Unique study pinpoints key places to stem biodiversity loss in Canada’s south
March 3, 2021
Where nature needs us most
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has released the first comprehensive look at where nature in southern Canada needs to be protected in the face of habitat loss and climate change. The assessment looks into “crisis ecoregions,” and other high-priority natural spaces.
This study is the first of its kind in Canada. The information can be used by anyone who is making decisions about land use or is interested in learning more about the conservation needs where they live. A user-friendly version of the study can be viewed at www.natureconservancy.ca/casc or Conservation Close to Home. People can input their postal code to see their ecoregion and learn more about the habitats, plants and animals that can be found there.
“Canadians have increasingly turned to nature as an escape from COVID-19 this past year. This study can help each of us learn more about the conservation needs in the places where we live and inform our decision making to help protect these places,” said Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “We often have wildlife and habitats of national and global conservation concern in our own backyards, and in many places the next decade may represent the last opportunity we have to protect them”
The assessment identifies nine crisis ecoregions, where wildlife and their habitats are the most diverse and also under the greatest threat. These regions include many of our largest cities, such as Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, along with many smaller areas, such as Red Deer, Yorkton, Brandon, Brockville, Trois-Rivières and all of Prince Edward Island.
“Over the last 150 years, many species and habitats in Canada have been declining,” says Kraus. “This decline has been more dramatic in southern Canada, where most people live and where there is a long history of settlement and related agricultural, urban and industrial land uses. The assessment shows the impact of our human activities on the nature around us, and the critical need to save these places now, before it’s too late.”
Kraus hopes communities can use the information to make better conservation and land use planning decisions. “Protecting habitats in our most threatened regions of Canada goes beyond just conserving wildlife,” says Kraus. “Our wetlands, grasslands and forests provide nature-based solutions to our communities, including cleaning our air and water, mitigating the impacts of climate change and improving our quality of life. In some regions of southern Canada, we still have the opportunity to protect and connect large natural areas, while in others we need to ramp up our restoration efforts”.
Kraus says Canada’s current target of protecting 30 per cent of our lands and waters by 2030 is an opportunity to transform our country by protecting nature and the benefits that it provides to people. He feels these new protected areas need to include vast northern sites but also our wildlife and habitats in the most threatened regions and sites in southern Canada. “Our ambitions must be more than just how much we protect, but what we protect,” he says.
• The study, titled “Southern Canada’s crisis ecoregions: identifying the most significant and threatened places for biodiversity conservation,” has been published internationally in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
• The nine crisis ecoregions identified represent less than five per cent of Canada. They are located in Canada’s most heavily settled landscapes, where 70 per cent of people live. Over 60 per cent of Canada’s species at risk are found in these ecoregions, which generally have few existing protected areas or remaining natural areas.
• The assessment analyzes factors in 77 ecoregions across southern Canada, such as endangered species and habitats, land use and wildlife corridors. The assessment maps out some of the most important areas within each ecoregion that must be conserved in order to protect species at risk, wildlife corridors and other important places for nature.
Background information on each of the ecoregions and examples on why these areas are highlighted can be found below.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is the nation's leading not-for-profit, private land conservation organization, working to protect our most important natural areas and the species they sustain. Since 1962, NCC and its partners have helped to protect 14 million hectares (35 million acres), coast to coast to coast. To learn more, visit natureconservancy.ca.
Nine crisis ecoregions: The study identified these ecoregions to have among the highest scores for biodiversity and threat.
The Lake Erie Lowland ecoregion includes Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Windsor, Sarnia, London, Chatham and Brantford. It extends from east of Toronto on Lake Ontario, west through London to the coast of Lake Huron north of Grand Bend. This ecoregion is part of a larger ecoregion south of Lake Erie. This zone is often called the Great Lakes Forest ecoregion in the U.S. and includes most of Ohio, Indiana, southern Michigan, the northern edge of Pennsylvania and western New York. There are over 130 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including prothonotary, warbler, redside dace and eastern ratsnake. The Lake Erie Lowlands is one of the most altered ecoregions in all of Canada. Only 14 per cent natural cover remains. This area is important due to many species at risk that live only in this region of Canada.
