Wildlife Protection Assessment | WWF-Canada






 

Protecting space
for wildlife:
A national
habitat crisis

 

In the face of widespread wildlife loss and climate change, WWF-Canada’s new nation-wide assessment maps gaps in essential wildlife habitat protection and opportunities to protect areas that benefit biodiversity while slowing climate change.

A national habitat crisis

Just as we need housing, wildlife need somewhere to live. Half of Canada’s monitored species are in decline, by a staggering 83 per cent, and even wildlife protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are failing to recover. Wildlife simply can’t survive with increasingly degraded or destroyed habitats. They need to find food, mate, migrate and raise their young. Climate change only makes matters worse.

Canada is committed to protecting at least 17 per cent of terrestrial space and inland waters, and taken together these spaces should represent the different types of habitat wildlife need, creating a connected network of protected areas. This assessment reveals that while protected areas in Canada do carve out space primarily for nature, they do not protect the vast majority of habitats where most at-risk species live.

84 per cent of habitats with high concentrations of at-risk species are inadequately or not at all protected.

Widespread habitat fragmentation and loss is a double-whammy for wildlife since vital, natural spaces like forests, peat bogs and soils provide both habitat and an essential service: These natural areas store carbon and if protected, can help keep the climate in balance.

77 per cent of habitats with high densities of soil carbon are inadequately or not at all protected, and 74 per cent of habitats with high densities of forest biomass are inadequately or not at all protected.

Canada is warming at twice the global rate. This assessment provides a vital map for reducing biodiversity loss and limiting climate change at the same time. Given these crises, we need to ask more of our protected areas. It’s essential we prioritize protection in the spaces wildlife need, and in those areas that will provide nature-based solutions to help us reach our climate change goals.

Major opportunities to protect habitat, slow climate change

WWF-Canada used the best available science and data to document how well Canada’s ecosystems, wildlife habitats and natural carbon stores are (and are not) protected, and to then identify where new protected areas could provide maximum benefit for wildlife and for slowing climate change. We found that across Canada, major opportunities to protect habitat and combat climate change are being overlooked.

Key findings

Species at risk habitat is not being protected:

  • 84 per cent of habitats with high concentrations of at-risk species are inadequately or not at all protected.

Across Canada we are not protecting 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 species 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.

© Jukka Jantunen - Shutterstock, Collared Pika

What good protection looks like

Size isn’t the only important factor when determining the value of a protected space. The following factors are assessed:

Size and coverage

Large and continuous protected areas are the key ingredient for ensuring that physical habitats for wildlife are adequately protected. While many, smaller protected areas can still deliver important protections, the fragmentation between them can reduce their ultimate value for wildlife.

Freshwater coverage

Protected areas shouldn’t stop at the water’s edge – freshwater ecosystems and wildlife extend beyond the shoreline.

Diverse elevation levels

Different elevations provide different habitats, values and ecosystem services for wildlife.

Intactness and connectivity

Wildlife must be able to move freely within a habitat as well as between different habitats without encountering roads or other types of development.
© S. Gillingwater WWF, Blandings turtle

What needs protecting

This assessment focuses on both wildlife habitat needs and opportunities to slow climate change, which is a driver of wildlife loss. Protected areas provide important social and cultural benefits as well, and WWF-Canada is supportive of the creation of parks for these and other reasons (see recommendations for more).

To maximize benefits for biodiversity and climate change when deciding on new protected areas and incentives for protection, proposals should include one or more of the following:

 

At-risk species

Areas targeted for protections should benefit vulnerable wildlife populations, including COSEWIC-assessed at-risk species.

Forest biomass

Forests are exceptionally adept at capturing and sequestering carbon – and are readily available. They should be prioritized for protection as a nature-based solution to climate change that creates habitat for wildlife at the same time.

Soil carbon

Soil and peat bogs sequester carbon. Habitats with high levels of soil carbon should be prioritized for protection to ensure additional greenhouse gas emissions aren’t released into the atmosphere through land conversion.

Climate refuges

In some areas, unique climate conditions are predicted to remain stable into the future and should be protected to provide especially important safe havens for wildlife threatened by climate change.
© Canoe North Adventures, Grizzly bear

Priority places identified

Some of Canada’s least protected areas are the most important for at-risk species, climate adaptation and carbon storage.

