbours and one open shoreline. The open shoreline and one of the shipping harbours have occurrences of VHSV in fish and water, and the second shipping harbour has VHSV in fish.

Along the southern shore of Lake Erie, there are eight shipping harbours: three with VHSV in fish, three with VHSV in fish and water, and two with no VHSV. There are also four boating centres: one with VHSV in fish, two with VHSV in fish and water, and one with no VHSV. Of the four open shorelines, one has VHSV in fish, two have VHSV in fish and water, and one has no VHSV. The four sites with no VHSV are located between Cleveland and Erie.

Along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, there are two shipping harbours with VHSV in fish and water and one with VHSV in fish; one boating centre with VHSV in fish, and two open shorelines with VHSV in fish. There are no sites identified with no VHSV.

Along the St. Lawrence headwaters, there is one open shoreline with VHSV in fish and water, one shipping harbour and one boating centre with no VHSV.

Source Bain et al., 2010466

Baine et al., (2010)466 concluded that VHSV was both enzootic (constantly present in fish populations but only occurring in a small number of cases) and epizootic (epidemic among populations of a single species in a particular region) though the infections they found in their broad survey of the Great Lakes were often subclinical (fish did not appear ill). Faisal and Schulz, (2010)470 found VHSV present in the leech Myzobdella lugubris which is widespread in both Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair and suggested that this species may be playing a role in the transmission of the virus. Recent trials on the use of iodophor disinfection on the eggs of walleye and northern pike (Esox lucius) have eliminated VHSV, although the authors reported that certain regimes reduced egg hatch.471Idodophor disinfection during gamete collection from salmonid and likely non-salmonid fishes immediately post fertilization may reduce VHSV transmission.471

The swift spread and number of species impacted by these three diseases which are currently impacting the bat, frog, and fish populations of the Mixedwood Plains typify the kind of surprises, unexpected impacts, and interactions that wildlife managers and policy makers struggle to address.

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Introduction