Off The Grid

Tomorrow’s leaders confront today’s issues in our annual collaboration with Saskatoon’s most environmentally aware students


Don’t Pave Paradise

The Northeast Swale is ecological heritage, not a highway

by Lauren Wright

Just north of Saskatoon’s Evergreen neighbourhood sits a picturesque swath of native prairie. This is the Northeast Swale — an intricate balance of grassland and wetland terrain that covers 2,800 hectares within and beyond Saskatoon’s city limits.

The Northeast Swale is home to over 300 species of plants, birds, mammals, insects and amphibians. Many of these, such as mule deer, are common in Saskatchewan but the Swale is also home to many endangered species. There’s the Northern Leopard Frog, which is on Saskatchewan’s at-risk list thanks to the loss of wetland habitats. This makes the Swale an essential piece of wetland.

While the Northeast Swale has been threatened by development for decades, one of its largest threats continues to move forward. The proposed Saskatoon Freeway, a planned “high-speed free-flow bypass route around Saskatoon” that would mainly be used by large-hauling vehicles, is set to cut through the Swale. This development brings construction damage, frequent traffic, air and water pollution, and litter. The freeway would be catastrophic for the health of the Swale and all the species that depend on the preservation of the land.

The Northeast Swale is essential to Saskatchewan’s present and future ecological diversity, and it should be preserved intact. Besides, if someone really wants sprawled-out, truck-encircled cities like Calgary… well, maybe they should move to Calgary. The Northwest Swale is a unique ecological asset Saskatoon can be proud of.


The Bad News Boars

These little piggies are never going home

by Gwen Fauvelle

Throughout my education, I’ve been told that all animals play an important role in ecosystems.

I’ve recently learned this is not always true. Not when we’re talking about species introduced into foreign ecosystems.

Wild boars are native to the forests of Europe, north-west Africa and Asia. They were brought to Canada to diversify livestock production in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When operations didn’t pan out, they were released by the farmers, expecting they wouldn’t survive our harsh winters.

Nobody realized wild boars are incredibly smart and able to adapt to new environments efficiently.

The boars survived and began to multiply rapidly, becoming an incredibly invasive species. Their population exploded in 2010 and the scale of the problem finally came to light. According to the University of Saskatchewan’s Ryan Brook, wild boar females can have up to two litters per year with six young in each. Also, boars have almost no predators here in Canada, and the few native animals able to kill a boar — such as wolves and bears — have been pushed out of the landscape by humans.

Boars are a large risk to human health as they are carriers of diseases they transmit by eating large quantities of agricultural crops and drinking out of local water sources. They are also known to be extremely aggressive towards people and animals when they are confronted or feel threatened.

Wild boars are often referred to as “ecological trainwrecks”, which means they cause problems on all levels of the food chain. They are especially harmful to our already-decreasing wetlands because they burrow into the ground, disrupting ecosystems and uprooting plants.

Unfortunately, government response to this issue is modest at best. Hunting season is year-round but it has little to no effect. To decrease wild boar population, 80 per cent of the overall population needs to be killed yearly. Organizations focusing on this issue use helicopter attacks to exterminate entire groups at once. Another method is by trapping, using sweetened foods. Apparently strawberry Jell-O powder works especially well… but that works on anything!

But wild boars seem here to stay. Their population has grown too much for us to get rid of them entirely. The best we can do is try to keep their numbers as low as possible. If you see one, call it in to an animal control center and leave the area without calling attention to yourself.

If you have more questions, visit the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project on Facebook.


The Goldfish Menace

How aquarium pets became an ecological catastrophe

by Ethan Done

Goldfish are amazing pets. They are cute, clean and require minimal effort. After all, unlike a cat or a dog, there is no way that a goldfish can make a mess of things.

Until, that is, they get into the wild.

When goldfish escape their plastic prisons (often with the help of humans), they quickly begin to grow and can multiply rapidly. In the wild, female goldfish lay up to 40,000 eggs a year. Normally this would not be a problem since most of these eggs and babies would be slain by something before they reached adulthood. However, goldfish are native to Asia, not North America, and our ecosystem doesn’t have anything evolved to prey on these fish. That means an unnaturally large percentage of goldfish offspring live to adulthood — which leads to more eggs, which leads to more fish. And so on.

