Preventing and Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts

Humans and wildlife will always interact.  Wherever natural landscapes and human landscapes meet, humans and wildlife will also meet:  along suburban and village boundaries, where agriculture abuts forests or wetlands, wherever a road fragments a natural habitat.  Within the developed landscape, the same holds true.  Urban and suburban environments provide excellent habitat for many common animals, especially squirrels, raccoons, striped skunks, groundhogs, big brown bats, and several species of birds.  In fact, because of the high availability of suitable shelter, habitat and food, densities of these animals are much higher in urban and suburban environments than in rural and natural environments.  These interactions are generally positive.  Many people choose a rural lifestyle for the opportunities that it provides to observe wildlife and the natural world.  Many urban residents find cheer on a cold winter morning in the sight of a cardinal or a squirrel at a feeder.

In most cases, humans and urban wildlife coexist happily.  However, conflicts do arise.  Mammals and birds can cause significant losses to farmers.  White-tailed deer may create driving hazards.  Raccoons, squirrels, birds and bats may take up residence in attics, walls or chimneys, where they can cause significant damage and expense for homeowners.  Striped skunks may take up residence under porches or decks, ready to surprise the unwary homeowners or their curious pets.  Gardens may suffer the depredations of animals in search of a free meal or a feast of grubs.  Waterfront parks may become overrun with flocks of Canada geese leaving behind enormous quantities of faeces.

Conversely, many conflicts result from carelessness or lack of knowledge of private citizens and public officials regarding the needs and behaviours of wildlife, especially urban wildlife.  Property owners may inadvertently create the conditions that attract wildlife and put them at risk, such as the removal of natural shelter and food sources, inadequate maintenance of building envelopes, careless feeding of domestic animals, or direct feeding of wild animals.  Often such behaviours also affect adjacent property owners, which can lead to both negative consequences for wildlife and conflicts between neighbours.

Fortunately, in urban and suburban areas, conflicts with wildlife are easily preventable.  The screening of entry points, the elimination of food sources, the maintenance of fencing, and simple deterrents can eliminate most conflicts.  Information on such techniques is available from many sources, including the Ottawa – Carleton Wildlife Centre and the Ottawa Humane Society.  Qualified wildlife service providers are also available to assist residents to take preventative measures.

Human – wildlife conflicts in rural areas pose greater challenges.  Agricultural losses to wildlife can create significant financial losses and hardship for farmers.  They include coyote predation on livestock, consumption and trampling of crops by white-tailed deer, feeding by Canada geese, feeding by wild turkeys, and the flooding of agricultural land by beavers.  Farmers can, and do, reduce many of these impacts through preventative measures:  through fencing, for example, or investment in guard animals.  These measures have significant costs, and none are entirely effective.  Assistance and guidance is available to farmers through the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.  This includes financial support through the Canada – Ontario Farm Stewardship Program.  However, direct wildlife management is sometimes necessary, including both the removal of individual problem animals, or more general population management.  The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act outlines the actions that landowners can take to prevent damage to their properties.

With two important exceptions, the City of Ottawa currently has a limited role in the prevention and resolution of human – wildlife conflicts, especially in rural areas.  At present, most of the responsibilities and authority for wildlife issues rest with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 and the Endangered Species Act, 2007.  These responsibilities include the monitoring and management of populations of any wildlife species that is hunted or trapped, including moose, white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, coyote and beaver.  In the federal lands of the National Capital Greenbelt, this responsibility lies with the National Capital Commission, which maintains its own staff of Conservation Officers.

The City has two areas of responsibility that overlap with the Province:  administration of the Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program, and administration of municipal drains under the Drainage Act.  However, in both of these programs, the Provincial legislation and guidelines severely restrict the City’s discretion in implementation.  Essentially, the City acts as an agent of the Provincial government in order to administer these programs more effectively at the local level.

City Responsibilities

At present, the City’s responsibilities for the prevention and resolution of human – wildlife conflicts lie primarily in three areas:  on its own property, in the immediate protection of public health and safety, and in the provision of public information on human – wildlife interactions.  The following sections of the Wildlife Strategy deal with specific issues within these areas.

Private Property

Neither the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources nor the City responds to routine human – wildlife conflicts on private property.  Prevention and response to conflicts is the responsibility of property owners.

The City supports prevention as the preferred approach to dealing with human – wildlife conflicts on private property, especially in urban, suburban and village areas.  Furthermore, responses to human – wildlife conflicts should be tempered by a certain amount of understanding and tolerance.  Wild animals should not bear the blame and the consequences for following their natural instincts, when simple measures could have prevented a conflict.  The public should be aware that no method for the removal of wild animals from a home or property comes without the risk of suffering by the target or non-target animals.  Live trapping and exclusion methods can lead to the separation of young animals from their parents.  Lethal trapping methods can fail and result in protracted, painful deaths.  Why should a family of raccoons or squirrels be subjected to such risks, simply because of an unsecured garbage can lid?  The City suggests that prevention and toleration of occasional inconveniences is a more humane approach.  Inappropriate actions can also lead to additional problems for the homeowner, not just harm to the animals, such as deceased and decomposing young in an attic or in between walls.

If, however, wild animals have established themselves in or around a home, and an unacceptable conflict exists, then the property owner must decide how to resolve the situation.  Opinions differ on what constitutes the most humane approach to the resolution of such conflicts.  The City takes no position on the issue, but believes that residents should have all of the necessary information to make their own, informed decisions.

