Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land: More Findings

Today, we are sharing in-depth excerpts from the Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land. Dr. Jeremy Lundholm, PhD, and Caitlin Porter, MSc, voluntarily provided this information to the court and have subsequently given us permission to share it online. You can find their unabridged report at the bottom of this page. If you’d prefer, you can read the post of their conclusions instead.

Click each of the headings to read more.

Background

Lundholm and Porter are biologists at St. Mary’s University’s Ecology of Plants in Communities Lab, members of which have been studying the plant communities at Owls Head Provincial Park for fifteen years. Lundholm and Porter have studied the ecology of Nova Scotia’s coastal barrens for 15 and 10 years, respectively.

“Data used to inform this report and our knowledge of Owls Head Provincial Park crown lands were collected as a part of an independent research study on the biodiversity of coastal barrens in Nova Scotia.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 1

“This report constitutes our objective expert opinion on the ecological importance of the Owls Head Crown lands and the likely consequences of building golf courses on this property.

“We offer these comments as independent experts on plant ecology and the ecological importance of the Owls Head Crown lands, for the express assistance of the court, and this report is comprehensive concerning the relevant information in this matter.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 1

What Were Lundholm and Porter Studying?

“Our study was conducted for the purposes of better understanding plant species and community diversity of coastal barrens.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 7

Objectives of the study:

  • “define variability in plant species composition, abundance and distributions within and among coastal barrens sites and”
  • “determine what measurable environmental variables may be correlated with this variability.”
    (Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 2)

We collected data to address these primary research questions. Our data is not a substitute for an environmental assessment or wetland delineation.

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 2

“Our sampling design was established for consistency and objectivity with respect to our study objectives. Because we did not survey the entirety of Owls Head and omitted taxa from our survey (e.g. we did not survey animal wildlife, lichens, etc), the resulting data underestimates the actual biodiversity of the site. Plant species and vegetation communities are not fully represented by our data. Thus, conclusions reached in this report are likely to underrepresent the site’s full conservation significance. For example, we are aware of reports of Piping Plover nesting at Owls Head. We made no effort to document the presence or absence of Piping Plover while surveying the site.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 3

Flora of Owls Head

“Vegetation is comprised of species adapted to the harsh climatic and edaphic (soil) conditions present at the site. The distribution of plant communities at Owls Head is spatially patterned in close association with the topographic conditions established by the distribution of bedrock ridges. […] We documented low coastal shrubland dominated by the species Juniperus communis [common juniper] and Corema conradii [broom crowberry]. These dwarf heaths are distributed across the site on the exposed crests of bedrock ridges with shallow soil.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 7

Globally Rare Plant Community

Owls Head Provincial Park Reserve supports Coastal Broom Crowberry heathland. This plant community occurs widely on the bedrock ridges across the subject crown lands property and adjacent privately-owned lands. This is a globally rare plant community is notable of the eastern shore ecoregion (Neily et al 2017; Porter et al. unpublished).

The dwarf, trailing shrub called Broom Crowberry (Corema conradii) that predominates the flora of these heaths is an endemic species to northeastern North America, meaning this species can be found nowhere else in the world. In Canada, this plant only occurs within the maritime provinces and Quebec and within that limited range, Broom Crowberry is only common in Nova Scotia.

“Within Nova Scotia, it is not common on coastal barrens. It is better known from inland habitats such as sand barrens. The coastal broom crowberry community present at Owls Head is not found elsewhere in Canada.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 13

“[W]e remain concerned that the sale of the land, in and of itself, removes the Province’s ability to conserve the ecologically critical plant communities on this property and to allow for continued study of this property’s unique biodiversity.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 16

Soil

“The site is characterized by shallow soils and repeating ridges of exposed bedrock. Owls Head is underlain by soils of the Rockland series. Rockland soils are defined as “areas where at least 60% of the land is exposed bedrock or the till is extremely stony”. Notably, “The land has little value except for water storage or wildlife” (MacDougall et al 1963).”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 3

“[I]t is widely established that all coastal barrens and bogs in Nova Scotia are characterized by their nutrient-poor, acidic soils. In our study of nearly 200 barrens from Nova scotia there are no exceptions (Porter et al.)”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 3
Figure 1. Scatter plot of soil depths reveal the range of soil depths within our sampling area. The mean soil depth across the site is 22cm. 82% of plots have less than 25 cm of soil. Soil depths of 0 occur on bedrock ridges, and soil depth exceeding 1M occur within bog wetlands.

