Deer in the Works: nature bounces back in Toronto

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Why are there so many deer in Toronto’s ravines in 2015? Isn’t it weird that an urban area of six million people has so many large ungulates (and their baby fawns, see above) wandering around happily?

This was the question posed by a Vancouver friend of mine on Facebook. I grew up on the North Shore in Vancouver, and it felt normal to have wild animals in our back yard: there were thousands of square kilometers of forest and wilderness just the other side of the highway! But it is more surprising in someplace like Toronto, which is extremely unwild, long-settled, and was grotesquely polluted as recently as the 1970s. In the 1930s and 40s, the Don River actually caught fire. Twice.

I have some answers, but before we get there, I need to mention that “our deer friends” are not the only signs that the Toronto ravines are doing well ecologically. In terms of land creatures, I also see rabbits, coyotes, groundhogs (especially near Eglinton, which is groundhog central), tortoises and/or turtles, snakes, muskrats and the very occasional beaver. There are anglers on both the Don and the Humber, and I have seen for myself salmon swimming upstream in the East Don south of Steeles! The bird population seems very good: not just the ducks and geese that one would expect, but herons, egrets, Baltimore orioles, sandpipers, owls, jays, cardinals and way too many of those stupidly territorial red-winged blackbirds that dive bomb your head when you ride past on your bike! Keeping the blackbirds partially in check is the raptor population: three different large hawks and even ospreys.

Why such success across all three biomes?

People were idiots, and then we stopped. The reason the Don caught fire was that refineries dumped oil straight into the river…and it didn’t even get much press coverage! At the time, rivers were seen as giant public utility sewers. Tank trucks would drive across the city, and just dump chemicals, toxins, and even heavy metals into the Don, Humber and Black Creek. Individuals weren’t better: they would pour paint  and other poisons down the storms sewers, which fed straight into the rivers. And the storm sewers were cross-connected with the other sewers, so heavy rainfalls led to bad stuff being continuously pumped into the rivers and Lake Ontario. Uck!

Then one day we stopped doing all that. As a city, we made it a priority to separate the two sewer systems, and treated all the storm waters. There were laws about dumping, and fines that helped, but much of the change was cultural. Don’t just throw tires and shopping carts into the rivers because you can. Forty years is a long time, but also a short time. And forty years later, the river valleys are clean and thriving again.

People are present. I am convinced that one of the biggest things that helped the psychological shift is the extensive network of paths. Putting runners, walkers, bladers, cyclists, parents with babies, older people in wheelchairs into paths along the river bottoms…and hundreds of thousands of them per year…makes Torontonians feel connected with their ravines and waterways. Don’t dump that waste down the drain – we picnic there! If those ravines were inaccessible and deserted, maybe tank trucks would still try to dump poisons into the stream, just to save money on proper disposal. But they can’t – there are ALWAYS witnesses on every kilometer of the rivers. Millions of eyeballs over the years have been more vigilant than any environmental enforcement team ever could have been.

People were smart. The people who work for the city aren’t idiots. They kept the attempts to control water flow to a reasonable and non-invasive minimum. No big dams, a few small weirs, erosion control through passive measures. Lots and lots of swamps, with bird friendly marshes and reeds, and automatic filtration of bad bacteria, organics, and even metals. They tore up invasive plant species and replanted with native varieties that support the fauna. Extra long bridges so the pilings don’t sit on the edge of the river banks, avoiding erosion and turbulence problems. Over and over, our ravine system reflects a conscious ethos of “let nature be natural.” It works, and the wildlife boom shows that.

We’re also lucky. Toronto’s ravine system is built out of short rivers cutting through glacial till, and with frequent heavy rains and flash floods. That situation killed a lot of people in Hurricane Hazel, but the physical and meteorological environment has also been helpful to restoring the ravines rapidly. Each summer t-storm flushes the rivers out, sweeping debris both large and small away, and burying the worst under silt, sand and gravel. One section of the Humber was badly flooded two summers ago: the river rose and deposited at least 10 cm of this really gross goo and silt. It looked like a disaster zone for many months. But two years later that same area is a paradise of lush plants, insects, birds…and our friends the deer!

Yay Nature!

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