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Courtesy of Conservation Halton

Saved by a salamander

How an endangered amphibian became the unlikely hero in a community’s fight to stop a quarry expansion in Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment

By Lisa Van de Ven

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.

In 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 recalls.

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.

It took 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 1984.

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 worms.

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.

But 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.

Conservation 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.

The 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 stated.

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, however.

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 indirectly.”

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 generations.”

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