Balkan Babes in the woods

by Briony Penn, October 2010

Heroes of coastal ecosystem protection are not extinct… yet.

Last month, I wrote about unreported crimes against the natural world, and got feedback that the next column should be on the unreported heroes trying to prevent those unreported crimes.

Some of you will have come across Laura Matthias before. She’s a Balkan Babe—one of the talented, young, all-female singing group that won a prestigious place in the national showcase of top Canadian singing ensembles this time last year. She’s also the author of ExtraVeganZa—a best-selling vegan cookbook that makes eating vegan a culinary adventure, not an ethical ordeal. 

However, many of us living on the islands have met Laura as a field biologist with the Habitat Stewardship Program of the Salt Spring Island Conservancy and partners. She has spent the last four years showing us what lives in our backyards and how to conserve their habitat. Laura is definitely the sort of Canadian who maintains your faith in Canada.

In an average week, she might be on a mountain top with school kids tromping around from bluebird box to bluebird box checking for signs of occupation as part of a bi-national initiative to reintroduce bluebirds to the Salish Sea after they disappeared in the ’80s; or swimming huge logs across a lake in her flippers to create basking habitat for the painted turtles, another species at risk; or building artificial snake hibernacula in rock walls for the tiny endangered sharp-tailed snakes; or climbing a 10-metre ladder to the rafters of an old barn to erect a barn owl nest box; or running after butterflies to ensure that our rare populations are still fluttering. I sleep better at nights knowing that there are people like Laura looking out for all of our best interests.

Laura’s speciality is gastropods—a class of molluscs that includes slugs and snails. The gastropods have a special place in her heart because they are found in the comforting deep leaf litter or arboreal boughs of ancient bigleaf maples. Finding them in ancient maple groves is a great help in the PR of campaigns to protect the groves. Many an hour I have shared with Laura, sorting through leaf litter looking for snails that are 2mm in diameter and have names like the Oregon pygmy snail—not to be confused with its marine brother the Oregon hairy sea snail. 

Every month, islanders get to read an article in our local paper, penned by Laura, about one of the 45 species at risk federally or provincially that she and her colleague Robin Anschild are monitoring. The article might be an update on how the great blue herons are doing on the island. Answer: Not great, but the odds are better for them now that we have a pair of local eyes watching their nests and alerting the landowner that they have the spectacular privilege of watching nesting herons.

We also get local updates on the state of our rare amphibians. How are they doing? Again, not great, but the chances have improved for them now that we can tell a red-legged frog from a bullfrog. Bullfrogs are an invasive species threatening our native amphibians and if we can stop their release in our small lakes, they won’t eat our red-legged frogs. Whether it is tips on how to avoid disturbing the ground-nesting nighthawks on rocky bluffs, or how to best remove Scotch broom, islanders have their lives and connection to this place enriched by the work of these Saltspring Babes.

Together, Laura and Robin have discovered six new rare or endangered species previously unknown to the island and found 30 more populations of other rare species. Both are only part-time biologists on a tiny budget padded out by bake sales and poetry readings. But since the program has started, the two have met with hundreds of people to answer questions about what lives in their backyard, and how to encourage and protect these animals, plants and ecosystems. 

One of the results of their dedication is that locals are rallying around them in the face of meagre support. The federal funding for this program has been wavering on the brink of extinction for several years now and provincial assistance itself is extinct. Over 5300 hours of volunteer time were put to the various conservancy projects, including the award-winning Stewards-in-Training program for our school students. 

But, unlike bigleaf maples, stewards cannot live on air and water alone. If we restore adequate funding to people like Laura they put enormous value back; from savings in fresh air and water, to getting our children connected to healthy activities, to protecting our pollinators, to protecting carbon sinks, to enriching our lives with our fellow creatures, to being active members of a community. 

To put it in a larger context, this part of the world is, as Laura points out, the Noah’s ark of North America. As all the population ranges dwindle—from red-legged frogs to nighthawks—the Capital region takes on greater and greater global significance. The world is entrusting the west coast of BC to safeguard globally-significant populations. And our national and provincial governments are abdicating that responsibility, which then falls onto part-time Balkan Babes with hardly two pygmy snails to rub together. It ain’t right and it shouldn’t continue.

We need to do two things: 1) Tell our politicians to restore government support of the scientists who lead community stewardship initiatives; and 2) Support the non-profits that are propping up the social net right now by joining or donating.

In the Capital Regional District, check out your own local land trust and community steward programs on the website of the Land Trust Alliance of BC (www.landtrustalliance.bc.ca) and the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (www.goert.ca). 

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.