Once these fish multiply unchecked they proceed to wreak havoc on the water systems they infest. Goldfish eat anything they can find, including zooplankton (a common food source for fish), pellets, flakes and fish eggs. Because goldfish are not a food source but consume massive amounts of food, they have been able to out-compete native fish species. Proof of this can be found in Lake Ontario, where up to 50 million goldfish have hurt local populations of turtles and native fish.

Goldfish also pollute waterways with the sediment they stir up from swimming close to the bottom. This not only dirties the water but it also releases nutrients that cause algal blooms, which can cut off oxygen, release toxins and wipe out aquatic animals.

Because of their two-pronged approach to destroying whatever ecosystem they invade, goldfish must be stopped from multiplying within the South Saskatchewan River. For if goldfish can establish themselves in our river, they would likely destroy the ecosystem that mother nature spent millennia making in short order.

This may sound like an impossible scenario but the goldfish invasion may have already begun. Warman’s Crystal Lake, which drains into the South Saskatchewan River, was recently said to contain a large population of feral goldfish. Luckily, they were contained by screens on drainage pipes leading to the South Sask. However, every time a drainage pond becomes infested with goldfish there is always a risk some will get loose.

So please: do not dump goldfish into natural bodies of water. If you do, the next fish you catch might just be a goldfish. Now try hanging that on your wall!


FIELD NOTES

Nature news and ecological enlightenment from the Off The Grid team

Stress Relief For Bats

Habitat destruction makes our flappy friends sick (and us, too)

Don’t like bats? You’re not alone. The public’s general view of the flying mammals has been greatly shaped by movies and countless superstitions. From shape-shifting vampires to rabies-infected flesh-rippers, bats have added fun scares to many movies.

But the truth is that same horrifying-looking bat we see on screens is more a friend to us than nemesis.

Bats do many things we don’t give them enough credit for. One example is pollination. More than 500 plant species in the world are only pollinated by bats — including agave, which is used in Tequila. Bats also contribute to plant biodiversity by spreading seeds. They also they regulate insect populations. In fact, humans save a lot of money thanks to these winged creatures performing these tasks for free, as opposed to having to pay for fields to be sprayed and hand pollinated.

Bats help us in medicine, too. Bats are hosts to many different viruses that are potentially deadly. A bat’s immune system is very good, resulting in them being able to carry stronger viruses. Usually, bats coexist with these viruses, which is why someone like Vikram Misra at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine studies them. Misra wants to learn how bats live with strains that would kill other hosts. He thinks bats can handle these viruses up until a stressor, such as habitat destruction, is introduced. When bats are stressed they start producing and shedding more of the virus, increasing the risk their diseases will spread to other animals and humans. Keeping bats healthy and happy should be a goal everyone can support!

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help de-stress bats. On a larger scale, we can push our provincial government to designate more habitats as protected areas, easing stress on our winged friends who just need safe places to live. On an individual scale, setting up bat houses can be a small but effective way to reduce bat stress in an urban area. With COVID 19, families need projects to pass the time, so grab your tools and some wood and have fun creating tiny homes to welcome insect eaters into your yard! It’s time to ditch the stereotype of blood-sucking monsters and see bats as the wonderful winged creatures they are. /Thea Friesen and Sarah Klassen

Far Away But Far from Different

What Saskatchewan can learn from Australia’s bushfire crisis

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfires were an eye-opener for all of us. More than 400 Australians died, a billion animals were killed and important ecosystems were incinerated.

For us in Saskatchewan, it’s easy to comment online about the disaster and then go back to our daily lives as if nothing needs to change here. Australia is halfway around the world. Certainly something like this couldn’t happen to us!

But Saskatchewan and Australia are actually quite similar in a number of different ways. We both rely heavily on oil and gas to power our economies. We’re both home to diverse ecosystems with rich populations of wildlife. And we both have governments that are in a state of denial when it comes to fighting climate change, which supercharges bushfires into devastating infernos.

