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When ecologists found a haven for Blanding’s turtles on a patch of Crown land, they waded into a conflict that is testing the Ford government’s new policy on endangered species protection. Then things got really ugly.

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Masters student Gabriella Zagorski carries a Blanding's turtle through a Northern Ontario wetland alongside field technician Shannon Millar. The species once ranged widely across the Great Lakes and U.S. Midwest, but roads and agriculture disrupted their habitat and their numbers dwindled.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

To her colleagues, Gabriella Zagorski is the “turtle whisperer.”

In the wetlands of Northern Ontario, she can approach a turtle with such stealth that it won’t see her coming. “If you move really slowly, then they think you’re a tree or something,” said the 24-year-old field biologist. “It can take up to an hour sometimes.”

Ms. Zagorski’s patience paid off two years ago when she was working on her masters degree at Laurentian University in Sudbury and began looking for Blanding’s turtles – a rare and globally endangered species – in a soggy pocket of provincial Crown land about 150 kilometres west of the city. Over two summers, she and her teammates found 56 Blanding’s turtles concentrated in an area that measures about three kilometres across. The unexpected find makes the site one of the richest and most densely populated refuges for the species ever found in Canada.

Now, Ms. Zagorski’s turtles are caught in a showdown between a company that is seeking to turn the site into a quarry and local residents who oppose the project. The dispute has divided the township of North Shore, a picturesque stretch of rocky inlets and forested wetlands along the northern rim of Lake Huron where Ms. Zagorski’s study site is located.

This week, North Shore’s municipal council is expected to ratify a 3-2 vote to rezone the area for mineral extraction. If the rezoning is approved, it will be up to the province to say whether the quarry can go forward. The decision will become an early test of how species protection in Ontario is likely to be conducted under new legislation passed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government last June.

In the meantime, the brewing controversy has already taken some strange turns, including one last year when Ms. Zagorski and her supervisor, biologist and professor Jacqueline Litzgus, found themselves accused of falsifying their data about turtles at the site.

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Laurentian University biologist Jaqueline Litzgus, right, discusses a project with student Stephanie Delay at a turtle study site in Sudbury, Ont.Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail

Those charges were levelled by a consulting firm that was hired to conduct an environmental assessment of the site on behalf of the quarry company. In a letter to Laurentian’s vice-president of research, the company wrote that the scientists had committed research misconduct and asked the university to investigate. The letter was copied to municipal and provincial officials connected to the approval process for the quarry.

The university determined the complaint to be without merit and did not launch a misconduct investigation. Dr. Litzgus, a long-time faculty member who is known for her work in turtle ecology, saw the broadside as an attempt to undercut the scientists’ credibility with decision makers. “It’s mind-boggling to me that this could have happened,” she said. “Researchers shouldn’t be attacked for collecting data that might protect a species at risk in accordance with the law.”

Without naming their accusers, the scientists included mention of a “defaming attack” when they published their findings in October’s edition of research journal Global Ecology and Conservation. They noted that “after several exchanges between lawyers, a letter of apology and a retraction of the accusations was received from the consultant.”

Public documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that Tulloch Engineering was the consulting firm that made the allegations in March, 2018, on behalf of the quarry company, Darien Aggregates, and its majority owner, Rankin Construction Inc. of St. Catharines, Ont.

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Researchers spent more than two years tracking this Blanding's turtle across the Northern Ontario wilderness with a radio transmitter attached. Now, it is ready for release.

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Ms. Zagorski, right, Ms. Millar, middle, and field technician Heather Van Den Diepstraten, go out on the water during their research.Photos: Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

The matter is playing out against a shifting landscape of provincial regulations.

Under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, proponents of a project that could negatively affect a listed species can apply for an “overall benefit permit.” To obtain such a permit, the proponent must take specific actions that helps the species elsewhere to an extent that outweighs any negative effects the project might cause.

This year, the Ford government amended the act to provide another way for a project to get a green light. In principle, the change would allow the quarry to proceed as long as the company contributes money to a provincial conservation fund – an approach that critics have dubbed “pay as you slay.” Conservation groups say the change has dangerously weakened Ontario’s species laws.

"We are concerned that it will make the act nothing more than a paper exercise that doesn’t actually protect species,” said Josh Ginsberg, director of the Ecojustice environmental law clinic at the University of Ottawa.

Rhonda Kirby, a North Shore resident who opposes the quarry, said she is among those preparing to challenge the council’s intentions to rezone the site. She has launched an advocacy group, the North Shore Environment Resource Advocates, and a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for legal costs.

