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Saving the salamanders: Spring road closures help these critters migrate

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the steps taken every spring in Canada to protect migrating salamanders and what this week's federal budget promised on greening the electricity grid.

Also: Uncovering the lost rivers in Canadian cities

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This week:

  • Saving the salamanders: Spring road closures help these critters migrate
  • Uncovering lost rivers in Canadian cities
  • Federal budget presents plan to green Canada's electricity supply

Saving the salamanders: Spring road closures help these critters migrate

Everyone knows spring is when many birds migrate. But it's also a time of year when another kind of animal makes a mass migration in many parts of Canada — albeit slowly and close to the ground.

Salamanders aren't as familiar to most of us as frogs and toads, but they're important both as predators of small creatures such as insects, including pests, and prey for larger animals such as birds and snakes (and even some plants). Because of that, scientists consider them important indicators of the health of local ecosystems.

Mole salamanders such as the spotted, Jefferson and Western tiger species spend most of the year underground. But for a few weeks following the spring melt — often the month of April in many parts of southern Canada — these creatures travel to their breeding ponds.

Unfortunately, because of urbanization, many of them have to cross roads to the few ponds left where they can breed — ponds that are too small for predatory fish that eat salamander eggs, but that don't dry up too early in the summer, giving baby salamanders enough time to mature.

David Lawrie, a research scientist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, says that because they're small, slow and prefer to travel on dark, rainy nights with poor visibility, a high percentage of salamanders get squashed by vehicles en route.

To reduce mortality, especially for the endangered Jefferson salamander, some roads in southern Ontario and the northeastern U.S. are closed at night by local municipal governments for about a month in the spring. In the Toronto area, those include King Road in Burlington and Stouffville Road in Richmond Hill.

"We're trying to save those guys because there are actually really almost none left," Lawrie said.

Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, roads are officially open, but teams of dedicated volunteers block key salamander road crossings in an effort to save the animals on rainy nights in April when the temperature is above 5 C, a time when the animals are on the move.

Clarence Stevens, executive director of Environmentalists on Patrol, started helping salamanders cross the road back in the 1970s, but began organizing bigger efforts about seven years ago. They're mostly focused on the spotted salamander, which has only a couple of breeding sites left in Halifax. Efforts have expanded to other groups across the province and into New Brunswick.

"It's really growing," Stevens said, estimating that volunteers save thousands of salamanders a year.

The warmer climate on the west coast of B.C.'s Vancouver Island means that mole salamanders migrate to their breeding ponds in the fall, although April is migration time for another kind of salamander — the roughskin newt.

Barb Beasley started helping these creatures cross the road in 2000, and founded a non-profit about 10 years ago called Wetland Stewards for Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds to step up efforts.

The group collected data from their work to figure out where most of the animals were crossing. In 2011, they managed to get the B.C. government to put in an experimental underpass tunnel for the animals, and Parks Canada added three more in 2020. Monitoring cameras show they work — and are used most successfully by mole salamanders. Beasley said that's taken care of the biggest crossings, but "we still need another 10 of them."

Last fall, the conservation group Ontario Streams and the Town of Caledon built an underpass for migrating Jefferson salamanders that they'll use for the first time this spring.

Salamander advocates who spoke to us advised members of the public to be respectful of road closures during salamander migration, and avoid travelling on rainy nights in April. "If you don't have to go out, don't go out," said Stevens.

He also encourages people in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to volunteer if they want to help out.

"It's a great opportunity not only to do something that makes a big difference, but to be able to experience these animals first-hand."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

In response to our piece on the carbon capture potential of Canada's grasslands, Jennifer Tett wrote:

"I'm wondering about the carbon storage and environmental importance of the bogs/muskeg of northern Ontario. With the decrease of environmental regulations and accountability, plus the increasing pressure and planning of the Ring of Fire mining operations, what kind of long-term impact can be expected? E.g. year-round permanent roads, waste products, extraction consequences, 'mini nuclear energy generators,' etc. Then of course is the impact on the ecosystem and local people's lives. Quite a lot to consider."

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week, we head to an elementary school classroom in Medicine Hat, Alta., to hear about a pilot project to help kids confront climate anxiety. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

***And watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.

The Big Picture: Uncovering lost rivers

When I was in grad school, I lived in Vancouver, in a house at the bottom of a big hill. One day, I was digging a spot for a new compost bin and started unearthing lots and lots of round, smooth rocks. I realized that part of the backyard had likely once been the bed of a creek.

