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Canada How much room does nature need? On Earth Day, a new report points to gaps in Canada’s wilderness safety net

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH McALASTER /

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE PROTECTION

ASSESSMENT. WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH McALASTER /

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE PROTECTION

ASSESSMENT. WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH MCALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE

PROTECTION ASSESSMENT.

WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

Five critical areas where wildlife protection falls short: The Territories, The Okanagan, Prairie Grasslands, Southern Ontario and Quebec, and Saint John River. See below for more details.

Canada’s national conversation about the environment often revolves around questions of how much.

How much land should be set aside for iconic species such as the caribou or the grizzly bear? How much is needed to maintain the character of an entire ecosystem? How much room does nature really need?

Such questions underpin a massive effort under way in Ottawa as the federal government races to fulfill Canada’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. Like other countries that have signed the convention, Canada has agreed to set aside 17 per cent of its land area for protected status by the end of 2020. With only 10.5 per cent of the country fitting that description as recently as two years ago, the stage is set for the next 18 months to be among the most significant and active for nature conservation in the country’s history.

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To help meet the 17-per-cent target, the Trudeau government last year allocated $1.3-billion for conservation efforts, more than a third of which is aimed specifically at creating more protected spaces. But while environmental groups have lauded the scale of the investment, concerns linger that in the rush to designate new areas, some of the most critical habitat in the country will be overlooked.

“If we are to get the biggest bang for our protection buck we need to dramatically change how we prioritize areas for protection,” said Megan Leslie, president of the environmental group WWF-Canada.

To illustrate the point, the organization has conducted a national assessment that divides the country into 6,400 distinct habitats and measures the level of protection in each. Released on Monday to mark Earth Day, the analysis is the latest to highlight a striking mismatch between the places that Canada protects and the places where protection is needed most.

Whether nature is found in small pockets among cities and farms, or in vast tracts across the North, the assessment is a reminder that much of Canada’s most important habitat exists on a provisional basis. The picture of the Canadian wilderness that occupies the national imagination may be resemble a Group of Seven masterpiece, but the reality could be far less enduring.

In hard numbers, the data show that 84 per cent of habitats with a high concentration of at-risk species across Canada are inadequately protected or have no protection at all. The reasons are not hard to fathom: Species diversity often coincides with human activity and commercial interests.

But the assessment also goes a step further by asking where protected status can do double duty by keeping carbon locked up in trees and soil. Worldwide, the amount of stored carbon released into the atmosphere through deforestation is more than that produced by cars and trucks, which puts a premium on efforts to maintain carbon sinks – places where carbon can be taken up by the environment – where they already exist.

Finally, in preparation for the future, the analysis considered which habitats are expected to remain relatively stable under a shifting climate and can therefore serve as refuges for species under pressure.

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The results suggest that a strategic approach to habitat protection can simultaneously help Canada come to grips with its piece of the world’s two biggest environmental crises: catastrophic habitat loss and climate change.

“Those two crises are unfolding together and many of the drivers are the same,” said James Snider, WWF-Canada’s vice-president of science, research and innovation. He added that the assessment showed, in fine-grained detail, that “an effective, systematic protected-areas network can be a solution toward stopping the decline of wildlife but also reducing emissions.”

What emerges from the patchwork quilt of habitats is a view of Canada that shows where efforts to protect species and ecosystems would have the greatest impact and where action is most urgently needed. In general, they also are not the easiest areas to protect, because they tend to coincide with high population density, as well as agricultural and resource areas. This is the challenge that Ottawa now faces in trying to increase Canada’s portion of protected land in a meaningful way.

The federal process is under way in earnest. Last month, through a program known as the Target 1 Challenge, Environment and Climate Change Canada received more than 140 proposals for new parks and Indigenous protected areas, which are now being evaluated with a view to making final selections by the summer.

“We are seeing [the program] as an important opportunity to make progress on the 17-per-cent target,” said Grant Hogg, a director with the ministry who is involved in the process.

Criteria used in the evaluation include advancing Indigenous reconciliation and biodiversity factors, such as increasing connectivity among protected spaces, he added. But with the need to meet the 17-per-cent target, these factors must also be balanced against the total amount of space that will come from committing funds to create a new protected area, which may include buying up private land or industry leases.

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“Obviously, we have to be pragmatic,” he said. “We only have so much money.”

Like the WWF assessment, the federal process is guided by various measures, both quantitative and qualitative, that are meant to capture the ecological value of a given space. Among them are 11 priority places identified as part of a new strategy for addressing species at risk. Several fall within the five hot spots that the WWF report highlights. However, there are also some notable differences, such as the Mackenzie River basin of the Northwest Territories, parts of which the WWF report scores as a “very high priority” for protection because of the combination of at-risk species and carbon-rich soil.

“I think there are lessons to be learned in both the differences and the similarities,” said Joseph Bennett, a biologist at Carleton University who studies conservation prioritization and who was not involved in the WWF report.

By adding carbon storage to the prioritization mix, the new assessment has highlighted some of the services that a natural habitat provides beyond its inherent biodiversity. Where the assessment could have gone further, Dr. Bennett said, is in exploring the need for a more flexible definition of what constitutes protection. Conserving the areas that the assessment says are most critical will require partnerships, particularly with Indigenous people, in places where science indicates that traditional land use has helped foster biodiversity.

“We need to get away from thinking of a protected area as being somewhere where you just can’t do anything,” Dr. Bennett said.