Two basic approaches exist for the resolution of unacceptable human – wildlife conflicts:

  • Do It Yourself.  If the animals pose no immediate threat to health and safety, then residents may choose to wait until the adults and any young have left the home or property, and then close the access point to prevent re-entry.  Residents taking this approach must ensure that all young animals have left the nest or den, which normally means waiting until the young are weaned.  The Ottawa – Carleton Wildlife Centre, the Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the Wild Bird Care Centre, the OSPCA and other allied organizations provide practical advice for residents choosing to take this approach.  However, the City advises that residents seek professional advice and assistance in any subsequent clean-up of areas or materials contaminated by animal faeces or urine, because of the risks of animal-transmitted diseases.
  • Get a Professional.  Residents may choose to seek the assistance of a qualified wildlife service provider to resolve the conflict.  In general, wildlife service providers will take one of three approaches (or a combination thereof).
    • No trapping.  Some service providers will not trap animals except as a last resort.  Their preferred approach is to install one-way doors at access points to allow animals to leave the building, but to prevent re-entry.  Once the animals have left the building, the service provider will seal the access point.  If practical, these service providers may recommend that residents wait until young animals have weaned before taking action.  If not practical, then the service providers will physically remove any young animals and place them in protected boxes near the access site for the adult animal to retrieve and relocate.
    • Live trapping.  Some service providers will trap and release animals.  The release point is usually near the access point.  If the removal is necessary during birthing and nesting season, then service providers will physically remove any young animals and place them in protected boxes near the access point for the adult animal to retrieve and relocate.  Provincial regulations prohibit the relocation of animals more than 1 km from their place of capture.
    • Lethal trapping.  Some service providers will use lethal trapping or live trapping in combination with euthanasia.  If the removal is necessary during birthing and nesting season, then the service providers will physically remove and euthanize any young animals.

In making a decision on which approach to take, residents should be aware that most urban animals have a primary den and several secondary den sites, which they may use in response to a variety of circumstances (e.g., disturbance near the primary den, changing weather conditions, birth and growth of offspring, overabundance of fleas or other parasites).  Exclusion or live-trapping of an animal from a primary den will normally result in its relocation to a secondary den.  Consequently, the decision to exclude or live-trap an animal will not necessarily leave it exposed and unprotected.  On the other hand, the secondary den may lie on a neighbour’s property or in a neighbour’s home.  The City advises residents to contact and cooperate with their neighbours when dealing with wildlife conflicts.  A coordinated response will likely result in greater effectiveness, cost savings, and a more positive outcome for both property owners and wildlife.

The City has prepared a protocol for use by the City Call Centre (311) in helping residents to determine the appropriate course of action when dealing with human – wildlife conflicts.  In the case of bats or sick animals in the home, residents should always seek professional advice and assistance.  This protocol should be made available on the City’s website.

In cooperation with By-law and Regulatory Services, the Ottawa Humane Society (OHS) has developed a list of questions which it recommends that residents should ask when seeking a qualified wildlife service provider.  These questions and the answers recommended by the OHS as most appropriate are reprinted in Appendix B.  They should be made available on the City’s website for easy access.

Species at Risk and Private Property

Ottawa is a “hot spot” for species at risk, with as many as 52 species known or suspected to occur in the area as of January 2013.  Of these, 29 species are protected as “threatened” or “endangered species” under the provincial Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) and the policies of the Planning Act.  Five additional migratory birds are protected as “threatened” species under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). 

Under the Provincial Policy Statement, 2005 (PPS) and the City’s Official Plan (OP), development and site alteration are prohibited in “significant habitat for endangered and threatened species, as approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources.”  The OP also requires that any development application for property within 120 m of significant habitat for endangered and threatened species be accompanied by an Environmental Impact Statement showing that the development will have “no negative impact” on that habitat.  However, these protections only apply in the context of the municipal planning and development approval process.  Outside of Planning Act processes, the City has no jurisdiction or responsibility regarding species at risk or their habitat on private property.  However, the City notes that private property owners may have their own responsibilities under the ESA.

Of the many species at risk found in the Ottawa area, a small number may actually make their homes in or on buildings or other structures.  Three species in particular may be of concern to residents:  the chimney swift, the common nighthawk and the barn swallow.  All three of these species eat flying insects, and may be seen swooping through the skies in pursuit of their prey.  They are often most active at dusk or early in the morning, when insects tend to swarm.

The chimney swift, as its name suggests, nests in open chimneys during the summer months.  Chimney swifts are classified as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007.  Under those laws, chimney swifts and their habitat are protected from destruction or disturbance, including nesting sites on private property.  The birds and their nests are also protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, which also applies to many of our other native birds regardless of whether or not they are “at risk.”  Property owners considering the demolition, renovation or capping of chimneys with existing or recent chimney swift nests should consult with the Species at Risk Biologist in the Kemptville District Office of the Ministry of Natural Resources before proceeding.  In addition, the Ottawa Stewardship Council is conducting a survey of chimney swift nesting sites in Ottawa, and it can provide information to property owners on appropriate conservation and stewardship measures.

The common nighthawk will sometimes nest on gravel-covered, flat roofs, which are often found in industrial areas and older neighbourhoods in Ottawa.  The common nighthawk is classified as “threatened” under SARA and as “special concern” under the Endangered Species Act, 2007.  Under SARA and the Migratory Birds Convention Act, common nighthawks and their nests are protected.  Property owners considering the demolition or renovation of buildings with existing or recent common nighthawk nests should consult with the Species at Risk Biologist in the Kemptville District Office of the Ministry of Natural Resources before proceeding.

Barn swallows build cup-shaped nests of mud on vertical surfaces, such as walls or bridge supports.  They are often found nesting on barns and other farm buildings (including houses).  The barn swallow is classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, 2007 and as such it and its habitat are protected from destruction or disturbance.  The birds and their nests are also protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act.  Property owners considering the demolition or renovation of buildings with existing or recent barn swallow nests should consult with the Species at Risk Biologist in the Kemptville District Office of the Ministry of Natural Resources before proceeding.

The City suggests that wildlife service providers and general contractors familiarize themselves with the laws protecting chimney swift, common nighthawk and barn swallow, as well as options and best practices for protection of nesting sites.