All regions on this map are considered a priority for the designation of new protected areas in Canada. The color gradient depicts the relative prioritization of these priority regions across Canada based the number of overlapping key considerations within a physical habitat.

All regions on this map are considered a priority for the designation of new protected areas in Canada. The color gradient depicts the relative prioritization of these priority regions across Canada based on the number of overlapping key considerations within a physical habitat.

Based on this assessment, these five regions in particular should be prioritized for protection:

Grizzly bears, barren-ground caribou and wood bison call the Arctic tundra and taiga home. These mostly unprotected habitats range from mountains to valleys, and include Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America, and major free-flowing rivers including the Mackenzie and Liard rivers. The territories have the highest proportion of unprotected physical habitats in the country while facing increasing disturbance from climate change and resource extraction. The Yukon extending into the Northwest Territories has high levels of soil carbon and forest biomass, and important climate refuges. It is also is home to high numbers of at-risk species.

British Columbia’s southern interior is home to unique wildlife like the pallid bat and the desert nightsnake – species that thrive in the region’s hot, dry summers and mild winters. The mix of grasslands, forest, desert-like areas and rich riparian ecosystems provides highly diverse habitats that host many of the province’s at-risk species. Unfortunately, these habitats score poorly in our assessment of ecological representation. Expanding human population, and related road and housing infrastructure, and agriculture development have added pressure to the region where many stressed species have already been extirpated. In addition, the Okanagan is a species hotspot, and contains areas that have high levels of forest biomass and climate refuges.

Grasslands are considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world and, for the most part are inadequately or not at all protected. They are home to some of the highest numbers of at-risk species in Canada, including the swift fox and Sprague’s pipit. Over the last century, approximately 80 per cent of the prairie grassland region has been converted for intensive agricultural use. While protection of the grasslands is critical to reversing the decline of our most threatened species, other ecosystems within the prairie provinces contain high densities of soil carbon and forest biomass – which are vitally important to consider as we adopt nature-based solutions to climate change while simultaneously supporting biodiversity.

Southern Ontario and Quebec are highly developed for urban and agricultural needs. Nearly the entire region is either unprotected or very poorly protected, and it is also home to high densities of at-risk species, like the snapping turtle and Jefferson salamander. Increasing privatization of land means that large, intact and connected protected areas are more difficult to implement, which means complimentary conservation options, like habitat restoration, may be necessary to give wildlife the protection they need. In addition to being a hotspot for at-risk species, the region contains some climate refuges – a critical element for species at the northern periphery of their range. Southern Quebec specifically boasts high densities of soil carbon and fair levels of forest biomass.

New Brunswick has the second poorest ecological representation score in Canada, with only one per cent of physical habitats adequately protected. The Saint John River – or Wolastoq – winds across the province as a maze of blind bays, tributaries, lakes and marshlands, providing essential habitat to at-risk wood turtles and shortnose sturgeon. In addition to being home to many at-risk species, some areas of the region contain significant soil and forest biomass carbon stores, and climate refuges. These values, combined with increasing human pressures on the landscape, makes this region a priority for protection.

© David Byron Keener, Basking Eastern Painted Turtle

Recommendations

To make space for Canada’s wildlife to survive and recover, and for the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere, we need to ensure a full range of physical habitats and ecosystems have high quality protections, beginning with those types of areas that are currently the least protected in Canada and that have the highest combination of our high-priority considerations.

To ensure new protected areas have maximum benefit for wildlife and nature, we need to: 

  • Focus on habitat for at-risk or vulnerable species;

  • Extend protections to include lakes, rivers and wetlands;

  • Safeguard areas with high carbon storage potential to slow climate change while providing habitat;

  • Set restrictions within protected areas to maintain the integrity and value of the space.

For habitats in southern Canada, where high landscape fragmentation means that large, uninterrupted protected areas are increasingly difficult to achieve, we need to consider other high-standard effective conservation measures, including on private lands, to provide important connectivity. In addition, habitat restoration, planting of native species and habitat-friendly development can all play an important role.

Finally, while WWF-Canada’s Wildlife Protection Assessment: A National Habitat Crisis focuses on the needs of wildlife with the goal of reducing wildlife decline, it is important to recognize that protected areas also provide important social and cultural benefits. WWF-Canada is supportive of the creation of parks for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and cultural values.