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How much room does nature really need?
This year's Earth Day finds Canada on the cusp of making big choices about where to preserve its wilderness. A new assessment reveals that the locations where protection is needed most urgently are also among the most challenging to protect

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Monday, April 22, 2019 – Page A8

Canada's national conversation about the environment often revolves around questions of how much.

How much land should be set aside for iconic species such as the caribou or the grizzly bear? How much is needed to maintain the character of an entire ecosystem? How much room does nature really need?

Such questions underpin a massive effort under way in Ottawa as the federal government races to fulfill Canada's commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. Like other countries that have signed the convention, Canada has agreed to set aside 17 per cent of its land area for protected status by the end of 2020. With only 10.5 per cent of the country fitting that description as recently as two years ago, the stage is set for the next 18 months to be among the most significant and active for nature conservation in the country's history.

To help meet the 17-per-cent target, the Trudeau government last year allocated $1.3-billion for conservation efforts, more than a third of which is aimed specifically at creating more protected spaces. But while environmental groups have lauded the scale of the investment, concerns linger that in the rush to designate new areas, some of the most critical habitat in the country will be overlooked.

"If we are to get the biggest bang for our protection buck we need to dramatically change how we prioritize areas for protection," said Megan Leslie, president of the environmental group WWF-Canada.

To illustrate the point, the organization has conducted a national assessment that divides the country into 6,400 distinct habitats and measures the level of protection in each. Released on Monday to mark Earth Day, the analysis is the latest to highlight a striking mismatch between the places that Canada protects and the places where protection is needed most.

Whether nature is found in small pockets among cities and farms, or in vast tracts across the North, the assessment is a reminder that much of Canada's most important habitat exists on a provisional basis. The picture of the Canadian wilderness that occupies the national imagination may resemble a Group of Seven masterpiece, but the reality could be far less enduring.

In hard numbers, the data show that 84 per cent of habitats with a high concentration of at-risk species across Canada are inadequately protected or have no protection at all. The reasons are not hard to fathom: Species diversity often coincides with human activity and commercial interests.

But the assessment also goes a step further by asking where protected status can do double duty by keeping carbon locked up in trees and soil.

Worldwide, the amount of stored carbon released into the atmosphere through deforestation is more than that produced by cars and trucks, which puts a premium on efforts to maintain carbon sinks - places where carbon can be taken up by the environment - where they already exist.

Finally, in preparation for the future, the analysis considered which habitats are expected to remain relatively stable under a shifting climate and can therefore serve as refuges for species under pressure.

The results suggest that a strategic approach to habitat protection can simultaneously help Canada come to grips with its piece of the world's two biggest environmental crises: catastrophic habitat loss and climate change.

"Those two crises are unfolding together and many of the drivers are the same," said James Snider, WWF-Canada's vice-president of science, research and innovation. He added that the assessment showed, in fine-grained detail, that "an effective, systematic protected-areas network can be a solution toward stopping the decline of wildlife but also reducing emissions."

What emerges from the patchwork quilt of habitats is a view of Canada that shows where efforts to protect species and ecosystems would have the greatest impact and where action is most urgently needed. In general, they also are not the easiest areas to protect, because they tend to coincide with high population density, as well as agricultural and resource areas. This is the challenge that Ottawa now faces in trying to increase Canada's portion of protected land in a meaningful way.

The federal process is under way in earnest. Last month, through a program known as the Target 1 Challenge, Environment and Climate Change Canada received more than 140 proposals for new parks and Indigenous protected areas, which are now being evaluated with a view to making final selections by the summer.

"We are seeing [the program] as an important opportunity to make progress on the 17-per-cent target," said Grant Hogg, a director with the ministry who is involved in the process.

Criteria used in the evaluation include advancing Indigenous reconciliation and biodiversity factors, such as increasing connectivity among protected spaces, he added. But with the need to meet the 17per-cent target, these factors must also be balanced against the total amount of space that will come from committing funds to create a new protected area, which may include buying up private land or industry leases.

"Obviously, we have to be pragmatic," he said.

"We only have so much money."

Like the WWF assessment, the federal process is guided by various measures, both quantitative and qualitative, that are meant to capture the ecological value of a given space. Among them are 11 priority places identified as part of a new strategy for addressing species at risk. Several fall within the five hot spots that the WWF report highlights. However, there are also some notable differences, such as the Mackenzie River basin of the Northwest Territories, parts of which the WWF report scores as a "very high priority" for protection because of the combination of at-risk species and carbon-rich soil.

"I think there are lessons to be learned in both the differences and the similarities," said Joseph Bennett, a biologist at Carleton University who studies conservation prioritization and who was not involved in the WWF report.

By adding carbon storage to the prioritization mix, the new assessment has highlighted some of the services that a natural habitat provides beyond its inherent biodiversity. Where the assessment could have gone further, Dr. Bennett said, is in exploring the need for a more flexible definition of what constitutes protection. Conserving the areas that the assessment says are most critical will require partnerships, particularly with Indigenous people, in places where science indicates that traditional land use has helped foster biodiversity.

"We need to get away from thinking of a protected area as being somewhere where you just can do anything," Dr. Bennett said.

Marie-Josée Fortin, a professor of spatial ecology at the University of Toronto, said partnerships and creative thinking will also be essential in the southern part of the country where numbers of threatened species are greatest and where protection will not be feasible without engaging private landowners in the effort, particularly those who are adjacent to existing protected areas.

"We can play with statistics," she said, "But you have to have a big enough area so that the processes that are needed to maintain the landscape occur." THE HOT SPOTS Five critical areas where wildlife protection falls short THE TERRITORIES The diverse landscape of Canada's northwest includes mountains, forest, tundra and the vast freshwater system of the Mackenzie River, including Great Slave Lake.

Historically, it is also the least-protected landscape in the country. The assessment draws attention to the Mackenzie region, a carbon sink and a climate refuge, which is also among those areas not listed among the federal government's 11 priority places for species protection.

THE OKANAGAN The south-central region of British Columbia, known for its dry summers and mild winters, has fostered a unique cohort of species - such as the pallid bat - that face increasing threats as population density and land use rises. While several other parts of British Columbia enjoy adequate protection, the Okanagan is among the most vulnerable and underprotected ecological regions in Canada.

HOW WWF CREATED ITS ASSESSMENT HABITATS The assessment begins by breaking Canada down into a mosaic of some 6,400 distinct habitats. The protection level of each habitat was rated on a scale based on the size, number and connectivity of protected areas, among other factors, to determine how effectively those areas captured and represented the ecological makeup of the country.

SPECIES AT RISK The assessment also factored in where species recommended for listing under Canada's Species at Risk Act are found and in what concentration. Southern areas tend to have more species at risk because biodiversity is greatest in the south and so is human impact. The western prairie grasslands also feature prominently because of the amount of native habitat lost there.

CLIMATE REFUGES Some habitats receive additional weight in the assessment because they are regarded as particularly resilient to climate change and can serve as refuges for species that will face new pressures as the climate continues to warm. High-altitude areas factor strongly in this role, as does a central swath of the sub-Arctic.

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