City Property

The City relies on professional wildlife service providers for management of human - wildlife conflicts on its property.  Prevention, tolerance and co-existence are always the City’s preferred options.  For existing conflicts, the City’s approach depends upon the circumstances.  For wildlife in buildings, the City’s service providers use ano trapping or live trapping approach.  For wildlife in parks, open spaces and infrastructure facilities, the approach depends upon the context and the degree of risk to public health and safety.  For example, the City has engaged in experimental “hazing” of geese to discourage them from using some parks.  In some situations, where the presence or actions of an animal pose a risk to public health and safety, the City’s service providers will use lethal trapping.  Staff recommends that responsibility for coordination of the City’s contracts with professional wildlife service providers be consolidated in one staff position, along responsibility for reviewing, revising and facilitating the implementation of City procedures for preventing and resolving human – wildlife conflicts on City properties.

Forestry Operations and Tree Removal

The Forestry Services Branch is often called upon to trim or remove trees on City property, particularly in urban areas, suburban areas and villages.  Until recently, tree removals have generally occurred singly, where individual trees have suffered decline or damage, or where trees may be affecting nearby structures.  More recently, however, Forestry Services has had to remove large numbers or groups of trees in response to clusters of infections by Emerald Ash Borer.

Forestry Services does not trim or remove trees containing adult animals or nests/dens containing young animals.  Particular care is taken to comply with the requirements of the Canadian Wildlife Service under the Migratory Birds Convention Act regarding protection of nesting, migratory birds.  During the initial inspection of trees proposed for removal, Tree Inspectors make note of any evidence of animal use or potential for animal habitat.  They pass this information along to the crew assigned to the tree removal.  When the tree removal crew arrives at the tree, they also inspect it for adult or juvenile animals.  If the crew finds animals in the tree, then they leave it undisturbed and move on to the next tree.  The crew will not return to work on the occupied tree until both the adults and juveniles have left.  This procedure applies regardless of whether Forestry Services is removing one or many trees.

Species at Risk and the City of Ottawa

The City has its own responsibilities for protection of species at risk and habitat for species at risk under the ESA and SARA as a landowner and a proponent of projects.

These responsibilities most often arise in the context of municipal infrastructure projects, maintenance activities and operational activities.  For example, regardless of any environmental assessment process, the City must obtain permits from the Minister of Natural Resources under the ESA for any infrastructure work that would damage or destroy habitat of an endangered or threatened species.  Similarly, any maintenance work in or around water, such as the replacement of culverts or the repair of bridge crossings, has the potential to affect turtles, most of which enjoy some status under the ESA or SARA.  Where provincial species at risk are an issue, the Ministry of Natural Resources can issue stop-work orders for projects proceeding without the necessary permits under the ESA, and the corporate penalty for contravention of the ESA can be as much as $1,000,000 for each individual violation.

As with wildlife issues in general, the City does not have any personnel with the formal responsibility or resources for ensuring compliance with the ESA.  The situation is aggravated by the rapidity with which new species and their habitats gain protection under the Act.  The Province reviews and updates its list of endangered and threatened species approximately twice per year, and new additions are frequent.  Personnel in the Land Use and Natural Systems unit have taken it on themselves to track and update the City’s list of species at risk and to post that list to the City’s intranet.  As time permits, they have also attempted to disseminate information on species at risk and compliance with the ESA.  However, this ad hoc approach is not consistent or adequate, and the City has experienced several “near misses” with respect to the ESA, which have resulted in warning letters from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Personnel of the Land Use and Natural Systems Unit currently devote approximately ½ of an FTE to species at risk issues.  Staff believes that due diligence by the City requires identification of a specific staff position with formal responsibility for compliance with the ESA.

Large Wild Mammal Emergency Response

Ottawa is fortunate to have large, high quality natural areas adjacent to and within its urban boundary.  Many of these areas remain well-connected to the greater rural and natural landscape, providing for the movement and sustenance of wildlife.  In general, the citizens of Ottawa value the easy access to these natural areas and the opportunities for wildlife observation that they provide.  However, these natural areas can also provide access by wildlife to urbanized areas.  In the case of some large wild mammals, particularly black bears, white-tailed deer and moose, their movement into the urban landscape may from time to time pose immediate threats to public safety and their own well-being.

In such instances, public safety must take precedence over the well-being of wildlife.  Fortunately, these incidents are very rare and usually resolve themselves, as the animals retreat back into natural areas to avoid human contact and disturbance.  In some cases, however, large wild animals may be unable to find their own way back to natural areas quickly or without creating a public hazard.  Intervention by the City then becomes necessary to protect public safety.  Intervention is also necessary to reduce the risk to the animals themselves, which can be subject to extreme physical stress and to injury during movement through an unnatural and unfamiliar landscape.

The City’s first responsibility when large wild mammals appear in suburban and urban areas is to remove any direct threat to public safety.  The Ottawa Police Service will respond to reports, assess the situation on site, and take any immediate action necessary to prevent injury to the public.  Ottawa Police will endeavour to isolate the area in which the animal is located, as well as any obvious path for the animal back to natural habitat.  For animals on Federal property, the Ottawa Police will call the National Capital Commission, which will respond with its own Conservation Officers.  For large wild mammals on private property or City property, the Ottawa Police will contact a staff person in By-law and Regulatory Services  who is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to assess incidents and determine the appropriate course of action.  This may include assisting Police to encourage the animal to move back to its natural habitat on its own if it is able to do so, or contacting the City’s Wildlife Service Provider who is contracted to provide emergency wildlife conflict resolution services and who is also on-call 24/7.

