The Glengarry News

Endangered species

Law imperils butternut recovery

publisher Jun 6, 2019 - 4:43pm

A  new batch of butternut seedlings have been sent into the world to pull the endangered tree back from the brink – but this spring’s lot may have been the last.
Landowners flocked to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority’s specialized cold storage facility on Dilworth Road this spring to pick up their baby butternut trees, carefully grown at the Ferguson Forestry Centre from resilient seeds harvested across Eastern Ontario.

Butternut trees in Canada and the US have been decimated by the butternut canker, an incurable fungal disease scientists believe originated in Asia.

Since 2005, the RVCA has planted a total of 29,000 new butternuts across Eastern Ontario, partnering with landowners and other groups willing to care for the fragile trees on their properties.

But that could end now that proposed changes to the provincial Endangered Species Act have been signed into law.

The new rules, included in the Province of Ontario’s More Homes, More Choice Act, will allow developers to pay into a province-wide conservation fund instead of supporting localized, targeted efforts to save or replace the threatened species they disrupt. It’s unclear how the provincial pool of money would be doled out: money paid for local butternut destruction may no longer fund local butternut recovery.

That could leave the RVCA’s program without the critical funding it needs to collect resilient seeds to nurture new seedlings for reforestation. And it’s been a hugely successful model, if only because landowners have been so eager to plant the disappearing trees.

“I haven’t had a butternut on my property for more than 60 years,” said Mountain resident Fred Baker, who participated in the program for the first time this spring. He picked up 20 seedlings on May 10. “It’s a good, natural food for animals and wildlife, beautiful wood to work with, great saw logs if you can get them to that size. They’re beautiful to sit under.”

Progress is achingly slow: of the 2,000 free seedlings handed out this spring, only about 30 per cent will live to age five, according to program manager Rosemary Fleguel.

“It’s a slow, steady drip to get butternuts back onto the landscape,” she said. “But it’s still 30 per cent more than what was there, and they’re from genetically superior parent trees. What we don’t know is how many of these seedlings will be able to fend off the canker disease into maturity to produce seeds of their own.”

Fleguel estimates that 50 to 60 per cent of the population in eastern Ontario has died or is no longer reproducing since she started monitoring the trees in 1992.

“I’d say about 50 per cent still exist as viable trees, but every year a certain percentage fall off the edge,” she said. “The urgency to find these tolerant trees cannot be overstated.”