There is limited opportunity for large-scale connectivity across the ecoregion. The greatest potential is primarily near the Great Lakes coastlines and along major river valleys. Much of the land is privately owned, and rising commodity prices have increased the costs of land securement. There are many places of high importance for biodiversity conservation, and several opportunities exist to protect, connect and restore key areas. Protecting these areas will require partnerships with local governments, the agricultural community and cities.
The Eastern Vancouver Island ecoregion stretches along the eastern slopes of the Vancouver Island mountain range to the Pacific Ocean. Major urban areas include Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River and Courtenay. The Eastern Vancouver Island ecoregion has a very high richness of species of conservation concern. There are over 55 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including Oregon vesper sparrow, dense-flower lupine, Edwards' beach moth and common sharp-tailed snake. The Eastern Vancouver Island ecoregion is important for national and global biodiversity. There are significant opportunities in this ecoregion to conserve and restore habitats for species at risk, migratory birds and marine wildlife. The forests are characterized by Douglas-fir, western hemlock and grand fir, with scattered examples of globally rare Garry oak ecosystems. The region supports more biological diversity than anywhere else in the province. It contains many of BC’s most significant estuaries.
The Lower Mainland ecoregion is made up of major urban centres, including Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford. It encompasses the southern Pacific coast of BC, and is part of the coastal temperate rainforests that extend from California to Alaska. This ecoregion is characterized by the vast Fraser River floodplain and delta and coastal forests. The Fraser River Estuary provides overwintering or migratory stopover habitat for upwards of 250,000 waterfowl and over one million shorebirds. This ecoregion supports more over-wintering birds than anywhere else in Canada. The Lower Mainland ranked higher for biodiversity and threat in the conservation assessment, as it has a very high number of species, including many at risk.
The Lower Mainland ecoregion has a high richness of species of conservation concern, including many species that reach their northern range limits in western North America. There are over 20 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including Pacific great blue heron, western painted turtle (Pacific coast population) and Vancouver Island beggarticks. Just over five per cent of the ecoregion is in conserved/protected areas. The largest protected areas include provincial parks and wildlife management areas. There are significant opportunities in this ecoregion for conservation that protects and restores habitats for species at risk, migratory birds and marine wildlife. Conservation in this area can help maintain the ecological services that support communities and provide nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation.
The Aspen Parkland ecoregion spans three Prairie provinces and is characterized by farmlands, towns and large urban centres. It is a broad transition zone between the boreal forest in the east and north and the Prairies. It marks the transition from grasslands to mountains in the west. This ecoregion represents the most extensive boreal–grassland transition in the world. It features a rich mosaic of grasslands, aspen groves and wetlands.
Red Deer, Edmonton, Lloydminster, North Battleford, Humboldt, Yorkton and Brandon are all found in the Aspen Parkland. Only four per cent of the ecoregion is in conserved/protected areas. It is the most altered ecozone in the Prairies, and one of the most impacted in all of Canada. Only 21 per cent natural cover remains in this area, which is threatened from habitat loss to agriculture, oil and gas exploration and drilling. There are over 40 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including burrowing owl, silky prairie clover and piping plover. There are few large intact blocks of natural habitat left. Many of the remaining natural areas occur on soils that are less suitable for agriculture. Even with the high degree of land conversion, important areas can still be protected to maintain Canada’s natural diversity. This includes opportunities to create, expand and connect conserved/protected lands. Protecting these areas will require partnerships with the agricultural community and cities.
