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Every Design is a Habitat

How landscape architects can make home for at-risk species

Text by Mark Schollen, OALA, FCSLA

Upon returning from a walk on a sunny but brisk fall afternoon, my wife and I approached the front door and, as I put the key in the lock, my wife asked, “What are those little black things all over the front porch?” I looked down and replied, “Looks like mouse poo.” To which she responded, “It looks like it is coming down from above.” Our eyes traced up the wall and we discovered that the source of the poo was not a mouse, but rather a very small furry bat affixed to the masonry, sleeping upside-down in the warm autumn sun.

Judging from the amount of debris in the corner of the porch, our inverted guest had been roosting on the wall for quite some time. We must have traversed the porch numerous—perhaps dozens‚—of times without any inkling of the bat’s presence.

It seems that our sheltered front porch had become habitat for a little brown bat.

Little brown bat. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is listed as an endangered species in Canada and Ontario and is protected by the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in Ontario. The endangered designation means the species is facing “imminent extinction or extirpation.” The endangered designation for the little brown bat stems from the impacts of a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome, which propagates in damp, humid environments where bats tend to roost during the winter months. This disease disrupts the bats’ hibernation cycle, leading to the bats emerging too early from hibernation, prior to food sources being available, which in-turn results in population decline.

In addition to the little brown bat, there are 255 species of plants, animals, insects, and other organisms on the Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) list. Species on the list are designated as endangered, extirpated, threatened, or special concern based on the degree of risk to the survival of the species in Ontario. Like the little brown bat, many of the species on the list are being impacted by disease; however, there are also many listed species that are in decline due to the loss of suitable habitat. The anticipated effects of climate change will undoubtably exert more pressure on these species and may exacerbate the rate of population decline.

Fowler’s toad, listed as an SAR Endangered species. IMAGE/ Colin Tilbrook

The bat that clung upside down to the sunny, warm wall of the house had found refuge in a semi-urban landscape —not habitat, per se, but a place to rest until after sunset when I viewed it in-flight, chasing insects in the twilight.

This inspired a thought: what if landscape architects approached every project through the lens of it being potential habitat?

Jefferson salamander. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the Pollinators
‘This is old news,’ one might say, pointing to all of the examples of pollinator gardens that have been created to support declining bee and butterfly populations—and this would be an accurate observation.

My firm has designed numerous pollinator habitats within parks, open spaces, on the rooftops of buildings, and on closed landfill sites. The gardens around my own house were designed to support pollinators throughout the seasons. The goldenrod there is a source of nectar, and, in contrast to what some of the neighbours think, goldenrod is not a dominant allergen (it is commonly mistaken for ragweed, which is a potent allergen), but it is an essential flowering plant that nourishes bees, and butterflies prior to the fall migration.

However, the potential of the designed landscape is much greater when the range of species that could benefit from creative interventions in the design of landscapes is broadened beyond the habitat requirements of bees and butterflies.

Goldenrod in Niagara. IMAGE/ Leonora (Ellie) Enking / Flickr

Species at Risk in Ontario
In perusing the SARO list, and reviewing the recovery plans related to specific species, one discovers that, for many species, while the habitat requirements are specialized, the components that compose viable habitats can be replicated in the design of the landscape. By gaining an understanding of the habitat requirements of a specific plant, animal, insect, or other organism, in combination with detailed knowledge of the biophysical, hydrological, ecological, and microclimatic attributes of the site, opportunities to create specialized habitat exist through the skillful and creative manipulation of the landscape. Certainly, there are limitations: species that require large patches of habitat or complete isolation from the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance are likely not suitable candidates. Fortunately, this is not the case for many of the species on the SARO list. Animals like the Jefferson salamander require habitat that will support life cycle needs, including clean vernal pools in a moist forest floor environment. This type of habitat can be replicated through the articulation of topography to create areas of imperfect drainage sustained by clean runoff, with a generous layer of organics and woody debris in a shaded environment, proximate to, or within a woodland. This type of created habitat will take time to mature and evolve to the point that it will be a viable habitat for this species, but eventually the targeted habitat will be achieved, aiding in the recovery of the species.

Barn swallow, a species that is listed as threatened, will nest under structures such as bridges if the structure incorporates suitable elements that will allow for the attachment of the bird’s mud-constructed nest. In theory, every bridge that is designed could easily incorporate substructure elements that would support barn swallow nests. One just needs to know what the requirements are and ensure the design incorporates these elements. Or, one could purchase and install pre-manufactured “barn swallow nesting cups” and affix these to the underside of the bridge. And, yes, these are available on Amazon for immediate delivery.

It is important to recognise that, in many cases, the ability to create viable and sustainable habitat requires a commitment to short-term maintenance and longer-term adaptive management to steer the evolution of the constructed landscape towards the targeted habitat end-point. For example, establishing meadowland habitat to support bobolink and eastern meadowlark is relatively straight-forward: secure a sizable parcel of land and establish native grassland through seeding. However, maintaining the landscape as ‘meadow’ requires a commitment to annual mowing to ‘stall’ natural succession by suppressing colonization by woody vegetation. This is a perpetual commitment that requires foresight, funding, and effort.

Eastern meadowlark. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Recovery plans have been generated for the majority of the species on the SARO list. The recovery plans are exceptionally detailed and provide excellent guidance related to the habitat requirements and dependencies of the individual species.

Support for the Implementation of SAR Recovery Initiatives
In addition to the technical information required to support the design process, the province also offers support for the implementation of recovery efforts through the Species at Risk Stewardship Program (SARSP). This program provides funding for “projects that contribute to the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitat.”

Butler’s garter snake, listed as an SAR Endangered species. IMAGE/ Colin Tilbrook

As stated on the SARSP website, the objectives of the program are to:
– Improve the status of species at risk and their habitats by supporting stewardship and recovery actions;
– Support stewardship and multi-partner approaches to species at risk protection and recovery;
– Support community outreach, and the provision of related tools and techniques to inspire and enable people to become involved in species at risk stewardship; and,
– Address important needs and knowledge gaps relating to the protection, recovery, and management of species at risk and their habitats in Ontario by supporting scientific research.

Snapping turtles, listed as an SAR Special Concern species. IMAGE/ Colin Tilbrook

Information related to making an application, as well as the annual application deadline is available on the SARSP website.

The designed landscape presents tremendous potential to support and assist in the recovery of a range of SARO listed species, as well as creating habitat for other important species in Ontario. As ‘stewards of the landscape,’ landscape architects have an important role to play in the recovery of SAR in Ontario. Adopting the ‘every project is potential habitat’ perspective will effectively expand the extent of opportunities and inspire the imaginative integration of meaningful species-supportive habitat throughout the province.

BIO/ Mark Schollen, OALA, FCSLA, is the Principal of Schollen & Company Inc., specializing in landscape restoration, green infrastructure and sustainable design… and a few other things.