Marie-Josée Fortin, a professor of spatial ecology at the University of Toronto, said partnerships and creative thinking will also be essential in the southern part of the country where numbers of threatened species are greatest and where protection will not be feasible without engaging private landowners in the effort, particularly those who are adjacent to existing protected areas.

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“We can play with statistics,” she said, “But you have to have a big enough area so that the processes that are needed to maintain the landscape occur."

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH McALASTER /

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE PROTECTION

ASSESSMENT. WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH McALASTER /

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE PROTECTION

ASSESSMENT. WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

PRIORITY

Very high

High

Moderate

Low

Very low

Adequate

protection

TRISH MCALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: WWF-CANADA. 2019. WILDLIFE

PROTECTION ASSESSMENT.

WORLD WILDLIFE FUND, TORONTO, ON.

SPOTTING THE GAPS IN THE WILDERNESS SAFETY NET

By combining information on habitat, species at risk and climate-related factors, data analysts with WWF-Canada identified which areas of the country should be prioritized as the federal government moves to designate new areas for protection to meet international commitments.

THE HOT SPOTS

Five critical areas where wildlife protection falls short

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The Territories

Barren ground caribou.

Peter Ewins/World Wildlife Fund

The diverse landscape of Canada’s northwest includes mountains, forest, tundra and the vast freshwater system of the Mackenzie River, including Great Slave Lake. Historically, it is also the least-protected landscape in the country. The assessment draws attention to the Mackenzie region, a carbon sink and a climate refuge, which is also among those areas not listed among the federal government’s 11 priority places for species protection.

The Okanagan

Pallid bat.

World Wildlife Fund

The south-central region of British Columbia, known for its dry summers and mild winters, has fostered a unique cohort of species – such as the pallid bat – that face increasing threats as population density and land use rises. While several other parts of British Columbia enjoy adequate protection, the Okanagan is among the most vulnerable and under-protected ecological regions in Canada.

Prairie grasslands

Black-footed ferret.

Troy Fleece/World Wildlife Fund

Across the Prairies, large-scale agriculture and other forms of development have already eaten away about 80 per cent of one of the world’s most threatened natural landscapes, posing a major survival challenge to grassland species such as the black-footed ferret and the swift fox. Potential solutions for conservation here include allowing farmers to rotate protected area with agriculturally productive land, to regenerate soil while increasing habitat.

Southern Ontario and Quebec

Piping plover.

istock

Some of the richest ecosystems in the country are also the most heavily affected by human presence. Shorelines are widely developed and stands of forest isolated by farmland, reducing habitat for local and migrating birds among other species. Although gaining ground here will require creative solutions to link together isolated bits of wilderness, the area remains one of Canada’s highest priorities for conservation.

Saint John River

Wood turtle.

World Wildlife Fund

Only 5 per cent of New Brunswick’s land area is protected, among the lowest scores in Canada. Consequently, there are huge gains to be made by improving protections in places such as the sensitive Saint John River watershed, which is home to nearly 200 species of breeding birds and many threatened species of reptiles and amphibians.

HOW WWF CREATED ITS ASSESSMENT

ECOLOGICAL

REPRESENTATION

Very good

Good

Fair

Poor

Very poor

No

protection

ECOLOGICAL

REPRESENTATION

Very good

Good

Fair

Poor

Very poor

No

protection

ECOLOGICAL

REPRESENTATION

Very good

Good

Fair

Poor

Very poor

No

protection

The assessment begins by breaking Canada down into a mosaic of some 6,400 distinct habitats. The protection level of each habitat was rated on a scale based on the size, number and connectivity of protected areas, among other factors, to determine how effectively those areas captured and represented the ecological makeup of the country.

AT-RISK

SPECIES

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

AT-RISK

SPECIES

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

AT-RISK

SPECIES

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

The assessment also factored in where species recommended for listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are found and in what concentration. Southern areas tend to have more species at risk because biodiversity is greatest in the south and so is human impact. The western prairie grasslands also feature prominently because of the amount of native habitat lost there.

FOREST

BIOMASS

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

FOREST

BIOMASS

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

FOREST

BIOMASS

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

An additional consideration was forest biomass. The amount of carbon stored in Canada’s forest is significant on a global scale. Protecting forests serves a dual role by providing species with habitat and by locking up carbon that would otherwise have contributed to climate change.

SOIL

CARBON

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

SOIL

CARBON

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

SOIL

CARBON

Very high

High

Fair

Low

Very low

None

Other significant carbon sinks include soil and peat bogs. The assessment recommends prioritizing such areas for conservation to avoid the release of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When combined with the habitat map, the assessment reveals that more than three-quarters of areas that are rich in soil carbon are inadequately protected.

CLIMATE

REFUGES

Yes

No

CLIMATE

REFUGES

Yes

No

CLIMATE

REFUGES

Yes

No

Some habitats receive additional weight in the assessment because they are regarded as particularly resilient to climate change and can serve as refuges for species that will face new pressures as the climate continues to warm. High-altitude areas factor strongly in this role, as does a central swath of the sub-Arctic.

Editor’s note: (April 23, 2019) An earlier version of this article of this article included an incorrect quote from Joseph Bennett. Dr. Bennett said: “We need to get away from thinking of a protected area as being somewhere where you just can’t do anything.” He did not say: ““We need to get away from thinking of a protected area as being somewhere where you just can do anything.” This version has been corrected.
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