Speed Kills: A Cautionary Tale from Saskatoon’s Northeast Swale
By: Loiuse Jones
On the northeast edge of Saskatoon is an amazing natural and cultural landscape, called the Northeast Swale (a geophysical remnant of the last glaciation). Although surrounded by urban development – and slated for more – the Swale’s prairie grasslands and wetlands still offer high quality biodiversity of plants and animals. There are over 200 plant species, more than 100 bird species and a large number of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Some of these are rare, endangered, and culturally significant.
This temperate grassland is part of what the Nature Conservancy of Canada described in 2016 as the world’s most endangered ecosystem – and it’s right in our own backyard.
The Northeast Swale has experienced major impacts already and will continue to experience land use pressures from such infrastructure developments as housing subdivisions, a network of supporting roadways and even Saskatchewan Highways determination to construct a freeway right through it!
The Northeast Swale Watchers was formed in 2011 to try to protect this jewel of a natural area. The initial mission of this collective of individual citizens and conservation organizations was to ensure that the 26-kilometer long Northeast Swale would be protected into perpetuity.
By necessity, our focus quickly turned to saving the Swale within city limits as the City of Saskatoon’s Land branch was ready to develop the north east sector as quickly as possible. There was a dream of a city poised to grow to 700,000 and developers could see dollar signs. The forces for development were moving quickly and the Swale Watchers were surprised to see all the damage being done.
A multi-stakeholder committee established by the City of Saskatoon to review management of the Northeast Swale recommended many important mitigative measures, although few were actually implemented by the City. Reduced speed limits were recommended by the Committee to Council and at that time City Council agreed and accepted the need for a reduced speed through the Swale. Although initially setting a speed limit of 60 km/h with reduction to 50 km/h on the portions of roads that cross the Swale on McOrmond Drive and Central Avenue, Council has now decided to increase the speed to 60 km/h.
The area in which the speed has been increased on the Swale was designed knowing wildlife cross the roads here. The road was built without a median, with two underground animal corridors, and with dark sky lighting to avoid blinding wildlife trying to cross the roadway. Because this area is adjacent to two neighbourhoods, a pedestrian crossing was placed to enable safe movement of humans. And the speed limit was set at 50 km/h because the experts in road design know that speed kills.
Refereed studies show that wildlife fatality data notoriously and dramatically underestimates actual mortality rates, so true collision rates are at least 100% higher than reported since some fatally injured animals will move away from the roadway to die, are thrown beyond the survey area, or are scavenged before they are counted. Over the first year, 40 large and medium-sized mammal carcasses were found. Importantly, birds, reptiles, and amphibians (such as the endangered Northern Leopard Frog, for example) were not included in the count of “wildlife” kills. Of the carcasses found, none were in the originally reduced speed zone areas.
It is not merely an issue of vehicular killing of wildlife – pedestrian safety is also a concern. A simple calculation also shows that for every kilometre of roadway in which the speed is increased by 10 km/h, travel time is decreased by only 10 seconds! And will being able to go 10 km/h faster satisfy the frustrated drivers who want to drive at even greater speeds than those posted?
On May 25, 2020 Saskatoon City Council voted 6-5 to increase the speed through the Swale, despite the fact that they have been on record since 2016 as intent on providing permanent protection to the Northeast Swale, and despite the fact that this was one of the few mitigative measures adopted by City Council to protect wildlife in this threatened area. Now even this minimal measure has been eliminated because some people complained of the inconvenience of having to adjust their speed to protect wildlife movement in the area.
What hope is there for protection of a natural area that provides so much in the way of ecosystem services when any environmental protection can be altered in such a cavalier way? The City has received well-documented arguments from engineering specialists in road design and ecology. Yet again, the populist voice has won above scientific evidence and the City’s own Green Infrastructure Strategy, Triple Bottom Line policy, and revised Official Community Plan bylaw.
Originally published in the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s newsletter “The Environmental Resource”.
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The Northeast Swale Watchers is a group of concerned citizens from a variety of backgrounds who have been monitoring development and advocating for the protection of the Swales since 2011. In our advocacy, members contribute their knowledge and time to make presentations, attend meetings, conduct citizen science, and engage with the public.
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