Conservation efforts at home really do help save the world

by Caroline Schultz

With every passing year, the environmental maxim “Think globally, act locally” takes on added meaning. This phrase has empowered us to take action on many environmental issues, such as banning toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT, knowing that community efforts can yield global benefits.

But I wonder how many Ontarians consider the global implications of our actions when it comes to conserving native habitats and species. For the most part, we protect local woodlands and wetlands because they are part of our neighbourhood and because, as naturalists, we know it is the right thing to do.

But in Ontario, some of these seemingly parochial actions are, in fact, a significant contribution to global biodiversity conservation, and every bit as important as the conservation of the Amazonian rain forest or the protection of African savannahs. Perhaps our exposure to images of exotic wildlife and the astounding species diversity in other parts of the world has led us to believe we are a global biodiversity bit player. While Ontario does not house the extraordinary species diversity found in the tropics, this should not trivialize the importance of Ontario’s ecosystems and native biodiversity. It is essential that we learn about, appreciate and, most importantly, help protect the world’s most significant and threatened species and habitats – some of which are right here.

At 1,076,395 square kilometres, our province is huge. Ontario is larger than France and Spain combined and contains a wide array of climatic and vegetation zones, from temperate deciduous forest in the south to the tundra in the north. Ontario’s some 250,000 lakes contain an astonishing one-third of the world’s fresh water. Concentrated as the population is in the southernmost part of our province, even seasoned naturalists can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that Ontario is home to “exotic” wildlife such as polar bears, wolverines, belugas and walruses. In fact, the southern Hudson Bay polar bear population, which we share with Quebec, numbers about 1,000 individuals. At 7 percent of the Canadian total, this is a globally significant population.

Ontario provides critical habitat for not only polar bears, but also many species that are of conservation concern internationally. Ontario species that the IUCN (the World Conservation Union) has identified as globally threatened include elusive creatures like the red wolf and wolverine, as well as more familiar species such as the spotted turtle, northern bobwhite, olive-sided flycatcher, cerulean warbler and red-headed woodpecker. Conservation biologists have identified a number of Ontario breeding bird species, in addition to IUCN-listed species, that are of international conservation concern. Among them is the bay-breasted warbler, identified because of long-term, persistent declines in its population.

Seventy globally significant Important Bird Areas have been identified in Ontario. These sites, identified according to internationally established criteria, provide critical habitat for 1 percent or more of the global population of one or more bird species or species groups. This means that we have an international responsibility to protect these sites and ensure the long-term security of the species they support. Some of these sites are known to support a very large proportion of a species’ global population. For example, the Albany River Estuary on Ontario’s James Bay coast supports more than 20 percent of the world’s Hudsonian godwits on their southern migration to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America.

Ontario also encompasses the heart of Canada’s boreal forest, which, along with the Amazon and the Russian taiga, is one of the world’s three remaining frontier forests and home to billions of breeding songbirds. Ontarians are stewards to tall-grass prairie and black oak savannah, two of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. Less than 1 percent of North America’s original pre-settlement old-growth eastern white pine is left today and almost two-thirds of that is in Ontario.

We have substantial global responsibilities to protect and steward our native wildlife and habitats. We must continue to protect what is familiar and immediately around us, but we must also keep in mind the contribution we can make to conserving the diversity of life on earth.

Caroline Schultz

Caroline Schultz is the executive director of Ontario Nature.