To identify possible gaps in Canada’s protected area network, WWF-Canada assessed the ecological representation of protected areas across the country. Ecological representation is a key component of the Convention on Biological Diversity. If the full range of physical habitats within a protected area network are not adequately protected, the network will fail to effectively safeguard wildlife. We then compared areas lacking in protections with areas that are home to high concentrations of at-risk species, that store substantial carbon in soil or forest biomass, and/or are climate refuges.
This assessment enabled us to identify inadequately protected or unprotected areas of national importance that should be prioritized for inclusion in our protected area network or for other effective conservation measures.
Habitat for at-risk species is not being protected: 84 per cent of physical habitats with high concentrations of at-risk species are inadequately or not at all protected.
Across Canada we do not protect the wide variety of physical habitats that wildlife need: 76 per cent of physical habitats in Canada are inadequately or not at all protected.
In particular, our protected areas do not safeguard critical freshwater habitat including lakes, rivers and wetlands: 91 per cent of physical habitats do not have adequate protection of shorelines.
Finally, the vast majority of Canada’s carbon-rich habitats – those forests, peat bogs and soils that are storing significant amounts of carbon and preventing increased warming associated with climate change – have not yet been protected.
77 per cent of habitats with high densities of soil carbon are inadequately or not at all protected.
74 per cent of habitats with high densities of forest biomass are inadequately or not at all protected.
The national assessment of ecological representation of physical habitats in Canada shows we have a long way to go to achieve adequate protections for habitat and wildlife. In addition to the high priority gaps identified above, the assessment of the criteria uncovered opportunities to improve ecological representation that should be considered when designing and siting any new protected areas, to ensure they are high quality, benefit wildlife and mitigate climate change. Additional findings to consider include:
Protected areas are not large enough to maintain biodiversity. Only 19 per cent of Canada’s physical habitats have protected areas that adequately meet the recommended size requirements to support wildlife.
We are not protecting the free movement among large regions that allows animals to find food and mates. Connectivity between 79 per cent of physical habitats is either inadequately or not at all protected.
We are not protecting freshwater ecosystems and wildlife with our current protected area network. 91 per cent of physical habitats do not have adequate protection of shorelines.
Protections in the maritime provinces in particular are too small and disconnected to support biodiversity. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have the worst ecological representation in the country.
Protected areas in Canada’s north are high quality but are too few and far between. The northern territories and Newfoundland and Labrador have the highest percentage of physical habitats with no protection (between 62 and 73 per cent).
Canada is yet to reach the international target of protecting 17 per cent of land and inland waters by 2020, and we have even further to go to achieve adequate ecological representation of habitats for wildlife. There are significant gaps in Canada’s protected area network. Which gaps should be closed first?
High-quality protections of essential habitat for at-risk species will be a key step in the recovery of vulnerable wildlife populations. Unfortunately, the habitats that are home to the most at-risk species are among the least adequately represented. High numbers of at-risk species are found in areas where there are many human pressures. These areas include the Okanagan in British Columbia, the grasslands in Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Carolinian Zone in Ontario, and areas with high agricultural and urban activity in Quebec.
Forest biomass naturally captures and sequesters carbon. By safeguarding areas with high forest biomass, we can help to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through logging and development. In Canada, forest biomass is very high in British Columbia, with moderate to high levels extended through the boreal forest to the Maritimes.
To ensure that additional greenhouse gas emissions aren’t released through development in areas that provide high soil carbon sequestration, protections for these areas is of critical national importance. While high densities of soil carbon don’t follow a specific pattern across Canada, soil carbon rich areas include Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, northern Ontario and the border between Yukon to the Northwest Territories.
Areas where increasingly unique climate conditions are to remain relatively stable are important for conservation. Species that are threatened by climate change can be supported in these regions. Many of these unique locations in Canada are not likely to see major changes in temperature and precipitation and therefore should remain stable in the future. In Canada, most of the country’s climate refuges can be found in British Columbia and Yukon, as well as the northern parts of Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Unless protected area planning is coupled with a prioritization of areas that provide maximum conservation benefit, we will fail to meet our long-term goals to reverse the decline of wildlife and limit climate change.
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