The City’s Wildlife Service Provider is trained and equipped to provide a variety of levels of response.  Once public safety has been assured, the primary concern of the service provider is the welfare of the animal.  If practical, the service provider will work with the Ottawa Police to direct the animal toward the nearest, suitable natural habitat.  If such an approach is not practical, or if the animal appears at risk from physical stress (which can be fatal to deer and moose), the service provider may arrange for the tranquilization and transport of the animal.  However, tranquilization is not without significant risk to both the animal and, potentially, to the public.  Animals under stress may suffer fatal reactions to the drugs, and tranquillization is often not effective on very excited animals, except at near fatal dosages.  Furthermore, the animal must be calm and in an isolated and quiet location for accurate and timely delivery of the tranquilizer drugs.  Failing that, the animal may become mobile again.  As a last resort, when the service provider believes that attempts at tranquillization will increase the suffering of the animal or risk to public safety, then the service provider will shoot the animal.  This approach has been reviewed and supported by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  Since implementation in 2010, it has proven effective at resolving large wild mammal incidents without harm to the animals or significant public disturbance.

The cost for implementation of the large wild animal emergency response program has been approximately $30,000 per year, which By-law and Regulatory Services has met through its existing budget.  There have been no on-call staff costs charged to date.

At present, management and coordination of the City’s large wild mammal emergency response  protocols and associated on-call services are provided by a staff person in By-law and Regulatory Services on a voluntary and informal basis, in addition to that person’s normal duties.  In the long-term, such an ad hoc approach is not sustainable, depending as it does on a qualified and willing individual rather than a defined staff position with the appropriate role and responsibilities.  Staff recommends the identification of a specific staff position with formal responsibility for management and coordination of the large mammal emergency response protocols.

White-tailed deer

The mix of agricultural and natural areas across Ottawa’s landscape creates ideal conditions for white-tailed deer.  Deer are “edge” adapted species.  Through much of the year, they spend their days lying or browsing within woodlands or along hedgerows, emerging during the early morning and evening hours into fields, gardens and the shoulders of roads to feed on grasses, grains or crops.  In the autumn, when their numbers are highest, they begin to congregate in “deer stands” – woodlots, particularly coniferous woodlots – crossing highways and roads to reach their destinations.  In the spring, they disperse again, fanning back out across the landscape.

White-tailed deer provoke a wide range of responses and cause a wide range of environmental impacts. For most people, the sight of deer across a field provides a thrill.  For a hunter, the sight of a buck emerging from the autumn, morning mist may be the culmination of hours and days of effort and concentration.  For wildlife in winter, the death of an old or diseased deer may provide the necessary energy and protein to survive a few more days or weeks.  Conversely, for a driver inspecting a crushed fender and a shattered windshield, or a farmer inspecting crop damage, deer may represent a threat to life and livelihood.  At high population densities, their browsing may cause measurable and significant ecosystem changes, altering patterns of regeneration in forests and reducing the native biodiversity of plant communities.  Through their association with black-legged ticks and Lyme disease, they may contribute to health fears of suburban and rural residents.

It has been suggested that more aggressive management and reduction of white-tailed deer populations might be warranted to reduce the risks of deer – vehicle collisions and Lyme Disease.  The MNR currently manages deer populations for a target density of 2 – 8 deer/km2, and it estimates deer densities in the Ottawa area and throughout most of the Kemptville District at less than 5 deer/km2.  However, deer densities in some parts of the National Capital Commission Greenbelt are known to be much higher.   Management of white-tailed deer is often a highly-controversial and political issue.  Under existing laws and land tenure, the City of Ottawa has a very limited role in deer management.  Under the Discharge of Firearms By-law, the City allows hunting on most rural, City-owned properties, subject to the Provincial Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.  The City also responds to white-tailed deer in urban areas through its Large Wild Mammal Response Protocol (see above).  However, responsibility for managing deer populations and agricultural impacts from deer rests with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources or, on Federal lands, with the National Capital Commission.

The City’s main responsibility with respect to deer comes from its ownership and maintenance of most of the City’s road network.  The City is responsible for promoting traffic safety along its roads, including programs to reduce the risk of collisions with wildlife.  Signage plays an important role in the program, warning drivers in high risk areas to reduce speed and watch for deer.  In addition, the City has collaborated with a number of partners and advisory groups on the development of the annual “Speeding Costs you Deerly” program.  This campaign features increased public education activities during the most active deer seasons, including public service announcements and the temporarily placement of electronic, roadside message boards reminding drivers of the risks.  Since implementation of the program, deer-vehicle collisions in Ottawa have dropped by 30%.

The Safer Roads Ottawa Program is particularly interested in a new safety system being tested in Eastern Ontario by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO):  the Large Animal Warning Device System (LAWDS).  Intended for installation at high risk locations, this LAWDS features warning lights connected to a network of sensors which will detect the entry of a large animal into a road corridor.  The lights alert drivers to the presence of the animal, providing them with time to slow down and respond in a controlled manner.  Safer Roads Ottawa has requested the MTO conduct a trial within Ottawa.  Safer Roads Ottawa will continue to investigate and evaluate other methods for reducing deer – vehicle collisions.

Beaver Management

More than 200 years ago, commercial trapping almost eliminated beavers from the Ottawa Valley.   Although we do not have documentation of the changes to the landscape resulting from their loss, we can reasonably assume that it would have significantly decreased the amount of wetland.  Subsequently, much of the landscape of Ottawa was further transformed by forestry, European settlement, agriculture and urban development.  Much of the land was drained and cleared for farming; rivers and streams were dammed; mills were constructed; villages and roads were built.

Beginning in the early- to mid-Twentieth Century, changing socio-economic conditions led to the gradual abandonment of many homesteads and marginal agricultural areas, resulting in extensive regeneration of Ottawa’s (and eastern North America’s) forest cover, as well as the abandonment and disrepair of many agricultural ditches and drains.  About the same time, beavers began to re-colonize the Ottawa area.  With increasing opportunities for forage, a general absence of large predators, and a network of natural and man-made watercourses to exploit, beavers have quickly spread and become well-established in the City.

