Muddy Boots is our internal blog where our staff members share experiences getting their boots muddy with on-the-ground conservation research! You can find our contributions to external blogs and Op Eds here.
Maitland Valley watershed tour with representatives from Maitland Valley Conservation Authority, Walpole Island First Nation, Healthy Lake Huron and Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. Photo credit: Dan Kraus.
By Dan Kraus, Director of National Conservation
The forest we stood under was magnificent. Sugar Maple, Black Cherry and Hophornbeam were at their best during a warm autumn day in the Maitland River watershed near Goderich, Ontario. Forest monitoring by the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) ranked it one of the best woodlots remaining in the watershed.
Despite its magnificence and pedigree, this forest was not at peak health. American Elm were reduced to a few stragglers by Dutch Elm Disease. American Beech were showing signs of decline from an introduced pathogen call Beech Bark Disease. White, Green and Black Ash were the standing dead, killed by invasive Emerald Ash Borer.
The lands around this forest had also changed dramatically. Over the last two centuries the thick blanket of woodland that once laid upon these gentle rolling hills had become patches of isolated woodlots that now covered just 13% of the watershed. What had been a landscape dominated by family farms with a mosaic of crops, hedgerows, pastures, and orchards just a few decades ago had now largely transformed to vast fields of corn and soy.
Fragmented forests in a landscape of increasingly intensified agriculture impacts more than just trees. Rain and snowmelt once held by that forest blanket slowly percolated into the soils to provide continuous and cool baseflow to streams. But water now moves faster and warmer in this landscape. Streams and creeks swell from trickles to torrents during heavy rains and carry runoff laden with sediments from towns, roads and farms downstream to the Maitland River and Lake Huron. Water sampling has found disease-causing bacteria with ominous names like salmonella, Yersinia and campylobacter. This downstream flush can expose swimmers along Lake Hurons sandy beaches to bacteria that may cause diarrhea or infections of the ears, nose, throat, eyes, and skin. In the worst-case scenarios, these contaminants make their way into our drinking water.
This new ecosystem also impacts wildlife. Birds that need large areas of intact forests such as Wood Thrush and Scarlet Tanager are now rare. Tens of thousands of insect-eating bats have disappeared because of White-nose Syndrome and many pollinators have declined or disappeared. White-tailed Deer thrive in these fragmented forests with an all-you-can eat buffet of corn and soy. Their high numbers contribute to the spread of Lyme Disease and now they may be catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from us1.
Around the world, our actions that push the boundaries of nature are changing our climate and putting up to one million species at risk of extinction. Our broken relationship with nature is also impacting our health. There is growing evidence that being in nature and having a connection with the natural world improves the mind and body.
Nature and people are inextricably linked. This is not new knowledge – it’s still held within the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and it’s the wisdom of your grandmother telling you to get some fresh air. It’s why I feel really good standing in a forest in the Maitland Valley and less good sitting on a subway in Toronto.
In our modern world we’ve largely separated environmental health and human health. Unfortunately, in our efforts to pull apart the well-being of people from well-being off the natural world, we’ve also created cracks in our ecosystems that both nature and people fall through. But there is growing recognition that reuniting the health of nature, wildlife and people benefits everyone. Through a new One Health approach we can help nature and people to thrive.
In 2021 the Wildlife Conservation Society introduced the Berlin principles on One Health to rebuild bridges between the well-being of people and nature2. These ten principles strive to unite health care and nature care. One Health integrates information and institutions to look at the health of nature, people, wildlife, and livestock through a single lens and discover connections that cannot be found by looking at the world in separates silos. It recognizes that many of the issues impacting nature and our wellbeing - and most importantly solutions we need - can only be found by looking at our ecology and society as a whole system.
The pieces and partners for a One Health approach are waiting. The MVCA, like many of Ontario’s Conservation Authorities have been monitoring and reporting on forest health and water health. Regional health units monitor our sickness and health. Provincial ministries collect data on wildlife health, livestock health and crop health. Our challenge is to bring these practices and practitioners together and connect the dots between disciplines.
And there is progress. The World Health Organization identifies the protection of nature as an essential strategy in our recovery from COVID. Conservation Ontario promotes EcoHealth and the benefits of visiting Conservation Areas. Family doctors in Canada are now prescribing nature.
Our biggest challenge might be reimagining a world where people and nature are integrated. Where lines between traditional departments and disciplines fade. Where family doctors, farmers, ecologists and vets work together and share ideas to keep people and nature healthy.
The farm we visited that autumn day provided a glimpse of the world that could be. The farming family that owned and managed that woodlot was connected to the land and took pride in their stewardship. They had restored the municipal drain to a brook trout stream and created buffers around fields to slow run-off and hold nutrients on the land. These actions helped nature on their property, but also cascaded downstream to other properties and eventually to Lake Huron.
Buffer strips along farm fields can play an important role in reducing flooding and keeping nutrients, bacteria and sediment out of waterways. Photo credit: Dan Kraus.
Water connects us all, and watersheds may be the ideal way to think about One Health. The actions of each landowner cascade to neighbor and community. What makes nature heathy on one property, contributes to watershed health, wildlife health, and the well-being of people.
We are all downstream of nature. One Health is a way to recognize our reliance and rebuild our relationship. To rediscover the connections between people and place, and to help us all thrive in a thriving natural world.
1Chandler JC, Bevins SN, Ellis JW, Linder TJ, Tell RM, Jenkins-Moore M, Root JJ, Lenoch JB, Robbe-Austerman S, DeLiberto TJ, Gidlewski T, Kim Torchetti M, Shriner SA. SARS-CoV-2 exposure in wild white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Nov 23;118(47):e2114828118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2114828118. PMID: 34732584.
2Gruetzmacher, K., et al., The Berlin principles on one health – Bridging global health and conservation. Science of The Total Environment, 2021. 764: p. 142919.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada