It’s small — only 12 to 20 centimetres on average, most of that tail. When it gets scared, its grey-brown skin, normally cool and moist, becomes slimy and sticky instead. If you’re tempted to take a lick, word is it tastes bad as well.
Like an ugly duckling with no hope of becoming a swan, the Jefferson salamander isn’t much to look at, it’s true. But in the city of Burlington, Ont., and the surrounding Halton Region, the creature has become something of a mascot. While it may not wear a cape, it was exactly the small superhero that community activists needed in their fight against a proposed quarry expansion project along the Niagara Escarpment. The at-risk species became a not-so-secret weapon in the dispute, which ended up lasting years — or eight Jefferson salamander mating seasons, to be exact. But the quarry opponents ultimately came out ahead, becoming a good news David and Goliath story for Canada’s environmental activists.
When concerned residents first set out to stop the proposed expansion of the Nelson Aggregate Co. quarry onto local farmland, they had no idea a minuscule amphibian would end up saving the day. “I didn’t know anything,” says Roger Goulet, executive director of Protecting Escarpment Rural Land (PERL), the community group created to oppose the gravel company’s plans. “It was learn as you go, and you have to be a pretty quick study when you’re working on these kinds of matters.”
But Goulet did know of Sarah Harmer. The Canadian singer-songwriter would become the other part of the story’s equation, bringing attention to the battle and organizing fundraising concerts featuring fellow musicians like Ron Sexsmith, Feist and Bruce Cockburn.
Like Goulet, Harmer was unversed in this kind of activism when she started. “It’s taught me a lot about bureaucracy and about science,” says Harmer, who wrote the song Escarpment Blues about the ongoing struggle and was involved in a documentary by the same name. “It’s also made me realize . . . that people do have power. We can get involved and speak up.”
Harmer’s own involvement was hardly the case of a celebrity looking for a cause du jour.
The approximately 80-hectare piece of land in question — which includes
wetland and wooded areas as well as open farmland — is located along
the Mount Nemo plateau of the Niagara Escarpment, designated as a UNESCO
World Biosphere Reserve. It’s also located next to the Burlington farm
where the musician grew up and her parents have lived for 42 years.
fact, it was Harmer’s mother who first alerted her to Nelson
Aggregate’s plans. In the fall of 2004, around the kitchen table at her
parents’ house, Harmer met with neighbours to discuss the issue. “They’d
discovered remnants of a longhouse and French trading beads and all
these artifacts [on the property], which really piqued my interest,” she
These historical relics wouldn’t be enough to stop the
project from going ahead, however. They needed to find something else.
And so the initial group hosted a second meeting, this time at Lowville
United in Burlington. About 120 community members came out, from which a
core group of 10 or so people started gathering weekly.
some time for the Jefferson salamander to even come up. “There was some
indication by some of the residents that there were salamanders, but we
didn’t know what type,” says Goulet, who’s lived in the area since
The type of salamander would make a big difference. One of
676 species at risk in Canada, the Jefferson salamander is indigenous to
southern Ontario, specifically to the Niagara Escarpment — but it’s not
found in many places beyond that, and nowhere else in Canada. At the
time, it was labelled as threatened, but since then it’s been elevated
to the country’s list of 298 endangered species. The salamanders live in
deciduous forests and need ponds with few predators where they can mate
and lay their eggs. They return to the same mating pond each spring,
breeding for a week or two. The rest of the year, they burrow into
rodent holes or under rocks or stumps, feeding on insects, larvae or
Preserving the salamanders’ habitat means protecting
their mating ponds, but they need a foraging area as well, “and they
also need an area in the winter, which is below the frost line,” says
James Bogart, chair of the Jefferson Salamander Recovery Team and
professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of Guelph.
Part of the reason the salamanders have reached the endangered level,
Bogart says, is because much of their habitat has been splintered by
roads and development, making it difficult for them to get to their
mating ponds or foraging areas. During the salamander’s spring mating
season, the City of Burlington shuts down a section of a local road,
usually for around three weeks, to allow the amphibians to cross.
the salamanders aren’t just important in their own right, says Brenda
Van Ryswyk, a natural heritage ecologist with Conservation Halton.