Overall, the re-establishment of beavers is good for Ottawa.  Ecological research has shown that beavers provide great benefits through the promotion of biodiversity, increases in ecosystem health and resilience, and provision of ecosystems services – especially through the creation and maintenance of wetlands.  However, they also cause damage to private property, loss of economically-productive woodlots and agricultural land, and impairment of municipal infrastructure.

Private landowners have the right to manage beavers on their own properties, including trapping and the breaching of beaver dams.  Such activities are regulated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Conservation Authorities, both of which encourage mitigation and avoidance measures as a first step.  Both agencies also provide outreach and educational materials on alternatives to trapping.  In most cases, the City has no role or responsibility in beaver management on private lands.

Municipal Drains are an exception to this general rule.  In Ontario, municipalities have the responsibility for implementation of the provincial Drainage Act.  This Act provides a mechanism by which private landowners can request that a municipality provide and maintain drainage of private lands.  Such requests are subject to review and approval by municipal Councils, but Council decisions can also be appealed to the Ontario Drainage Tribunal and the Ontario Drainage Referee.  Under the Drainage Act, municipal Drain Superintendents are required to maintain municipal drains free from obstruction, which often includes beaver dams.  Works authorized under the Drainage Act are not subject to Provincial planning policies for the protection of significant wetlands, although such works can and often do include measures for the protection of wetlands.

In addition to the requirement for maintenance of municipal drains, the City is sometimes required to carry out beaver management activities for the protection of physical infrastructure, especially roads.  Road culverts and bridges are favoured places for beavers to build dams, creating natural choke points on watercourses and providing strong auditory triggers for dam-building activities.  Beavers tend to build much higher dams at culverts than under normal circumstances.  The resulting beaver ponds can cause both flooding and physical damage to road beds, creating public safety hazards and requiring expensive repairs.

Beavers are also sometimes attracted to engineered stormwater facilities, especially those that have been designed to function as attractive, public spaces.  In most cases, beavers do not linger in these facilities, but quickly move to more suitable, natural habitats.  In some cases, however, beavers try to establish lodges and/or dams, sometimes within the associated stormwater pipes.  Such activities impair the functioning of these stormwater facilities, creating risks to both public and private property, especially in large storm events.  Beavers also damage or destroy neighbouring trees, which have often been planted by the City at the cost of many thousands of dollars.

The City employs trappers licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) to trap beavers, using the recommended tools and methods.  Where mitigation and avoidance measures are not practical, the OMNR recommends lethal trapping.    Relocation of live-trapped beavers is not generally considered to be practical or humane, because of Provincial restrictions on animal relocation beyond 1 km, and because of territorial behaviour by beavers.

In the past, the City has investigated and employed alternative, non-lethal beaver management tools and techniques for the protection of municipal infrastructure.  There are three general types of tools, all of which are commonly referred to as “beaver deceivers”:

  • Beaver fences are in-water barriers that prevent beavers from accessing and constructing dams at culverts, bridge crossings, or other choke points.  Newer models of beaver fences employ shapes and designs which are easy to maintain and highly resistant to obstruction by beavers.
  • Pond levellers are rigid or flexible pipes installed within and through beaver dams that maintain beaver ponds at water levels that do not pose a threat to property or infrastructure.
  • Diversion dams are always employed with beaver fences or pond levellers.  They are partially man-made, constructed upstream of existing beaver dams, at locations and elevations that do not pose the same risk to property or infrastructure.  Upon removal of existing, problematic beaver dams, the diversion dams provide preferential sites for reconstruction by beavers. 

Several studies have looked at the effectiveness of beaver deceivers as alternatives to trapping and dam removal for managing the impacts of beavers on infrastructure.  The studies suggest that beaver deceivers can provide cost-effective protection of infrastructure under many conditions, especially at road and railway culverts.  Locally, the National Capital Commission relies almost entirely on beaver deceivers for protection of infrastructure in Gatineau Park.  However, all of these studies conclude that beaver deceivers may not be effective under some circumstances, and that they may need to be supplemented by trapping prior to installation (Langlois and Decker 2004; Callaghan 2005).  In particular:

  • beaver deceivers may not be effective in watercourses with straightened channels and low grades, where beavers can easily build new dams upstream or downstream;
  • beaver deceivers are susceptible to ice damage;
  • beaver deceivers normally result in small water level increases, making them unsuitable for “zero tolerance” locations;
  • beaver deceivers are not suitable for locations with large catchments or rapidly changing flows.

Overall, beaver deceivers are most suitable for locations on minor natural watercourses, where the goal is to reduce the threat to infrastructure, while maintaining the ecological benefits provided by beavers and beaver-created wetlands.

Stormwater Facilities

Staff does not recommend the use of beaver deceivers in engineered stormwater management facilities.  Instead, City staff recommends continuation of the current practice of beaver trapping on an “as needed” basis in these facilities.

Engineered stormwater facilities are designed and built to protect property, infrastructure and aquatic systems from the effects of contaminants, flooding and erosion.  Beaver deceivers have the potential to change the hydrological and operating characteristics of these facilities in unpredictable ways, through their own effects on water flows, through their interactions with winter ice, and through interaction with beaver activities.  A number of facilities in other municipalities have been suggested as examples of the use of beaver deceivers in stormwater ponds, including the Goodman Creek Stormwater Pond in Oshawa and Guindon Park in Cornwall.  Staff has examined all of these examples and concluded that none are representative of Ottawa’s stormwater management facilities.  In fact, staff is unaware of any municipality that regularly employs beaver deceivers in engineered stormwater facilities.  On the contrary, all of the municipal stormwater management guidelines and policies found by staff recommend lethal trapping for the management of beavers in such facilities.