Ms. Kirby and her husband were named in Tulloch’s letter of complaint in part because their property became a staging area for the scientists, which the consulting firm argued was a conflict of interest. Ms. Kirby said the support they provided had no bearing on the scientists’ results and that Tulloch’s complaint was all about silencing independent information about the site. “It was a schoolyard-bullying tactic to get the researchers to back off,” she said.

Tulloch has since referred questions about the letter to Rankin Construction.

Tom Rankin, the company’s chief executive officer, who was also a signatory to the letter of complaint, dismissed the Laurentian study, which he said offered no new information. He added that the placement of the quarry would not affect the turtles.

“There’s enough land that we don’t have to touch their habitat,” he said.

In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Rankin reiterated one of the letter’s claims that the Laurentian study was biased because one its co-authors, Douglas Boreham of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, is also a North Shore resident who opposes the project.

Dr. Litzgus countered that the study data were collected using well-established protocols – the same that she has applied for years at study sites across the province. In their study, the scientists noted that Tulloch’s relationship to its client puts it in a perceived conflict of interest that may prevent it from presenting an accurate portrayal of endangered species at the site. That dynamic is a familiar one in Canada, where companies seeking approval for projects are typically the ones who underwrite assessments, forcing consultants to walk a fine line between their clients’ interests and environmental regulators.

Dr. Litzgus said her group’s study was conducted with far more rigour and transparency than Tulloch’s assessment, which yielded a handful of Blanding’s turtles. And, contrary to the company’s claim, it demonstrates there is an abundant population at the site that overlaps with and would be adversely affected by the quarry, she said.

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The underside of a Blanding's turtle.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Known for their boxy shells and bright yellow chins, Blanding’s turtles once ranged widely across the Great Lakes region and U.S. Midwest. As agriculture and urbanization have steadily reduced their habitat, their numbers have declined.

Although they can live more than 75 years, they are slow to mature and their eggs, which females deposit and bury in loose soil, are frequently devoured by predators. The species relies on females surviving over many years to maintain a stable population. Studies suggest that road kills have played a particularly devastating role in reducing that population over the years.

Ms. Zagorski, who returned to the site in September to retrieve transmitters she had placed on some of the turtles to track their movements, said the discovery of so many members of the species in one location underscores the importance of the habitat, even though it lies on the northern fringe of the turtles’ traditional range.

“This population is a good indicator of what an untouched area along the Canadian Shield would look like, because it’s never faced difficulties like roads and habitat destruction,” Ms. Zagorski said.

She added that northern wetlands are poised to become even more important for the threatened species as its range is affected by climate change.

Dr. Litzgus said she first learned of the site in the fall of 2016, when Ms. Kirby’s son contacted her to ask questions about the turtles there. A few months later, Dr. Boreham ran into Dr. Litzgus at an academic meeting and asked if she would be interested in investigating the site.

The suggestion turned into a project for Ms. Zagorski, which Dr. Litzgus saw as an opportunity to inform plans for mitigating the quarry’s impact on local turtles and test their effectiveness. She offered to partner with Tulloch, noting in an e-mail that the project would help Darien satisfy requirements for an overall benefit permit while ensuring the best protection for the turtles and their habitats. The consulting firm was receptive at first, but that was before anyone realized just how many Blanding’s turtles Ms. Zagorski would find.

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Ms. Zagorski emerges from the marsh with a turtle.

The revelation came as Darien was working to persuade the township to support the development of a quarry for trap rock, a fine-grained stone that is used in building roads. The effort included flying everyone on the five-member municipal council to the Niagara region to visit a quarry Darien operates there. The company has said a new quarry in North Shore could bring 20 to 25 jobs to the community when it is operating at full capacity.

Gary Gamble, a councillor who voted against rezoning, said he was not persuaded by the company’s case because he said most new revenue in the community is now tied to retirees who are building homes on the waterfront.

“Economically, I think a quarry would be detrimental to that,” he said.

Ms. Kirby said she is concerned that the council is underplaying the environmental consequences the project would have, adding that Tulloch’s responses to questions about how they would reduce that impact have been taken at face value.

“Council seems to think that [the consultants] have answered all the questions but they’re not taking all the research into account,” she said.

And while the Laurentian study is now published and available to decision makers, it’s not clear how that evidence will be weighed at the provincial level.

Ms. Zagorski, who is now based at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, recalled that when Dr. Litzgus first approached her about the project, her initial reaction was to say: “You mean I’m going to spend two years studying these turtles and then they’re all going to die?”

Now, she sighs, “I just hope my data will help people make an informed decision.”

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