The Manitoulin–Lake Simcoe ecoregion includes Kingston, Belleville, Peterborough, Oshawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Barrie and Owen Sound. It stretches from the islands of northern Lake Huron through south-central Ontario to the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The climate and biodiversity of this ecoregion are highly influenced by the Great Lakes. The region is highly threatened because of habitat loss and fragmentation. It has over 75 national species at risk, including Hine's emerald, eastern loggerhead shrike and lakeside daisy. There are significant opportunities here for large-scale conservation that maintains ecological processes and habitat for wide-ranging species. At the same time, there are important and irreplaceable sites in the southern portion, where competing land uses are greatest.
The St. Lawrence Lowlands ecoregion measures over 4.5 million hectares stretching along the fertile lands of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. It covers a swath of land between Montmagny east of Quebec to the Ottawa Region and Brockville. Less than four per cent of the land base is currently protected, one of the lowest amounts in Canada. It has over 50 national species at risk and is home to over 50 per cent of Quebec’s rare species. There are over 30 species of global conservation concern, including some that are found nowhere else on Earth. In addition to some large cities and a heavy human footprint, 46 per cent of the area is intensively cultivated farmland.
The Prince Edward Island ecoregion features over 25 national species at risk, including red knot, butternut, buff-breasted sandpipe and little brown myotis. It is characterized by extensive sand beaches and dunes, coastal estuaries, remnants of Acadian forests, streams and wetlands. It is the most impacted of all ecoregions in the Maritimes. Only 56 per cent remains in natural cover. The coastal and marine environment have a high diversity and abundance of migratory shorebirds, seabirds and marine mammals. There are some limited opportunities for large-scale conservation that maintains ecological processes as well as habitat for birds that need landscapes dominated by natural habitats. At the same time, there are important and irreplaceable sites, particularly along the coast, that need to be protected.
The Northern Continental Divide ecoregion straddles the major watershed drainage to the Pacific and Atlantic (Hudson Bay). The largest communities include Banff, Canmore, Elkford, Fernie and Sparwood.
The Northern Continental Divide has a wide diversity of species, including species of global conservation concern. Nearly 97 per cent of this area remains in natural cover. However, the area is quite fragmented, through a combination of natural barriers (high elevation) and human barriers (roads and settlement, primarily in valley lands). Climate change is likely to impact many species and ecosystems. There are over 10 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including grizzly bear, Banff Springs snail and whitebark pine. This area is a critical component of the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor. There are important opportunities in this ecoregion to better connect the existing protected/conserved areas, and work to improve sustainable land use in the intervening private and Crown lands.
The Mixed Grassland ecoregion is the southernmost and driest of Canada’s prairie ecoregions. A northern extension of the shortgrass prairies that stretch south to Mexico, this ecoregion is characterized by the vast open grasslands of the Great Plains, with prairie potholes and several large shallow lakes. Major communities include Medicine Hat, Leader, Swift Current, Assiniboia, Maple Creek, Shaunavon and Kindersley. There are over 35 national species at risk in the ecoregion, including black-tailed prairie dog, greater short-horned lizard and swift fox. Agriculture dominates this prairie landscape. Lands are cultivated on the plains, and there is extensive irrigation in the western portion of the ecoregion. Many of the native prairie grasslands are used for ranching. Oil and gas extraction are common in the western portion of this ecoregion.
The rate of land conversion in this ecoregion is one of the highest in southern Canada. This is primarily native managed grasslands being converted to cropland. The area of these grasslands decreased by 30 per cent, while the area of crop increased by about the same percentage. With 42 per cent natural cover, the Mixed Grassland ecoregion has some of the largest blocks of intact prairie habitat remaining in Canada. They are located along the U.S. border, in the Great Sandhills region and the area north of Medicine Hat in and around the Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area.
Of all the prairie ecoregions in Canada, Mixed Grassland offers the best opportunity to protect large areas of intact and connected prairie habitats. The importance of this opportunity extends beyond Canada. Long-term protection can be accomplished by increasing the number of conserved lands and improving partnerships and incentives that support ranchers. Parts of this ecoregion have been identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of only four global areas with the greatest potential for native temperate grassland conservation at a large scale.
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