Prairie biodiversity considered under threat

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has  identified nine ‘crisis ecoregions,’ including aspen parkland and the mixed grasslands region. | File photo

Nature Conservancy of Canada identifies nine ‘crisis ecoregions,’ including aspen parkland and mixed grasslands region

It is all too easy to take prairie landscapes and the beauties of aspen parkland for granted, says one Canadian conservation biologist.

Campaigns to save the Amazon rainforest and protect endangered African gorillas resonate with the public but Canada’s native prairie grassland and aspen parkland are among the most threatened ecosystems in the country.

Dan Kraus of Nature Conservancy Canada recently published a report citing nine “crisis ecoregions” in Canada’s south.

Among them are the aspen parkland stretching through Red Deer, Edmonton, Lloydminster, North Battleford, Humboldt, Yorkton and Brandon, as well as the mixed grassland region around Medicine Hat, Leader, Swift Current, Assiniboia, Maple Creek, Shaunavon and Kindersley.

Kraus said the areas were identified based on biodiversity and things that might threaten that biodiversity.

“We identified nine ecoregions that scored really high for both of those things, so they’re really important for biodiversity but they’re also places where there are more threats than in other places in southern Canada and that means that there’s probably more urgency in terms of the conservation work that we need to do,” said Kraus.

Canada’s vast area includes many natural areas but comparatively few are in the southern part, where about 70 percent of the country’s population lives. Despite higher population density, the southern region has many endangered species and important biodiversity that requires urgent protection.

“There are species that we have in Canada that are as endangered or more endangered than gorillas and there’s things where we can take direct action to protect,” Kraus said.

The aspen parkland, for example, has 44 at-risk species including silky prairie clover, piping plover and western grebe. It is considered to be the most altered ecozone on the Prairies with only 21 percent of natural cover remaining.

The mixed grassland region is the southernmost and driest prairie ecoregion and has one of the highest land conversion rates in the country. It has 34 at-risk species including the swift fox, black-tailed prairie dog and the greater short-horned lizard.

Kraus cited the swift fox and Ontario’s Blandings turtle as two examples of species that are globally important because of their rarity.

The federal government has a stated goal of protecting 30 percent of the country by 2030, he said, “and we need to make sure that some of that happens in southern Canada.

“We can’t rely on government to do it all. It really needs to be like all-in conservation, where it’s working with private landowners. On the Prairies, ranchers play a critical role in protecting a lot of the native prairie grasslands.”

In times past, a method of “fortress conservation” was common: creating protected areas and keeping people out.

Kraus said that has proven to be unsuccessful in protecting habitat and species. A better approach is to inform people who care about conservation and involve them in the decision-making.

The Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef is one example, said Kraus.

“It’s not just a bunch of environmentalists telling people what to do but it’s the recognition that protecting these areas is important for endangered species but also protects the benefits that nature provides communities. It could be related to water security, it can support local economies through ranching.”

Much native grassland has been cultivated for crop production. Settlement, agricultural pursuits and the need to produce food for a growing population are the primary reasons.

However, Kraus notes many crops grown in land that was once in grass are not used directly for human food. Using grassland to produce beef is sustainable, he said. Grassland converted to cropland is more vulnerable to drought, flood and other extreme weather events and thus could lose the ability to produce food.

Kraus’s study, “Southern Canada’s crisis ecoregions: identifying the most significant and threatened places for biodiversity conservation,” is the first of its kind and has been published internationally in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Some of its results have been rendered into an interactive website called Conservation Close to Home. People can enter their postal code to learn about their local ecoregion. It is found at storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9ca69385ffc54cf6b9fdae925449d15d.

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