They’re also an “indicator species” that showcases the health of the
area as a whole. “They can be one of the species that raises the red
flag — if this species is disappearing, then there are other things that
are going to disappear shortly thereafter,” she says.
Halton monitors the Jefferson salamanders in the area, and it was this
work that first brought the creature to PERL’s attention, eventually
leading the group to get in touch with the Ontario Ministry of Natural
Resources, which enforces the province’s Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In spring 2005, a ministry biologist came out to look for salamanders on
Harmer’s parents’ property. Mating ponds were found, while forest and
wetland — the salamander’s natural habitat — extended to the proposed
quarry expansion property. “One of the amazing things about this whole
undertaking . . . has been discovering all of the species that have been
in our midst that we didn’t know about,” says Harmer.
presence of a threatened species like the Jefferson salamander meant
that PERL was no longer the only group with an interest in the property.
The Ministry of Natural Resources, which oversees both the ESA and
quarry operations, had a stake in the final decision, as did the Region
of Halton, the City of Burlington, Conservation Halton and the Niagara
Escarpment Commission. Together, these five groups formed the Joint
Agency Review Team to come to a decision on Nelson Aggregate’s
application, filed in June 2008. Nelson Aggregate did not respond to
interview requests for this story.
The joint committee reviewed
the company’s proposal, as well as further information from PERL,
including a wetland evaluation and a report from a hydrogeologist. The
official hearing began in November 2010 and didn’t end quickly; after
almost two years and about 60 witnesses, Nelson’s application was
finally rejected last October. “The habitat of the Jefferson salamander,
as an endangered species, may be described fairly as both a unique and
sensitive ecological area that requires protection,” the decision
For Harmer and Goulet, the ruling was both a relief and
proof that a community can have a voice. Environmental groups in the
province looking to follow PERL’s lead might soon face other obstacles,
Ontario Nature, for instance, is concerned about a
series of amendments proposed by the Ministry of Natural Resources for
the Endangered Species Act. The changes would “streamline” the act for
the forestry, renewable energy, development, mineral exploration and
aggregate industries, says Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations
officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources. While a decision on the
proposed amendments had not been made as of press time, the ministry
itself has called them “neutral.”
Anne Bell, director of
conservation and education with Ontario Nature, disagrees, saying that
while the ESA, passed in 2007, is a “really great piece of legislation,”
the proposed amendments would diminish it. “The standard of protection
is being significantly lowered across the board, and government
oversight is being dramatically reduced.”
And despite PERL’s
success, Elaine Williams — executive director of Wildlife Preservation
Canada, a group focused on species at risk — has concerns of her own,
suggesting that using endangered species to win cases can sometimes lead
to unpredicted problems. “A lot of community groups, if they’re
concerned about a development of some sort, whether it be housing or
aggregate . . . they will try to find something that blocks it, and
usually a species at risk will block it,” she says. “Where that
backfires is then developers and industry that have acquired land tend
to manage it so that it doesn’t attract any species so that they don’t
have a problem. If that keeps happening, we end up losing habitat
Working with developers when possible can often be
the better option, she says. By way of example, she brings up loggerhead
shrikes — little grey birds that live along the Carden Plain Alvar east
of Orillia, Ont. In that case, another aggregate company applied for a
quarry licence. But when a coalition of groups disputed the proposal to
the Ontario Municipal Board, other aggregate companies in the area were
inspired to make their lands less appealing for the shrikes. “In the
end, the company still got its licence, with some conditions attached,”
she says. “But that sent a message to the rest of the aggregate
community up there that if you have shrikes on your property, you’re
going to have all these headaches.”
With the quarry defeated,
Harmer and PERL aren’t stopping anytime soon. They’re still in talks
with the Niagara Escarpment Commission, trying to change the land’s
designation to protect it further, keeping it safe from aggregate
extraction and other potentially damaging activity. “It’s not like we
can put our feet up now,” says Harmer.
For the time being, the
Jefferson salamanders are going safely about their business. Protecting
natural habitat in places like the Niagara Escarpment is the creature’s
best bet for survival, says James Bogart. “If we can possibly maintain
corridors or areas in which they can move back and forth, I think we
have a good chance of at least saving them for the next couple of
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