It has been argued that installation of beaver deceivers in engineered stormwater facilities could reduce flooding risks, because they would provide continuous protection of the facility, rather than intermittent protection provided by inspections and trapping.  This argument assumes that the beaver deceivers would be effective in stormwater facilities, which staff disputes, and that staff do not regularly inspect stormwater facilities.  In fact, the staff of the Surface Water Management Services Branch estimates that most facilities receive some form of routine inspection monthly and that problematic locations receive more frequent inspections during critical times of the year.  Furthermore, new stormwater management ponds are being designed and constructed with the outlet structures that make them far more resistant to blockage by beavers, including partially submerged hoods to protect outlet pipes and wider spillways on weirs.    As part of work on a new stormwater facility design manual, the Surface Water Management Services Branch is also re-examining the selection of tree species and other vegetation, as well as general landscaping, in the design and construction of new stormwater facilities in order to deter their use by beavers and other problematic urban wildlife, such as Canada geese.

In summary, City stormwater engineers believe that the use of beaver deceivers in engineered stormwater facilities could compromise the functioning of those facilities and does not constitute good engineering practice.  Staff of the Land Use and Natural Systems Unit agree with the Surface Water Management Services Branch that the small number of beavers trapped in stormwater facilities each year does not justify a change to the City’s management of these facilities, particularly considering the risks, challenges and expense of doing so.

Municipal Drains

Staff does not recommend the widespread use of beaver deceivers in existing municipal drains.  Instead, staff recommends the current practice of beaver trapping on an “as needed basis”. 

However, staff does recommend further evaluation of the potential effectiveness of beaver deceivers, beginning with the demonstration project described below.  Staff recommends that Drain Engineers consider the results of that evaluation in identifying opportunities for the use of beaver deceivers at suitable locations on new municipal drains, or where Municipal Drain reports are being revised, especially in conjunction with the protection of wetlands.

By their nature, municipal drains are not normally conducive to the use of the beaver deceivers.  The purpose of a municipal drain, or any agricultural drain, is to increase and to speed the movement of surface water off poorly-drained land.  Consequently, drains tend to occur on lands with very low grades, where natural drainage is slow.  Furthermore, the construction and maintenance of municipal drains often includes the straightening of channels and the elimination of natural restrictions.  In doing so, they tend to create the conditions in which beaver deceivers are least effective:  i.e. where beavers can most easily relocate dams upstream or downstream, and where even minimal water level increases can result in the flooding of substantial areas.

In addition to the physical constraints, there are also legal restrictions on the use of beaver deceivers in municipal drains.  Unless the supporting Drain Engineer’s report explicitly provides for the retention or tolerance of a beaver deceiver and/or a beaver dam in a municipal drain, then such structures could be considered “obstructions” under the Drainage Act.  Creation of such an obstruction, or failure to remove an obstruction, can lead to action against the City by the affected landowners.  Re-opening a Drain Engineer’s report to add provisions for a beaver deceiver requires the agreement of the affected landowners.  Practically, therefore, the best opportunity to incorporate beaver deceivers into a municipal drain comes at the time of preparation of the original Drain Engineer’s Report.  Even then, dissenting landowners could appeal such provisions to the Ontario Drainage Tribunal and the Ontario Drainage Referee.

Nonetheless, the City is adapting its municipal drain practices to attempt to protect wetlands, while still meeting the obligations of the Drainage Act.  In a recent example, a Drain Engineer’s report incorporated the use of a water control structure to protect the core area of a provincially significant wetland, while still relieving flooding on adjacent properties.  It is feasible that beaver deceivers could be effective in the same way, allowing retention of beaver ponds at suitable locations on municipal drains, but at reduced water levels which minimize impacts on productive forests and fields.  Each case would need to be assessed individually.

Road and Rail Culverts

Staff recommends further study and evaluation of the potential effectiveness of beaver deceivers at problematic road and railway culverts, beginning with the demonstration project described below.

Past studies and local experience suggests that beaver deceivers can have the greatest success and benefit at road and railway culverts.  Roads and railways are relatively resilient to adjacent beaver activity, except when water elevations become high enough to cause flooding, to pose a roadside safety hazard, or to threaten the integrity of the road/rail bed.  Unfortunately, culverts provide very strong triggers for dam building behaviour by beavers, frequently resulting in the construction of much higher dams than under natural circumstances.  Beaver deceivers can have a high success rate in such circumstances, by preventing access to the culverts by beavers (beaver fences), by redirecting the beaver activity away from the mouth of the culvert (pond levellers and diversion dams), or by a combination of both methods.

The cost of installing beaver deceivers at culverts is higher in the short-term than trapping.  However, long-term costs are normally lower, and the potential for expensive structural damage to culverts and road/rail beds is reduced.  The City has established seven beaver deceiver demonstration sites in order to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of these devices and their ecological benefits.

Beaver Deceiver Demonstration Project

The City has evaluated the effectiveness of beaver deceivers in the past, with generally unsatisfactory results.  However, the design of beaver deceivers has improved in recent years, as have techniques in site evaluation and installation.  Staff has initiated the establishment of seven demonstration sites of the use of beaver deceivers, focused on low-risk road/rail culverts and natural watercourses.

Five of the demonstration sites were installed in the summer and autumn of 2012 by the same contractor responsible for implementation of the NCC’s Gatineau Park management program.  With the assistance of the contractor, staff selected sites in both the urban and rural area, representing different conditions and challenges.  All of the sites had a significant history of beaver activity and related maintenance activities, including one major culvert replacement.  Staff considered the sites to be low-risk locations, where the potential failure of the beaver deceivers would not create any immediate threat to property, infrastructure or public safety.  The cost for establishment of the five additional demonstration sites was approximately $15,000.  The Surface Water Management Services Branch is funding the project from its existing budget, with staff from the Land Use and Natural Systems Unit providing technical support and project management.

