Planning a trip to Forks of the Credit Provincial Park?
We want to let you know that the park may look a little different than last time due to an exciting grassland restoration project!
At first glance, this project may surprise you.
If you tried to capture the concept of habitat restoration in a single action or symbol, what would it be?
Have you thought about planting a tree?
You’re not alone. Planting trees has become a common shorthand for green work.
But while reforestation is important conservation work and occurs commonly in our parks (here are some recent examples from Killarney and Sandbanks), the fact is: Not all ecosystems at risk are forests.
Our parks function as a provincial protection network, safeguarding a broad representation of ecosystems, ranging from coastal dunes to alvar, forests and wetlands.
And at Forks of the Credit, we are working to restore and protect grassland habitat.
Forks of the Credito grasslands
Grasslands are open, sunny areas filled with small plants such as native grasses and wildflowers. Plants’ deep roots prevent erosion, improve soil, and store carbon underground. Wildflowers that bloom from spring to fall support pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Grasslands are places where small mammals feed, crickets sing, and ground-nesting birds raise their young.
It is important that parks like Forks of the Credit protect different types of habitat. Even species that spend most of their time in the forest may sometimes need to visit a grassland to find food, warm in the sun, or meet other needs. Greater habitat diversity supports greater species diversity and makes Forks of the Credit a healthier park.
Bobolinks are an “endangered” species. They nest on the ground and breed in the swinging grasses of tallgrass prairies and hay fields.
For example, Forks of the Credit is home to one of the largest populations of clay sparrows in the region.
Many at-risk species, such as Bobolink, Monarch Butterfly, and Eastern Meadowlark, as well as regionally rare species such as Frost Aster and Smooth Beardtongue, live in grassland habitats in Forks of the Credit.
Or at least they did before.
Twenty years ago, the Forks of the Credit grasslands were larger and healthier, supporting thriving populations of birds and butterflies.
But over the past few decades, we have heard the “bark” of some invasive species. They are “branching” and overshadowing shorter grassland vegetation, “leaving” no room for other species.
Wait, are you saying the ecosystem is threatened by invasive plants? trees?!
In fact we are.
It turns out that the solution to this challenge involves not planting trees, but removing them. (Be warned, this project might take you by surprise!)
For the past 10 years, the park’s grassland habitat has been under siege by invasive and/or invasive trees, shrubs and vegetation.
Some of those plants are non-native invasive species, such as Scots pine. Others are simply opportunistic native species, such as cottonwood and white ash, that are invasive to this particular ecosystem.
And it’s not just about trees. Invasive plants like honeysuckle and dog strangler vine are also getting in on the action.
These trees, shrubs and other invasive vegetation are smothering grassland plant species. If left alone, they will overwrite the entire ecosystem.
See how the green is thicker further back? That’s where the native milkweed is being smothered by dog strangler vine. Dog Strangling Vine is an aggressive invasive species that damages the habitat of species such as monarch butterflies.
Many park spaces are no longer suitable habitat for our at-risk Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark populations.
If no action is taken, these ecologically important grasslands will eventually disappear.
Shouldn’t we just let nature take its course? Why interfere?
Provincial parks contain some of the rarest and most ecologically important ecosystems that have mostly been lost outside of protected areas. Sometimes our best option is to let ecosystems evolve without our interference. And sometimes it is important that we intervene to help preserve biodiversity in general.
Most of Ontario’s natural grasslands were lost in the first waves of European settlement, as they were much easier to cultivate and develop compared to forests and wetlands. Projects like this at Forks of the Credit provide the opportunity to restore and maintain an ecologically important part of our natural heritage, which supports a long list of species that depend on grasslands for survival.
For example, historically, natural wildfires or indigenous fire management rejuvenated grasslands and prevented the spread of invasive tree species.
But Forks of the Credit is a provincial park and fire management has not been practiced here.
We try to work in partnership with nature to protect biodiversity, so we want to make sure we give something back to these grasslands.
Our park staff and local field naturalist clubs regularly partner and work with hand tools to remove invasive shrubs and tree species.
But in some areas, fast-growing invasive tree species have emerged and become larger than staff and volunteers can remove by hand.
This year’s restoration project is a larger operation and more focused on continuing this important conservation work.
A concentrated restoration effort
Work is being done to restore up to 20 ha of grassland habitat in the park this year!
This is how we will do it:
This part has already been completed. Our staff has conducted many park surveys to ensure that larger trees along trails (good habitat for birds, bats, raccoons, and other park species that use trees with older cavities) are marked and protected.
We are also being very careful with the timing. Tree removal will occur outside of bird and bat maternity roost windows.
Removal of invasive trees and vegetation.
During the winter, crews will arrive with small excavators and chainsaws to remove invasive trees and prepare the area for planting. Most trees will be small and stunted (mainly small ash and invasive Scots pine).
They will also work in open grassland areas, removing invasive brush and invasive plants such as honeysuckle.
And don’t worry that the cut vegetation will go to waste.
Brush piles for wildlife will be created from some logs and branches cut during the project. Most of the other wood scraps will be shredded and scattered around the park. These features will create additional nesting, feeding and shelter sites for a variety of the park’s reptile and mammal species.
So this is a story of restoration without tree planting, but we are sowing seeds for many other amazing plants!
This is a critical part of the process because we want our grasslands to be ready to welcome migrating birds and butterflies when spring arrives.
How will the restoration work affect my visit?
We won’t be closing our doors for this restoration, even over the winter, but we want visitors to be prepared for some changes.
If you visit us in February or March, The trails may be a little muddy or disturbed by the progress of the equipment. (Work crews will take a different entrance to the park so as not to interfere with the main parking area.)
We will work to remove some brush root systems and will also need to expose some bare soil for planting. This will improve the diversity of our grasslands for spring, but may appear sparse until new plants emerge.
You may see chainsaw machinery and personnel at work. to eliminate tree species. This work will take place away from hiking trails, although you may see them in the distance as you walk.
Likewise, whether winter, spring or summer, You will see fewer trees in these project areas the next time you visit.
Bruce Trail, Meadow Trail, and Trans Canada Trail enclose the restoration site. If you walk these trails, you may see fallen logs. Overall, it will feel a little more open due to tree removal.
That said, with the removal of these trees, we will see a natural “greening” of our open meadows come spring. We also look forward to the return of grassland-breeding bird species, butterflies and other pollinators, and beautiful wild plants and flowers.
Thank you for celebrating with us!
Our team at Forks of the Credit has a long history of protecting these grassland habitats and the species that live there.
We are very excited to share this amazing project with everyone who loves Forks of the Credit. It is a wonderful victory for the biodiversity of our parks!