Day 8 of Ostrander Point — Ms. Kari Gunson on access roads and Blanding’s turtles
[Report by Henri Garand, Chair, APPEC]
The March 27th hearing of the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) focused another witness for the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists (PECFN).
Ms. Kari Gunson is a consulting road ecologist and founder of Eco-Kare International. During the past 15 years her work has included studies for Banff National Park, Toronto Zoo, and Ontario’s Dept. of Transportation. She is also an adjunct professor at Laurentian University and the co-author of two upcoming textbooks on the emerging science of road ecology.
Turtle Biology and Behavior
Ms. Gunson testified that access roads at Ostrander Point would cause serious and irreversible harm to the resident Blanding’s turtle population. She explained that both biology and behavior make turtles vulnerable to roads. Blanding’s turtles, a threatened species, take 25 years to mature before breeding. They lay eggs in areas devoid of vegetation, in warm ground from which hatchlings can readily emerge. Roadsides are often preferred for nests. When disturbed, turtles retract into their shells and are easily run over by motor vehicles. Consequently, the new 5.4 km of access roads would attract turtles and expose them to higher risk of mortality from vehicles and natural predators. They might also be poached for the pet trade.
Due to low reproductive success and slow maturity, the loss of 2-5 percent of a turtle population is enough to jeopardize its survival.
Fate of Blanding’s Turtles at Ostrander Point
Ms. Gunson said that, according to Ministry of Natural Resources records, Ostrander Point has a healthy population of Blanding’s turtles in contrast to southern Ontario and elsewhere in the County where the range is shrinking. Population levels have fallen principally because of roads; turtles are more abundant, for example, north of Hwy. 7.
Although road mortality is the greatest threat to all turtles, habitat fragmentation by development is the second greatest. Ostrander Point’s access roads would crisscross breeding and foraging territory and alter its hydrologic characteristics.
Ms. Gunson also said that Gilead Power’s proposed mitigations are inadequate to protect the Blanding’s turtle. Warning signs, speed limits, and speed bumps might be useful temporarily, but the roads would bring vehicular traffic—and hence risk from drivers habituated to the signage. Gilead’s mitigation of monitoring would be difficult to assess because field research has not established the exact population size.
Gilead has not proposed other measures such as fencing and tunnels, but these would be difficult to implement anyway because they could further fragment habitat and their placement depended on the as-yet-unknown travel routes used by turtles.
Ms. Gunson concluded that “proposed mitigation measures will not be effective enough to prevent a harmful decline in the population.”
Cross-examinations by lawyers for both the Ministry of Environment (MOE) and Gilead Power tested Ms. Gunson’s expert conclusions. MOE lawyer Sarah Kromkamp asked about the roles of signs, traffic volume and speed limits in lessening turtle mortality. Ms. Gunson said they play a part, but there is not a linear correlation because studies show that 2.7 percent of motorists deliberately run over amphibians and reptiles.
KromKamp also asked whether Ms. Gunson is an engineer or a hydrologist. She replied that she knew directly about the impact of roads on wetlands in terms of water flow and contamination.
Gilead lawyer Bryn Gray, pursuing the question of road traffic and speed, identified an article (cited by Gunson) stating that these “may” cause a decline in population. But again Ms. Gunson insisted there is no “straight-line relationship.” Female turtles are especially vulnerable, and a few deaths can lead to a population unable to sustain itself.
Gray also questioned Ms. Gunson’s consulting reports that had recommended signs and speed bumps. She explained that these recommendations should be viewed in the context of a client’s small budget and were “better than nothing.”
PECFN lawyer Natalie Smith asked only one question: “Did Ms. Gunson know of any wind energy sites where a permit had been issued to kill, harm, and harass Blanding’s turtles?” The answer was “No.”
ERT Panel’s Questions
Heather Gibbs wanted to confirm that turtle crossings at Ostrander Point cannot readily be identified because turtle access to the site is randomly dispersed.
Chair Robert Wright asked about the need for before-and-after studies. Ms. Gunson said these are necessary to evaluate the success of mitigation measures. Since the current population has not been determined, one would have to assume a population size.
Finally, Wright asked whether Blanding’s turtles are in recovery elsewhere. Ms. Gunson said she was not aware that populations are recovering anywhere and that any mitigation measures are helping.
Next ERT Hearings
The hearings resume in the Sophiasburgh town hall on April 3-5. The list of witnesses will be included in the report on the March 28th hearing.
Thanks to all the County residents who are continuing to attend.