I love hiking up north in the Prince Albert National Park. I get to spot deer, elk and even bears if I’m lucky (or unlucky, depending on the bear). I can’t imagine what our landscape and wildlife would be like if the fires and drought plaguing Australia over the past few years becomes a reality for us here. Hillary Carlson, the City of Saskatoon’s Sustainability Project Manager, outlined for our class earlier in the year how Saskatchewan is going to see increased drought over the next decade if we don’t begin to implement environmentally sustainable changes as a city, province, and country. Saskatchewan has always had some drought, but climate change makes droughts more frequent and longer lasting.

This isn’t meant to be a scary article! Us youth have time to make a difference and push for our officials to make different choices. COVID-19 showed what we can do when we work at something together. We can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and support energy sector workers during a clean energy transition.

I for one would love to keep travelling up north to enjoy clean air, thriving wilderness and bears. It’s a lot more fun than waking up one morning choking on smoke coming in my back window. /Matthew Simpson

Good News In Anxious Times

Reintroduced wildlife shows that goodbye doesn’t have to be forever

In the past months our society has had much stress over COVID-19.

We need good news — a sign of new life and growth.

Here’s something: 20 years ago, animals like the plains bison, black footed ferret and swift fox were on the brink of extinction. Now, projects led by outstanding organizations have given these species a second life in Saskatchewan.

Parks Canada along with Banff National Park have started a plains bison reintroduction project. In 2017, they translocated 16 bison from Elk Island to an enclosed pasture. One year later, they were set free and are now roaming. Bison help rejuvenate plants, which helps absorb carbon, which helps keep our air fresh and creates harmony in our ecosystems. Their populations are slowly rising and remain monitored. Parks Canada has launched a YouTube series so everyone can see their steps to balance bison populations.

Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Swift Fox Translocation has changed their national conservation status from extirpated (locally extinct) to threatened. This project, which started in the 1990s, has reintroduced foxes to Saskatchewan and Alberta. By 2001, swift fox numbers had tripled. These once-extinct foxes are now back home on the wild prairies.

If you are interested in animal reintroduction, you can visit anyone of these foundations’ websites. The Great Sandhills have annual events, like the Wild West Daze and Goose Festival returning in 2021. These events help raise money for and awareness of issues. Wildlife Preservation Canada has ways to donate, raise funds, leave a legacy, and most importantly volunteer. WPC also has bison stories on social media and a blog to track their progress.

You can also volunteer or work for Parks Canada to support all their efforts.

All around the world, people are helping change the futures of species. Wildlife experts have reintroduced many animals and remain hard at work, but more projects are needed. So is our help. Contact your local city councillor, MLA and MP and ask for more protected wildlife areas and support for some of Saskatchewan’s greatest treasure — our wildlife. /Olivia Morelli


About This Feature

Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 wasn’t the 21st century’s most earthshaking day. Canadian air traffic controllers sent pizzas to their American counterparts, who were working without pay during a government stalemate over Mexican border wall funding. In Wichita Falls, Texas, a woman driving an electric was banned from Walmart for drinking wine out of a Pringles’ can in the store’s parking lot. The Oilers crushed the Sabres 7-2 in Edmonton, while Montreal beat Boston in OT. We won’t talk about the Leafs game.

In Saskatoon that day, Michael Prebble e-mailed Planet S to propose a unique collaboration.

Prebble is the lead teacher for Tommy Douglas Collegiate’s Off The Grid, a year-long, half-day environmental leadership program for the city’s grade nine students. The kids learn about science, research, innovation, history and society by studying topics like climate change, ecology, sustainable development, social justice, traditional knowledge and environmental policy. It’s hands-on education, with students going into the field to tackle difference-making projects. One saw the class install solar panels on the school!

Back to that Monday e-mail 18 months ago. Mike’s class was developing a series of essays on environmental topics. Would Planet S be interested in publishing them? Of course we were.

Those essays ran over two Planet S issues that summer. Tommy Douglas Collegiate kids taught our readers about carbon taxes, melting glaciers, renewable energy and other environmental issues.

This year, Off The Grid is back with a focus on animals and ecology, as you can see on these pages. We hope you like this feature! Feel free to send feedback to editor@planetsmag.com — we’d love to know what you think.

Oh, and we’re already mapping out next year’s Off The Grid. It’s going to be good. Look for it around Earth Day 2021. /Stephen Whitworth

The articles in this feature have been lightly edited to preserve the fledgling writers’ idiosyncratic charms. Artwork by Puty. 

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