“Soil depths at Owls Head rarely exceed 25cm (with the exception of deep wetland peat deposits) […] Addition of soils to the site would irreversibly alter the site in its entirety.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Limited Occurrence of Grass and Grass-Like Plant Species

Lundholm and Porter’s data showed limited “grass and grass-like plant species” :

“With the exception of one sample plot, grass-like species found in our study are specialists of wetland, barren and beach habitats.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 10

“[We] are not aware of any other data that would suggest the presence of habitat suitable for turf-forming or non-specialist grass species elsewhere at Owls Head.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 12

“In order for the site to support any turf forming grass species associated with a golf course, soils would be needed. […] Addition of soils to the site would directly destroy vegetation by either smothering or excavation of surficial materials, and/or indirectly destroy vegetation communities by establishing an environment capable of supporting deeper-rooting plant species that would out-compete barrens vegetation.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Golf Courses and Fertilizers

All of the ecosystems present at Owls Head are characterized as nutrient-poor ecosystems. Bogs, Barrens and eelgrass beds are characterized by species adapted to the nutrient conditions currently present. Golf courses require the use of fertilizers. Introduction of nutrients to this environment would lead to the loss of plant species and communities associated with the nutrient-poor environment. Nutrient runoff from fertilizers is also widely known to result in the destruction of eelgrass meadows in the marine environment (e.g., see DFO 2009).”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Climate

“Owls Head is situated in the Eastern Shore Ecodistrict 820. This region is distinguished by extended periods of fog and for being “the coldest coastline on the mainland” (Neily et al 2017). Owls Head is also considered an extremely wind-exposed site (Keys et al. 2017).”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 3

Fauna of Owls Head

The fauna (wildlife) of Owls Head was outside the scope of Lundholm and Porter’s study. But as we know from Halifax’s Green Network Plan, Owls Head Park is an essential ecological corridor, making Owls Head an important animal habitat. The table below shows their incidental wildlife observations.

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 7

“If it is the case that Piping Plover nest on the beaches of Owls Head as was reported by Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Protected Areas Branch, in summaries of the conservation values of this site, the construction and use phase of any development at this site are likely to interact with the critical habitat of this federally listed species at risk. A Federal environmental assessment would be necessary to determine impacts to Piping Plover. We conducted no survey of avifauna present at the site but are aware the adjacent protected lands within the Eastern Shore Wilderness Area and 100 Wild Islands conservation lands are of great ecological importance for many bird species and as well these species are sensitive to anthropogenic disturbances such as the increased presence of people (noise, lights etc.) within their habitat.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Biodiversity

Species richness within our nine 1x1m wetland sample plots ranged from 3 to 21 unique species. The average species richness of these wetland sample plots is 15. The single plot that had less than 12 species also featured a substantial area of exposed rock. Our study did not identify lichen and bryophyte species meaning the total species richness of flora within each sample plot is underestimated.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 11

“Coastal Barrens in Nova Scotia in general cannot be considered low-diversity ecosystems (Oberndorfer and Lundhom 2009; Cameron and Bondrup – Neilsen 2013, Porter 2013). This site specifically cannot reasonably be considered to be low in biodiversity.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Offshore Eelgrass Beds

The marine environment around Owls Head supports meadows of eelgrass. Eelgrass is formally considered an Ecologically Important Species (ESS) for its functional role in protecting shorelines and supporting marine biodiversity. Eelgrass requires pristine water conditions and is not tolerant of nutrient pollution. (DFO 2009)”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 14

Distribution of Wetlands

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 10
Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 9

Table 2. Quantity and proportion of sample plots within our study area that are wetlands. This does not represent a complete wetland inventory or delineation. (Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, pages 8-9)

“Our field data (table 2, Figure 3) reveal that there is a greater extent of wetlands than previously mapped by the province of Nova Scotia (figure 2). This discrepancy in area and type of wetlands is usual and would be expected because it reflects our on-site sampling methodology in comparison with remote sensing techniques used to classify wetlands in the provincial database. Both data sets should be considered incomplete in their presentation of the occurrence and distribution of wetlands at Owls Head.

“Without a formal wetland delineation field survey, it is not possible to accurately identify the exact area in Ha [hectares] of wetlands occurring on the property. We believe the area of wetlands on the property to be greater than the 7.5 Ha mapped. Our data reveal that at least 31% of our sampling area is wetland.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 10

Types of Wetlands

“The Province of Nova Scotia noted swamp and marsh wetlands in their database on the property. We noted also bog wetlands […] distributed widely across the property.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 10

“As our study pertains to coastal barrens, we did not explore the property for treed wetlands and these types of wetlands are also not usually possible to detect from air photo delineations by the province.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 10

“We incidentally noted the presence of salt marsh wetland in mineral sediment associated with shallow tidal flats anchored between rock exposures in the sheltered environment of Long Cove.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 11

“Owls Head features widespread wetlands. A golf course development at this site would seem to conflict with Nova Scotia’s Wetland Conservation Policy, in that it would lead to (1) unavoidable loss of wetlands, and (2) loss of wetlands of special significance, which include (a) salt marsh, and (b) biodiverse wetlands.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Connectivity of Wetlands

“Air photos reveal the presence of streams and depressions with open water that connect wetlands at Owls Head. Given the presence of these open streams, the relative elevations on the property, and the wide distribution of wetlands across Owls Head, it is reasonable to assume that wetlands are interconnected across the property and adjacent privately owned lands.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 11

Potential Development

“We expect that a development at this site would entirely destroy the ecological values of the site.”

Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15

Editor’s Note: For use on the website, we have emphasized certain excerpts in bold. Please refer to the unabridged report to see which sections were underlined by Lundholm and Porter.

Broom Crowberry Photo: magnolia1000 / CC BY https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

To read or download the report in its entirety:

http://saveowlshead.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Report-on-the-Ecological-Importance-of-Owls-Head-Crown-land-March-18-2020.pdf

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