Mapping Canada’s critical habitats and endangered species

Mapping Canada’s critical habitats and endangered species

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Mapping Canada’s critical habitats and endangered species

By Dr. Valerie Behan-Pelletier, retired Research Scientist in Biodiversity
in the Environment Program at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 4.3

Map Canada’s critical habitats for endangered and extirpated species and make this information publicly available to Canadians. It is critically important to identify areas requiring remediation. Include these priority areas in local, regional and national plans.

The Sixth Mass Extinction is ongoing and we have reached a tipping point where it is too risky to bet against interconnected changes that have high impacts. These could potentially commit the world to long-term irreversible consequences. The impact on global biodiversity seems clear — we have been warned by articles on the “insect apocalypse”, insect loss in Germany and The Netherlands, which are based on long-term monitoring of these populations. So, I wondered whether Canada has similar long-term data to assess biodiversity gains or losses? Because we Canadians are so lucky. Between Canada and Russia, we have over 50% of remaining terrestrial wilderness, as James Watson and his colleagues showed in their Nature article. I see this both as a privilege and a responsibility.

And YES, we do have long term data for birds, for some pollinators, such as some species of bumblebees, monarch butterflies and what are considered indicator species. And biodiversity losses are definitely newsworthy as seen in this Guardian article about the loss of 3 billion birds in Canada and the U.S. and this CBC article about the decline of bumblebee species. But we don’t have data for most insects and other invertebrates. So we can’t really talk about “insect loss” in Canada until we have a baseline from which to measure change.

The State of Canada’s plants, mammals, fish and amphibians

Tree frog watercolour wash illustration
'Tree Frog' by Leanne Cadden. Ink with watercolour wash.

I think we should expect a State of Canada’s plants, mammals, fish, amphibians, at least to match what we know about birds. We should expect data on how numbers of species change across the country over time. We should also expect to be able to say how invasive species numbers are changing over time. We track, through census, the human and domestic animal populations. Therefore, we need to census more of the animal and plant biodiversity on which we depend.

I may whinge, but we do have impressive baselines across Canada, and more are being developed. For example, the recently published “Biota of Canada: Terrestrial Arthropods” with which I was involved, is a critical baseline for these invertebrates. We know all the plant species that occur in Canada thanks to the Université de Montréal Biodiversity Centre. In addition, we have regional data. For example, in British Columbia there is E-Flora BC and E-Fauna BC, which is an ongoing endeavors to document biodiversity in the province. And other Provinces I know have similar initiatives.

Tracking Population Trends

As the Canadensys website notes, data on occurrence records, environmental data, images and the conservation status of species, comes from data sets provided by collecting institutions, individual collectors and community groups. Many are included on the canadensys website. Others, such as the enormous Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes, with millions of occurrence records and including many species that are undescribed, are in the process of being databased.

But tracking population trends, as is done for birds and humans by periodic census is a significant long term financial and people commitment. The Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) of the Federal Government, started in 1994, lasted for a number of years, and did sponsor a number of assessments, some with which I was involved, e.g., that of the Atlantic Maritime Ecozone. But EMAN did little tracking of trends. It has now morphed into Nature Watch Canada, where participation is more local. I especially like WormWatch, started by my colleague and friend, the inimitable Dr. Jill Clapperton, now promoting soil biodiversity at Rhizoterra.

Long-term monitoring and tracking of trends is tough. Of course the model is eBird, the largest biodiversity Citizen Science project in the world. As their site says, eBird began with a simple idea—that every birdwatcher has unique knowledge and experience. eBird gathers this information in the form of checklists of birds, archives it, and freely shares it to power new data-driven approaches to science, conservation and education.

Little girl holding a monarch butterfly
By Lee Torrens via Unsplash

For many non-birders in Canada, the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute is their model. It is tracking changes in selected components of wildlife and their habitats, as their website says “to provide ongoing, relevant, scientifically credible information on Alberta’s living resources, for Alberta’s land use decision-makers.” ABMI is in its 10th year and as oribatid mites are one of the groups they are tracking, and I’ve described new species from their baseline assessment, I’m hoping they will be Monitoring for the long term.

What can you do to make biodiversity count?

The best way for you to help with mapping and tracking biodiversity in Canada is to become a citizen scientist yourself. Consider documenting biodiversity, especially plants and insects, in your day-to-day life. iNaturalist is a great app that encourages people to share their observations of the natural world. You can also join a local BioBlitz to help survey and record species living in a particular ecosystem. Another way you can help is by joining the David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway Project. In addition to creating habitat highways for bees and butterflies, you can contribute your findings to the BIMBY project (Butterflies In My Backyard).

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for bi-weekly posts exploring each action.