Things are moving fast when it comes to our changing climate and biodiversity loss. It can often feel like our systems (political and natural) simply can’t keep up. But through our cutting-edge field science, WCS Canada is demonstrating that effective action can be taken to address these threats.
As champions for wildlife and wild places, we focus a lot on habitat, particularly Canada’s vast and still intact wild areas such as the far north in Ontario and the cross-border landscape of BC and Yukon – two landscapes where we have concentrated our efforts for more than 10 years. Few other places in the world still have the opportunity to protect such wondrous natural areas, which are vital for sustaining ecosystems and provide a refuge for species at risk, all while naturally storing carbon. These areas are also homelands for many Indigenous communities, who are the guardians and stewards of these lands and waters.
So it was very good news when the federal government announced in 2019 that it would allocate $175 million for 67 land-based conservation projects across Canada. This gives us an excellent opportunity to apply the deep knowledge we have gained through our field research to provide support to projects being developed by First Nations in Yukon, BC and Ontario. For example, in BC, we have provided a scientific blueprint for protecting the magnificent Greater Muskwa Kechika, an undisturbed area four times the size of Vancouver Island, much of which intersects with Kaska First Nation homelands. It is a key stronghold for sensitive species like caribou and for freshwater ecosystems that are threatened throughout much of the rest of Canada. In Yukon, we are building on the huge precedent of protecting the Peel Watershed by working closely with First Nations on land-use planning and new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in the territory.
In Ontario, we are working hard to quantify both the conservation potential of one of the world’s greatest intact areas and the importance of northern peatlands as a carbon storehouse. Importantly, our request (along with those from the Aroland First Nation and the Osgoode Environmental Justice & Sustainability Clinic) to the federal government for a Regional Environmental Assessment for the Ring of Fire mineral belt in the far north received a positive response in early 2020. This is a major step forward in protecting this globally important wild area from the sort of “death by a thousand cuts” outcome that has degraded areas further south thanks to fragmented project-by-project planning processes.
Protecting unique places and species is also a focus of our rapidly growing Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) program. Having helped develop the global scientific standard for KBA identification in cooperation with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, WCS Canada is now leading the process in Canada to ensure conservation efforts (and dollars) are focused on high-value areas. This will be particularly important given the federal government’s commitment to protecting 25% of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025. By ensuring we put just as much emphasis on quality as quantity, KBA identification can be a critical tool in aiming protection efforts at areas with strong biodiversity values.
Our work does not end at the water’s edge. In the Arctic, we are going deeper with our work to understand – and address – the potential impacts of increased ship traffic on whales that will come with
longer ice-free seasons driven by a changing climate. In the Arctic, we are going deeper with our work to understand – and address – the potential impacts of increased ship traffic on whales. In Ontario, we are working with the Moose Cree First Nation to better understand the habitat needs of ancient lake sturgeon and to assess how sturgeon are affected by hydroelectric development before any more dams are built on some of North America’s last free flowing rivers.
Habitat loss can compound other threats to wildlife survival and that is certainly the case for bats, which have been devastated by a deadly disease – white-nose syndrome – in eastern North America. Our BC bat team continues to crawl through caves and spends long nights netting bats to better understand the ecology of western bats that may soon be facing the same threat. They have also developed a probiotic solution using naturally occurring bacteria that they believe can enhance bats’ resistance to the disease. The team conducted a successful field pilot last summer. Now they are working on ways to test and deploy it more widely, such as applying a probiotic dust in the entrances to bat boxes.
Getting our boots muddy is a key part of WCS Canada’s approach to the huge conservation challenges of our time. We are on the ground developing a real-world understanding of what it will take to help wildlife survive in the face of a changing climate and an ever-expanding human footprint. We use our insights to bring forward practical solutions, but also to illustrate the urgency of taking action now to save wildlife.