The decline of biodiversity

by Caroline Schultz

For wildlife, it is triage, pure and simple. When a scientific body declares that a species is “endangered,” the label alerts society and inspires reactive critical care. The practice is necessary if we are to save our most vulnerable species, but it is costly and would be less necessary if we took a more proactive approach to conserving biodiversity.

Despite conservation efforts, the province’s endangered species list continues to grow, alerting us to an uncertain future for many species.

Some intrinsically rare Ontario species, such as southwestern Ontario’s rayed bean (a tiny freshwater mussel), inhabit specialized habitats or live on the periphery of their ranges; these are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes and local extinction. But wide-ranging species are also at risk because humans affect habitat at a bioregional level. Woodland caribou and wolverine once ranged throughout Ontario’s entire boreal region, from near Algonquin Provincial Park north to the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Wolverines have now retreated far to the northwest. And, as Ray Ford documents in his article “Last of the caribou” , woodland caribou range has retracted in lockstep with the expansion of commercial forestry operations and is predicted to shrink another 200 kilometres northwards over the next 20 years.

Alarmingly, some species many regard as common are also in a perilous state, indicating the existence of widespread but hidden environmental ills. Especially troubling are declines due to unknown causes. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recently listed two bird species, the chimney swift and the common nighthawk, as threatened. The precipitous declines of these insectivorous birds are largely a mystery.

We need to see decisive action to address what Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, has called “Biodiversity in Crisis” in his Annual Report released on October 21. Miller states that the Ontario government must not just describe the current state of biodiversity but must enact concrete measures that actually conserve it – now and in the future.

We need effective implementation of Ontario’s milestone and world-class Endangered Species Act. Passed last year and brought into force this summer, the act was tracking toward the dubious distinction of including a permanent exemption for the forest industry. The exemption was revised to a one-year term after overwhelmingly negative public reaction. It is essential that the exemption not be extended if we are to have reasonable hope of preventing further decline of boreal species, particularly woodland caribou.

Ontario has demonstrated laudable conservation leadership in recent years, which includes the announcement that more than half the northern boreal region will be protected from industrial development. We must continue to move along this proactive path to sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

Caroline SchultzCaroline Schultz is the executive director of Ontario Nature.

Contributors

Bryan GilvesyIn his article “How to start a fire”, Bryan Gilvesy argues that “farmers must be considered solution providers if we want to stand a chance of saving our environment.” Gilvesy operates the Y U Ranch with his wife, Cathy, in Norfolk County. The Gilvesys were recently awarded the 2008 Canadian Agri-Food Innovation Award of Excellence for Environmental Stewardship.

Bernard BohnPhotographer Bernard Bohn says his assignment for ON Nature was a first: photographing seeds (“Seeds of hope”). Bohn even sampled his subjects. “Most of the seeds were edible and some tasted quite good.” Bohn’s photos have appeared in Saturday Night, Maclean’s and Rolling Stone.