Several years later, the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Aquarium released a map of the city's lost rivers and creeks overlaid with its modern-day street layout (above). On it, I found the river that once ran through my former backyard.

Vancouver isn't unique — many other cities in Canada and around the world have buried or filled in a lot of their waterways. It's something we're reminded of at this time of year, when spring melt and rain sometimes push water back along the paths it used to travel. Accessible maps of lost rivers exist for many cities, including Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, Halifax and Winnipeg. They're fascinating to explore. Now, some cities are trying to restore or uncover old waterways, a practice known as "daylighting."

Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Federal budget presents plan to green Canada's electricity supply

The 2023 federal budget promises an ambitious national electricity plan to provide net-zero power from coast to coast to coast.

The budget document notes that Canada's electricity demand is expected to double by 2050, and meeting that demand will require "massive investments" to ensure provincial and territorial electricity grids can support neighbourhoods where every garage might soon have an electric vehicle, and can supply energy-intensive industries like steel manufacturing as they switch from fossil fuels to electricity.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's fiscal plan offers a clean electricity investment tax credit worth $6.3 billion over four years, along with billions more for a suite of other tax credits and measures. All told, the government plans to spend $20.9 billion in new money on growing the green economy.

A senior government official speaking on background called clean electricity "the backbone" of the federal government's plan to tackle climate change and keep Canada competitive in a low-carbon economy.

"If there is one single input that is essential to a transition to a low-carbon economy, it is the availability of low-cost, clean electricity," said a government official who spoke to reporters ahead of the budget's release Tuesday.

Ottawa has set a policy objective of making the national electricity grid net zero by 2035. Roughly 83 per cent of Canada's electricity currently comes from non-emitting sources like hydroelectricity, solar, wind and nuclear. The rest comes from emitting sources such as natural gas, diesel or coal.

"Under-investment in Canada's electrical grid today would risk our ability to power our economy and deliver cleaner and cheaper energy to Canadians," the budget document says. "It would hamstring Canada's electricity-intensive manufacturing sector."

The clean electricity investment tax credit would apply to non-emitting electricity generation systems — wind, solar, hydro, tidal and nuclear. Those eligible would receive a refundable tax credit worth up to 15 per cent.

Provinces that rely on natural gas-fired electricity generation would be eligible for the credit as well if they use emissions abatement techniques, such as carbon capture. Unlike other tax credits that target the private sector, this one is also available to Crown corporations, public utilities and Indigenous-owned corporations.

The government also revealed more details of its investment tax credits for clean hydrogen and clean technology manufacturing and adoption. Some of these measures are offering tax credits as high as 40 per cent.

While these financial incentives may be targeted more at other aspects of the clean energy sector, federal officials told CBC the electricity sector could tap into some of them.

The budget itself says these measures could support electricity projects in Canada's North, such as the Atlin Hydro Expansion Project, the Taltson Hydro Expansion Project and the Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Link. As for the Atlantic Loop — a proposed network of interprovincial transmission lines that would connect Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — the budget says the government is negotiating with provinces and their utilities to get it done.

The government admits some of these investments are a direct response to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in August. The legislation unleashed an estimated $369 billion US in clean growth incentives and triggered a global race to attract green investments.

"We cannot as a country afford to be left behind," a finance official told reporters.

The federal government has said Canada needs to see investments of $125 billion to $140 billion annually until 2050 to help meet its net-zero ambitions.

Reaction from businesses and climate policy researchers to the budget's green measures has been mostly positive.

Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said the budget "for the most part delivered" on the group's "high expectations."

Rick Smith, president of the Canadian Climate Institute, said the budget "takes significant strides toward building bigger, cleaner and smarter electricity systems across the country.

"Clean electricity is Canada's greatest competitive advantage in attracting investment — and we need more of it."

But Climate Action Network Canada said the budget missed opportunities to end public financing for the fossil fuel industry and to help workers in the oilpatch transition to jobs in the green economy.

"The budget fails miserably at fulfilling Canada's promise to end fossil fuel subsidies this year," said Caroline Brouillette, the acting executive director of the network. "Also missing: new and transformational investments for a just transition, in public transit and in housing efficiency."

The budget also didn't clearly state how much the government is on the hook for after it signed an agreement with Volkswagen in March to build a battery manufacturing plant in St. Thomas, Ont.

The government said the agreement has been fully accounted for in its fiscal plan but "further details and announcements will follow in the coming weeks after the finalization of the agreement by Volkswagen."

David Thurton

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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