The photograph shows a beaver deceiver installation at a culvert location in a marsh.  Cattails stand in the background.  A culvert lies in the foreground.  An area of open water lies between them.  The area of open water immediately surrounding the intake of the culvert has been fenced with page wire to prevent entry by beavers.  The page wire fence is supposed to provide a new location for dam construction by beavers, although no dam building activity has yet occurred.  Two black plastic pipes discharge into the fenced area.  The pipes are visible running through the fencing, back into the larger open water area.  One of the pipe intakes is visible in the photograph, surrounded by a small metal cage to prevent blockage by beavers.  No water is yet flowing through the pipes, because the discharges have not yet been lowered to their final height. 

Figure 1.  Goulbourn Forced Road Demonstration Site

The photograph shows a beaver deceiver installation on a creek.  A beaver dam stands in the foreground, approximately one metre high.  Upstream of the dam, a small cattail marsh stands in the background.  The open water of the beaver pond lies between them, at an elevation almost equal to the top of the beaver dam.  Located in the beaver pond, immediately in front of the cattails, a small protective cage can be seen around the intake of the beaver deceiver.  The outlet of the beaver deceiver is visible on the downstream side of the beaver dam.  Although not visible in the photograph, the beaver deceiver pipe runs underwater from the intake, through the beaver dam, to the outlet.  Water flows quickly from the outlet of the beaver deceiver.

Figure 2.  Poole Creek Demonstration Site

 

Some of the installations, such as the Goulbourn Forced Road site, will require final adjustment in 2013 following re-establishment of more normal water conditions after the historic drought of 2011 – 2012.  Staff will monitor the demonstration sites for one to three years, depending upon the results.  The monitoring will include tracking of maintenance requirements and costs, for comparison to locations using standard management practices (i.e. trapping).  Monitoring will be done using current resources and within existing budgets.

Recommendations

  1. That the City evaluates the potential effectiveness of beaver deceivers, beginning with the demonstration project currently underway.
  2. That the Municipal Drainage Section consider the results of the evaluation in identifying opportunities for the use of beaver deceivers at suitable locations on new municipal drains, or where Municipal Drain reports are being revised, especially in conjunction with the protection of wetlands.
  3. That the Public Works Department consider the results of the evaluation in its maintenance program for road and railway culverts.

Canada Geese

Many parks, stormwater management facilities and open spaces provide ideal habitat for urbanized Canada geese.  The juxtaposition of ponds, rivers or wetlands immediately adjacent to manicured, grassy areas provides geese with all of their needs for food, nesting areas and security from predators.  Unfortunately, geese produce enormous quantities of faeces:  defecating up to 15 times per hour and producing between 30 and 175 grams of faecal matter per day, depending on food quality (between 1 – 5% their body weight) (Bedard and Gauthier 1986, Unckless and Makarewicz 2007).  Based on these estimates, a flock of 50 birds could produce between 180 kg and 1050 kg of faecal matter over a four month period.

Such large amounts of faecal matter cannot only make public parks, beaches and open spaces unpleasant destinations for City residents, but they can have measureable effects on water quality.  In summer months in particular, large goose populations can raise Escherichia coli levels in water beyond safe swimming levels, as well as contribute damaging amounts of nutrients to aquatic ecosystems.

Many effective methods exist for deterring Canada geese.  The City has experimented in the past with many of them, including the “hazing” of geese by trained dogs at Andrew Haydon and Dick Bell Parks, experiments with repellents at Petrie Island, and different landscaping practices around stormwater management facilities.  However, like most urban wildlife, Canada geese adapt quickly to new conditions.  In order for deterrence measures to remain effective, they must be reviewed and modified periodically.

Unfortunately, many of the problems in parks and other public spaces arise from the feeding of Canada geese by visitors.  Such feeding is prohibited on City property.  The City has carried out public education programs in the past, and these programs should continue.

No one at the City currently has the responsibility or resources for implementing and monitoring geese deterrence practices.  Consequently, there has been little follow-up on the City’s geese management trials.  Staff recommends the identification of a specific staff position with formal responsibility for management and coordination of geese management on City property.

Wild Turkeys

Between 1984 and 1987, the Ministry of Natural Resources and partners such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters reintroduced 4,400 wild turkeys at 275 sites across Ontario (OFAH 2013).  By 2007, the population had grown to 70,000 (OFAH 2013).  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the population continues to grow dramatically as a result of abundant, suitable habitat and agricultural food sources.  Flocks of 20, 30 or 40 turkeys routinely appear in rural areas of Ottawa, where they can cause significant crop damage.  Although farmers are entitled to protect their property and crops from turkeys, no compensation program exists for economic losses.

More recently, turkeys have begun to appear around the edges of Ottawa’s suburban communities, especially newer, expanding communities.  These are “no firearms discharge” areas under City by-laws, where turkeys can quickly lose their fear of humans.  Many people find turkeys fascinating and amusing, even to the point of feeding them.  Conversely, although essentially harmless, the size and behaviour of turkeys can intimidate people unfamiliar with them.  Human – turkey conflicts are increasing and becoming more controversial.  Nonetheless, turkeys are likely to remain abundant in Ottawa, and residents must learn to adapt to them.

In rural areas, management of turkey populations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Natural Resources, through the issuance of hunting licenses.  Turkey hunting continues to increase in popularity and in conjunction with natural predation of eggs and young by raccoons, skunks, coyotes and crows, should bring about stabilization or even a reduction in the turkey population Hughes et al. 2007).  In suburban and village areas, education and outreach will be the key to peaceful coexistence.  Residents should be encouraged to refrain from active feeding of wild turkeys and to remove other food sources, such as windfall apples.  Relevant information should be made available on the City web sites and provided through the other education and outreach programs proposed in this strategy.

