GUELPH - Ever since a killer blight moved through southern Ontario in the 1930s and 1940s, virtually wiping out every native American chestnut tree on the landscape, a small group of dedicated plant scientists and landowners has been trying to find a way to save the periled species. Decades of tireless effort, much of it credited to the Canadian Chestnut Council (CCC), an independent group of volunteers that share a passion for the tree, has led to the development of a National Recovery Plan. The plan identifies short and long-term goals and is intended to guide a coordinated effort to restore a self-sustaining population of the majestic tree throughout its historic range.
The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) partnered with private landowners, CCC, Grand River Conservation Authority, and others, in establishing 24 demonstration planting sites involving American chestnut trees on farms across Ontario in 1998-1999. Coupled with the demonstration projects was an awareness and promotion campaign that used the American chestnut project as a springboard to discuss broader issues revolving around wildlife species at risk that depend on the agricultural landscape for their habitat needs. The campaign sparked considerable interest and enthusiasm in the farm community and beyond, and led to an invitation for OSCIA to contribute to the evolution of the National Recovery Plan.
OSCIA's current efforts to report on the American chestnut initiative is funded by the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species At Risk, a Government of Canada program managed cooperatively by Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Parks Canada.
The American chestnut is one of over 300 wildlife species in Canada that have been determined to be in serious trouble by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The array of listed species includes: birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians, insects, plants and more. Reasons that a species may be put at risk include: over-exploitation by humans, over-predation by other wildlife, habitat alteration and destruction, or as in the case of the American chestnut, disease. For each threatened or endangered species listed, expert teams assembled predominantly from government, universities and wildlife groups are coaxed to develop recovery plans that work towards removing the species from the list.
COSEWIC designated the American chestnut as a threatened species in 1987. Assessments are conducted periodically by COSEWIC to determine if the designation is still appropriate. Depending on the success of recovery efforts over time, the American chestnut could be up-listed to endangered, or it is hoped, down-listed from threatened.
Once a recovery plan is prepared, it is forwarded to the Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife (RENEW). It serves as a link between individual recovery teams, government agencies, and the public. The job of RENEW is to ensure that recovery plans and the associated strategies are peer reviewed, receive approval from appropriate government agencies in the jurisdictions where the particular wildlife species is found, and that public consultation has been incorporated.
Dr. Greg Boland, Co-Chair of the Recovery Team that prepared the American Chestnut National Recovery Plan and Vice-Chair of CCC, describes it as, "An independent initiative intended to provide a common, approved and scientifically valid plan of activity for everyone to contribute to the restoration." Overcoming the chestnut blight is only one of the challenges facing recovery efforts. According to Dr. John Ambrose, the second Co-Chair, "American chestnut may also be adversely impacted by loss of habitat, potential hybridization with introduced chestnut species, and the possible introduction of a gall wasp from the USA." The road to recovery will not be an easy one for the American chestnut, but most enthusiasts are not deterred.
The plan involves three recovery objectives: 1. Identify and work with landowners to protect populations of American chestnut within its native range, and promote self-sustainability in at least fifteen core populations; 2. Identify blight-free stands outside its native range, and protect and monitor at least seven stands; and 3. Develop and assess management strategies for chestnut blight.
Work began in 2001 by the Recovery Team to locate and assess current chestnut stands, and will continue for two more years. Dr. Boland, who is also a Professor in Department of Environmental Biology at University of Guelph, and Dr. B. Husband from the Department of Botany, are coordinating the survey work in consultation with CCC and other groups. The actual collection of soil and specimen samples, is being conducted during the summer months by University of Guelph students. In addition to exhaustive measurements and data collection, the team also watches for and removes any blight-infected trees and branches; and as much as possible, encourages new seedlings to be produced from nuts on site. Dr. Boland welcomes all reports of American chestnut so that the survey team may visit the sites and collect data and samples.
Several short and long-term strategies have been planned to accomplish the third objective - learning to manage the chestnut blight. This is by far the most challenging objective. One particularly exciting project is underway and is being coordinated by Dr. Adam Dale, a plant breeder with the University of Guelph. It involves a breeding program to develop blight-resistant chestnuts of Canadian origin. According to Dr. Dale, up to forty "mother trees" across Ontario will be selected. Pollen from known blight-resistant hybrid trees, obtained from researchers in the United States, will be crossed with the mother trees. The resulting nuts will be collected, planted, and the trees inoculated with chestnut blight in five to seven years' time. "The logistics are a real challenge" stresses Dr. Dale. "We'll keep back-crossing through generations, and within twenty years get blight resistance and Canadian content." Aided by modern technology and a huge amount of volunteer effort, the Recovery Team is hanging considerable hope on hybridization as the solution to the chestnut's plight.
Throughout the process, an active awareness campaign will strive to build public interest and support for the recovery efforts from farm, forestry, naturalist and planning organizations. If you are interested in finding out more about the recovery plan and activities of the CCC, look up their web site at www.uoguelph.ca/~chestnut. Dr. Boland hopes the plan and public awareness campaign will also serve as a template to address the needs of other disease-threatened trees such as butternut and white elm.
The steps involved in developing official recovery plans for wildlife species at risk in Ontario have been largely a mystery for most landowners. Even though the strategies aim to guide public behavior and land-use decision making in a way that best accommodates the biological needs of the species, often very few individuals, beyond a team of scientists representing government and wildlife conservation groups, ever get the meaningful chance to contribute ideas. Too much emphasis on regulation and land use controls, often combined with unrealistic expectations, has sometimes proven to be a lingering disincentive for participation by farming landowners once final plans have been revealed.
In southern Ontario, much of the critical habitat needed by wildlife occurs on privately owned farmland. OSCIA has been quite pleased with the experience gained with the American chestnut project, and hopes it serves as a signal to others that farm organizations have a valuable role to play. Recovery plans will ultimately have a much better chance of meeting their objectives if agriculture and other landowner groups are provided the opportunity to understand the issues and offer their ideas as part of the developmental process.