The Founding Principles of Point Pelee

Point Pelee has always been unique among Canada’s national parks. It was the first to be established for primarily conservation purposes in 1918, its importance to the migratory songbirds of North America made evident by local ornithologist Jack Miner and others. Because it jutted so far south into Lake Erie from southern Ontario, it offered birds flying north their first opportunity to make landfall in Canada, sharing unorthodox company on this 15 square kilometre spit of land for a few weeks before scattering across the Canadian north.

In the 1960s, when Point Pelee’s lacklustre management became impossible to ignore, its status as a national park was brought into question. Much of its land was still privately owned, with cottages and subdivisions holding back its nationally significant Carolinian Forests, and hundreds of cars parked on the sands of its sensitive beaches throughout the summer. Bonfires were lit with impunity.

Parks Canada seriously considered giving this park the boot and surrendering its remaining wilderness to the claws of development, but instead Point Pelee received the agency’s very first management plan, which included the thorough purchase of all its land, the removal of roads and buildings, the rebuilding of beaches and the prioritization of its unique ecosystems. In many ways Point Pelee was the birthplace of Parks Canada’s conservation ethic, as well as the site of its renaissance.

Bladderwort
Bladderwort, a species of carnivorous plant.
Zack Metcalfe photo

But today this park faces a greater challenge still, in the form of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), a revolutionary piece of legislation if ever there was one. Because Point Pelee is located on Ontario’s southern tip, itself the southernmost point in all of Canada, its biota consists of several southerly species. Much of its flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else in Canada, and is, by default, at-risk.

Yes, these species might be doing fine farther south in the United States, and are only considered at-risk in Canada because we reside at the northern edge of their range, but the few individuals on our side of the border tend to be the hardiest members of their species, living beyond their comfort zones and facing harsher evolutionary pressures than their southern counterparts. As mass extinction runs its source and the majority of our biosphere suffers loss after loss, these exceptional individuals at the periphery, with their toughened habits and genes, will be the best chance for these species to recover in the future. Point Pelee, therefore, has a responsibility to the southerly species at large, not just the few who call it home.

I visited this small and outstanding park in July of 2018, its 100th anniversary, and was staggered by the otherworldly ecosystems encountered therein. The forests were as jungles, dominated by hardwoods and vines so thick I didn’t dare stray off trail. Its significance to birds is apparent even outside migration season, alight with songs of astounding diversity. A personal favourite was the endangered Prothonotary warbler, with no more than ten nests in all of Canada each year.

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler.
Zack Metcalfe photo

In fact Point Pelee National Park, among the smallest in Canada, has the highest concentration of species-at-risk in the country. Every inch of its 15 square kilometres is legally designated critical habitat for thirteen or more species, overlapping in a conservation nightmare.

I sat down with park ecologist Tammy Dobbie who, in the course of an hour, described for me the chaos that is Point Pelee. Take the Eastern Prickly Pear cactus, she said, an endangered, southerly species which depends on fire to clear its habitat. Dobbie and staff must light these fires in order to prevent its suffocation by crowding trees, but some of these trees are Dwarf hackberries, a threatened species which cannot be legally harmed. So, do you burn the hackberry to prevent the suffocation of the Prickly Pear cactus, or do nothing and let the cactus disappear?

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus.
Zack Metcalfe photo

On a piece of paper listing the 80 some species-at-risk ever identified in Point Pelee National Park, Dobbie drew the lines of conflict between individual species. It didn’t take many to make her point. In order to preserve all the unique and beleaguered species under her care, Dobbie and her colleagues must break the rules.

“At Point Pelee, we don’t have the luxury for any one species to dictate how you’re going to manage a habitat,” she said. “I would have given up on this whole job a long time ago if that was the case.”

And so they cut back some species-at-risk in order to make room for others, managing ecosystems as a whole, not the individual species which compose them. Here, the Species at Risk Act falls short.

Tammy Dobbie
Point Pelee National Park Ecologist Tammy Dobbie.
Zack Metcalfe photo

For now park staff have struck an uneasy balance in their tumultuous home, but their work continues, not only in favour of species-at-risk but against the invasive species threatening this park’s integrity. The only long term solution, it seems to Dobbie, is for more protected land to be established in the vicinity of Point Pelee, into which their at-risk species can spill to ease the pressure.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be Parks Canada land,” she said. “The park would definitely benefit from areas outside the park hosting more natural habitat, allowing for more connectivity. Does it need to belong to the park? No, it can be on private land or owned by another organization. It doesn’t matter. As long as that natural vegetation and those natural corridors exist.”

Black Tern
Black Tern.
Zack Metcalfe photo

The nearby Jack Miner Migratory Bird Sanctuary has shouldered some of this weigh, but the real bread-winner is Pelee Island, located in Lake Erie just south of Point Pelee National Park and possessing of much the same habitat. To date the Nature Conservancy of Canada has purchased and permanently protected over 1,000 of its acres. Their efforts and others are sorely needed to rescue the bountiful biodiversity of Point Pelee, a region not only beautiful, but one of a kind in all of Canada.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Land Lines.

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