Coyotes

Over the past 200 years, coyotes have dramatically expanded their range into eastern North America, probably as a result of the eradication of competing gray wolves and creation of suitable habitat for both coyotes and white-tailed deer by agriculture and rural landscape changes (Gompper 2002).  They are now found in and around every urban area in eastern North America, having been captured even in New York’s Central Park (Gompper 2002).  In Ottawa, coyotes are ubiquitous in rural areas, and they are commonly encountered by residents in villages, suburban areas, the National Capital Greenbelt, and even some urban areas.  As top predators, coyotes perform important ecosystem functions.  They provide control on populations of small mammals and birds, such as beaver, geese and wild turkeys, and can help to provide stability in the composition and numbers of general wildlife populations (Voigt and Berg 1999, Gompper 2002).

The presence of coyotes in villages, suburbs and some urban areas has also caused concerns for some residents, who wonder if the animals pose a threat to family pets and children.  Coyotes are recognized as a threat to livestock in rural areas.  Farmers who lose livestock to coyotes are eligible for compensation under the Ontario Wildlife Damage Compensation Program, which the City administers on behalf of the province.  Questions have been raised about the City’s role and responsibility in responding to these concerns, and whether the City should take a more active approach to managing the coyote population within its boundaries.  At present, the City only responds to reports of coyotes where aggressive behaviour by an animal appears to pose an immediate threat to public safety.

The numbers of coyote conflicts in Ottawa appear relatively stable, based upon livestock compensation claims by farmers and reports to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  Between 2006 and 2011, the number of claims for livestock compensation varied between 75 and 130, with a peak in 2009 (Table 2).  The peak may be related to a decrease in availability of white-tailed deer fawns and carcasses following the preceding two, hard winters.  Similarly, the Kemptville District Office of the OMNR reports that public complaints regarding problem coyotes continue to average approximately 10 per year, with no apparent trend or pattern in the calls (Kemptville District Office staff, pers comm.).

Table 2.  Livestock Compensation 2006 – 2011

Year

Compensation Claims

2006

75

2007

85

2008

98

2009

130

2010

102

2011

98

2012

99

Data from the City of Ottawa Rural Affairs Office

Studies of urban coyotes show that the majority of animals seek to avoid confrontations with humans (White and Gehrt 2009).  A comprehensive survey by researchers found that in the 46 years between 1960 and 2006, there were 142 documented cases of injuries to humans by coyotes, mostly in the western United States (White and Gehrt 2009).  There are only two recorded fatalities.  In comparison, there are approximately 350-400 reported incidents of injuries to humans by domestic dogs in Ottawa annually.  Nonetheless, White and Gehrt (2009) found that the rate of aggressive behaviour by coyotes appears to be increasing – a trend which they attributed to increasing habituation to humans and human environments by coyotes. 

Wildlife research staff for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has provided the City with the following comment:

“It is unusual for coyotes to show no fear of humans.  Coyotes displaying no fear of humans or exhibiting aggressive behaviours have likely been habituated to people through the direct or indirect feeding.  Property owners are advised to secure garbage and minimize things that attract coyotes to their properties, such as bird feeders, pet waste and fallen fruit from trees.”

With respect to the question of whether active management would be useful for managing the coyote population within Ottawa’s boundaries, the Ministry of Natural Resources commented:

“Coyote populations normally fluctuate in response to the abundance or scarcity of food.  When food supplies are limited, they experience a higher mortality rate and lower reproductive rates.  Humans generally account for the majority of coyotes deaths through hunting, trapping and motor vehicle accidents, but mortality by humans has rarely been shown to have a major impact on coyote abundance.”

If humans account for the majority of coyote deaths, why do hunting and trapping rarely have a major impact on coyote abundance?  Research shows that coyote populations respond to intensive control measures by increasing reproductive rates by 30 – 100% (Voigt and Berg 1999).  For the same reason, chemical control programs (i.e. poisoning) have generally been ineffective for managing coyote populations in the long-term (Voigt and Berg 1999).

Based upon stable rates of human – coyote conflicts, the very low risk to public safety from coyotes, and the general ineffectiveness of coyote population management programs, significant changes to the City’s approach to coyotes appear unnecessary.  However, some minor changes do appear warranted.  Continuing public concern about coyotes suggests that the City could do a better job of communication regarding the real risks, deterrence, and appropriate responses to animals on private property.  The City’s website should be updated and expanded to include more information on prevention of human – coyote conflicts, deterrence of coyotes, and details on how and where to seek assistance with habituated coyotes (see Recommendation 3).  The City could present an annual public information meeting on coyotes, as part of an urban wildlife speaker series (see Recommendation 5).  The City should develop and disseminate age-appropriate information on coyotes to primary schools, as part of a general outreach program on urban wildlife (see Recommendation 6).

At present, the City does not have a standard procedure for responding to cases of individual, habituated animals in villages, suburban and urban areas.  For most non-emergency complaints, the City usually refers people to information on the City and MNR websites.  Some callers may be referred to a knowledgeable person in By-law & Regulatory Services, who can provide more detailed information and advice.  That person, who is a biologist by education, provides this service on an informal basis.  In the long-term, such an ad hoc approach is not sustainable, depending as it does on a willing individual rather than a defined staff position with the appropriate role and responsibilities.

Where the continuing behaviour of individual coyotes suggests that they have lost their general fear of humans, or where they have become dependent upon human food sources, it might be appropriate for the City to respond before such behaviour escalates into aggression.  Staff recommends that the City’s direct response to individual problem coyotes be expanded to include the assessment of animals exhibiting consistent signs of habituation, before they become an immediate risk to public safety.  This response should include a site visit to assess the behaviour of the animal and its context, an evaluation of the probable attractants and opportunities for deterrence, and a determination of the appropriate response, including the humane removal of the animal where necessary.  However, such a service would require a dedicated City staff person.

Recommendations

  1. Staff recommends that the City of Ottawa’s direct response to individual, problem coyotes be expanded to include the assessment of animals exhibiting consistent signs of habituation, before they become an immediate risk to public safety.