Toronto Zoo land takeover will be 'devastating' to Rouge Park habitat, conservationists say

A decision to license a 16-hectare parcel of land to the Toronto Zoo will be “devastating” to the ecological restoration happening in the area, according to a local conservation group.

16-hectare parcel of land to be licensed to zoo to grow food, house breeding facilities

The Toronto Zoo is expanding land partially to grow vegetation for animal feed. (CBC)

A decision to license a 16-hectare parcel of land to the Toronto Zoo will be "devastating" to the ecological restoration happening in the area, according to a local conservation group.

The land, belonging to the Toronto Region and Conservation Authority (TRCA), juts out from the existing zoo boundaries, north of Old Finch Avenue and east of Meadowvale Road.

According to the proposal, which passed in a council meeting in March, the zoo will use the land to grow vegetation to feed many of the zoo's animals, and consolidate its breeding facilities.

The existing zoo boundaries can be seen in green. Future boundaries are laid out in red, which includes the section to the left meant for growing food and housing zoo breeding facilities. (Toronto Zoo)

But the plan will "fragment and degrade Rouge Park wildlife habitat," according to a news release from a group called the Friends of the Rouge Watershed (FRW).

"It would be devastating," said Jim Robb, the FRW's part-time general manager. 

"This land has already been restored, it's already covered with thousands of trees and wildflowers planted by school children," Robb said, referencing a 2010 project that saw thousands of students and volunteers plant over 15,000 native plants on the site.

In 2010, the Friends of the Rouge Watershed coordinated a restoration of the land which will now be licensed to the Toronto Zoo. Over 15,000 native trees, shrubs and flowers were planted. (Friends of the Rouge Watershed)

"[Kids] come to the Rouge and they restore a piece of property, and they come back to see Mother Nature rejuvenating a site and creating a nature reserve … But then to have this site damaged and fragmented by the zoo seems to go against all sense of good conservation work."

The release from the FRW says the land, which they describe as "dry, sandy upland soils," is not suitable for growing vegetation for animal feed — proposing an area west of the zoo that would be better for that purpose.

Jim Robb, part-time general manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, is trying to protect a section of land from Toronto Zoo expansion. (CBC)

On top of that, Robb explains this plot of land is a "key link" between existing environmentally sensitive areas on either side.

The group also argues there was no proper public consultation over the decision, but zoo spokesperson Jennifer Tracey says the issue was discussed at either city council meetings or board meetings, both of which are public.

Zoo will lose land in transfers

In October last year, the province officially transferred the last piece of land to Parks Canada to complete the nearly 80-square kilometre Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP).

The proposal by the zoo also includes a transfer of a licensed section of valley and watercourse lands next to the zoo from the TRCA to Parks Canada, meaning the zoo would be "enveloped by the boundaries of the RNUP," reads the proposal.

Taking into account both boundary changes, the zoo actually loses land.

'Glamping' and zip-lining in store for visitors

The FRW's release says the land takeover "looks like an excuse to get more land for expensive zoo expansions." 

As part of its planned enhancements to the visitor experience, the Toronto Zoo is planning to built the 'Raven's Roost.' It's a year-round family and small-group ‘glamping’ retreat overlooking the Rouge Valley. (Toronto Zoo)

And planned enhancements to the visitor experience at the zoo, which include a "glamping" (a style of camping with amenities and, in some cases, resort-style services) retreat, an eco-trek through the Rouge Valley and a zip-lining experience, have Robb feeling wary about the takeover of the land.

"If you look at the zoo from the air you'll see huge amounts of pavement," he said. "That pavement covers a huge area that used to be sensitive Rouge Valley habitat."