The Greater Muskwa Kechika is an important safe haven for caribou, which are declining in much of southern British Columbia., Mark Bradley
The Greater Muskwa Kechika is an important safe haven for caribou, which are declining in much of southern British Columbia. © Mark Bradley

Rising to the twin challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss


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Justina Ray
President & Senior Scientist

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Biodiversity

Published

2019-12-19

While it is easy to lose hope in these challenging times, we think there have been some important signs of progress this year.

By Justina Ray, President and Senior Scientist, WCS Canada

Addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss has left many of our political leaders and institutions floundering. But at WCS Canada, we continue to deliver science-driven solutions for addressing these problems that can be acted on right now, from identifying key wild areas for protection to developing new ways to help wildlife survive specific impacts, like rising temperatures. While it is easy to lose hope in these challenging times, we think there have been some important signs of progress this year. One was the federal government’s allocation of $175 million for 67 land-based conservation projects across Canada. We’re using our well-established field research efforts in BC, Yukon and Ontario to provide scientific support to, and work together with, several First Nations to capitalize on this opportunity. For example, in BC, we have provided a science blueprint for protecting the magnificent Greater Muskwa Kechika, an undisturbed area four times the size of Vancouver Island, much of which intersects with Kaska First Nation homelands. It is a key stronghold for sensitive species like caribou and for freshwater ecosystems that are threatened in much of the rest of Canada.

In Ontario, we are working hard to quantify both the conservation potential of one of the world’s greatest intact areas and the importance of northern peatlands as a carbon storehouse. This is vital work at a time when the Ontario government is backtracking on previous commitments to put conservation first in this globally important area. In addition, we have requested that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada conduct a regional assessment of the Ring of Fire region of northern Ontario. We believe that a regional assessment is called for under the terms of the new Impact Assessment Act (Bill 69) and would be a valuable way to address the cumulative impacts of road access and potential mining developments in the region and to have an open, honest discussion of ecological and economic risks and trade-offs between First Nations, governments, and other stakeholders. Such a “big picture” process would be particularly valuable for addressing the major threats posed by climate change to the entire region.

In Yukon, we are building on the huge success of protecting the intact Peel Watershed, despite earlier political setbacks, to work with First Nations in creating new Indigenous Conserved and Protected Areas (IPCAs) in the southern part of the territory. As our Whitehorse-based conservation scientist Dr. Don Reid noted in a recent piece in Yukon News, even this vast territory is not immune from the changes being brought about by human development, but in Yukon we have an opportunity to act while many ecosystems remain healthy.

More broadly, we are also working with a wide group of partners, including federal and provincial governments, on the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) across the country. Having helped to develop the scientific standard for KBA identification in a global process led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, WCS Canada is now leading the process in Canada with the goal of ensuring conservation efforts (and dollars) are focused on high-value areas. This will be particularly important given the federal government’s commitment to protecting 25% of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025. KBA identification can be a critical tool in aiming protection efforts at areas with strong biodiversity values and not just “rocks and ice.”

At a recent workshop in Yukon, we zeroed in on a number of potential KBAs and with several other regional processes now underway, we are very excited about deploying this scientific tool more widely. KBAs in and of themselves will not lead to protection for sensitive areas and species, but are a valuable way of drawing attention to the need for enhanced conservation actions in these places.

Of course, our oceans are just as threatened as our lands and ocean dwellers, such as whales and seals, are facing the challenge of rapid changes in water temperatures, ice cover and rising acidity caused by climate change combined with increased human activity in now increasingly ice-free areas. That’s why we were very pleased to receive funding from the Canada Nature Fund for Aquatic Species at Risk to study how bowhead whales are exposed to and react to ship noise across the Canadian Arctic. Part of this will involve a new post-doctoral fellow starting in 2020 who will lead an experiment with bowhead whales in Nunavut using a combination of playback experiments, acoustic tagging, passive acoustic monitoring, and observations using aerial drones.

Continued funding from the Inuvialuit Joint Secretariat will also allow us to keep gathering year-round underwater sound recordings, which are invaluable for tracking potential conflicts between whales and ships. Recently, the Canadian Coast Guard issued a Notice to Mariners in the western Canadian Arctic based on our evidence-based recommendations to have ships avoid marine protected areas as well as avoid and/or slow down in other important areas for whales.

Marine mammals, such as belugas, are very dependent on sound, as are bats that navigate by echolocation. In BC, we are pioneering efforts to help bats survive the almost inevitable arrival of a deadly disease, white-nose syndrome, which has already killed millions of bats in eastern North America. Our bat team has developed a probiotic solution using naturally occurring bacteria that they believe can enhance bats’ resistance to the disease. They have completed tests that verified the safety of the prophylaxis and recently conducted a successful field pilot. They are now working on ways to deploy it more widely, such as applying a probiotic dust in the entrances to bat boxes.

At the same time, our lead bat researcher Dr. Cori Lausen, has also been raising red flags about the growing issue of overheating in such structures. Dr. Lausen has developed important initial recommendations for ensuring bat boxes do not become heat traps for bats in a warming climate, while maintaining the important role these structures play in the face of habitat loss.

Habitat loss, of course, is a major threat to many species and why Canada’s commitment to expanding its protected areas systems on land and water is enormously important. But success will rely on not just fast action, but putting in place strong criteria for what constitutes “protection.” We will be using our scientific knowledge to try to shape decision making around this issue to ensure that hitting this target will make a real difference for biodiversity protection and not just result in largely meaningless lines on maps.

Using science to drive informed decision making is a key way we are addressing the combined climate and biodiversity crisis. Our unique focus on field-based research gives us real-world insights into the challenges facing wildlife and wild places and the ability to shape effective responses. We are excited to continue this work in 2020, whether it is identifying many more KBAs, keeping things quiet for whales, giving bats a fighting chance or ensuring caribou have space to roam.

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