Scientists say we should consider biodiversity and ecosystem services when deciding which areas to protect

**Listen to the Quirks and Quarks episode here.**

Scientists warn that if we don’t act soon to protect our environment, we’re in for a ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health, climate-disruption upheavals and resource conflicts in the next century.

This warning, published in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science, comes after countries around the world, including Canada, failed to live up to biodiversity targets they committed to that included setting aside at least 17 per cent of their territories by the end of 2020.

Just before the holidays, Canada had reached the milestone of setting aside 13 per cent of its territory. Conservation scientist Aerin Jacob, from the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, described even that effort as lacking strategy.

“It’s been piecemeal. It varies from place to place,” she told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

“It’s so important to have an overarching strategy and one that includes everything from what are the places important for species at risk, how do you have representation of ecosystems — making sure these places are well connected — and also where [are] the benefits that people get from nature?”

We’re finding key biodiversity areas in pristine areas, in urban areas, along sort of ditches, even in agricultural areas and in these remaining habitats in the south that have so much pressure on them. – Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, CASC

Our planet is losing species at a shocking rate.

A 2019 UN report suggests that the planet is losing species at a shocking rate — more than a million, many within decades.

For that reason, 50 countries moved their conservation goalpost at the virtual One Planet Summit last week, pledging to protect 30 per cent of the planet by 2030.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-committed to previous biodiversity promises, including pledges to plant two billion trees and to protect 30 per cent Canadian land and seas by 2030.

Conservation scientist Dr. Aerin Jacob surveys the landscape in northern Yukon. She and her colleagues mapped out “ecosystem services” across Canada to better inform Canada’s plan to conserve 30 per cent of its territory by 2030. (Rachel Pernick)

Conservation scientists argue that to reach that new target, we need to think beyond the looming biodiversity crisis to consider what the environment can do for us.

“We don’t just want that 30 per cent. We want to conserve biodiversity. We want to preserve ecosystem services,” said Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, the project lead for identifying key biodiversity areas in need of protection with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

Mapping out ecosystem services

Jacob was part of a team assembled by the federal government that recently surveyed the country to identify areas important to services we get from nature.

“We had thought there would be ready-to-go maps that would show where people get these important benefits. We were surprised that there weren’t,” added Jacob.

She and some of her colleagues decided to map out these ecosystem services across the country, which they published along with an interactive map of hotspots, in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

When it comes to natural carbon storage, for example, she said the amount of carbon stored underground is “just mind-boggling.”

The Hudson Bay Lowlands is “Canada’s absolute hotspot” for the amount of carbon stored underground, said Jacob. (Adam Kirkwood)

“We have to be very careful that it’s not disturbed, so that it doesn’t start sort of leaking carbon into the atmosphere.”

They found that the peat lands south of Hudson Bay — around the border of northern Ontario and Manitoba — was the most important area for carbon storage.

They also identified high-demand sources of freshwater — including northern Ontario, which provides water across southern Ontario and Quebec; and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that supply water all the way across the Prairies

Conserving key biodiversity areas

When it comes to deciding what territories and resources are the most important for Canada to protect, Raudsepp-Hearne said we should consider both ecosystem services and biodiversity.

As part of a continuing project, she’s mapped out about 200 key biodiversity areas she identifies important areas for the persistence of species and ecosystems.

“We’re finding key biodiversity areas pretty much everywhere,” she said. “[They’re] in pristine areas, in urban areas, along sort of ditches, even in agricultural areas and in these remaining habitats in the south that have so much pressure on them.”

Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, seen here at the provincial park Grands-Jardins National Park, is the program lead at WCSC for identifying key biodiversity areas. (Toby Harper-Merrett)

Strategy to reach 30%

Despite the major biodiversity challenges that exist in populated regions along the south of the country, Raudsepp-Hearne said she doesn’t think we can achieve our 30 per cent goal in southern Canada.

“I think that is just as important to do anyway, even if it doesn’t jump us up to that 30 per cent,” she added.

The Sahtu Region in western part of Canada’s Northwest Territories was identified by conservation scientists and local Indigenous populations as an important area to protect. (Jean Lieppert Polfus)

She said to reach that target, we’ll have to look further north where there are huge areas that are still ecologically intact.

“There’s no industrial footprint in some places. There are people who have been guarding the land for thousands of years. That’s where we will be able to achieve huge jumps, probably through things like Indigenous-protected and conserved areas.”

Jacob said that “Indigenous-led conservation is poised to make a big difference” in many of the areas they identified as ecological service hotspots.

On the other hand, many other hotspots exist in areas zoned for development.

“For instance, the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains is one of the most important places across Canada for the water. And these are places where currently there’s proposed open-pit coal mining,” she explained.

The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta are vital for supplying freshwater all the way to the Prairies. (Aerin Jacob)

Raudsepp-Hearne said it’s critically important to get Canadians on board with the importance of preserving ecological services and biodiversity.

“If we can make that value change, we’ll be closer to stopping that decimation.”

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting