Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
A freshly logged tree is surrounded by many stumps in a British Columbia forest.

The habitats, they are a-changin’

A healthy wilderness needs a lot of elbow room — space that we continue to steal at an alarming rate. Forests are clear-cut for lumber and wetlands are drained for farmland, suburbs, or shopping malls. None of our actions are intended to make the original inhabitants more comfortable. From loss of old-growth forests in British Columbia to proposed pipelines in the North to dead lakes from acid rain in Ontario, threats and realities of habitat change are often thrust upon wildlife first. Yet, the problems these changes create soon become issues for humans, who prosper from exploiting and altering that habitat in the first place.

Effects of habitat change on local species

Almost all aspects of any organism’s life are connected to habitat. Any change in habitat means a change in life. Not all species fare badly with habitat change. When settlers cleared central and eastern Canada for farming in the 1800s, the coyote, one of the animals featured in this exhibit, thrived. However, that is not the case for most organisms, including the coyote’s predator, the wolf.

In the North, the barren ground caribou is very sensitive to changes in its environment, especially when construction pops up in and along its extremely important migration routes. Elsewhere in the Arctic, the polar bear’s habitat has been decreasing due to loss of the sea ice from which it hunts. This habitat loss pushes the bear to search farther and farther for food, putting it at greater risk of starving or being killed by hunters.

On the West Coast, even a small oil spill can put the sea otter’s survival to the test, since its fur must remain clean in order for it to stay warm. Another marine inhabitant, the Pacific salmon, relies on specific historical breeding grounds in streams and rivers. When industrial development blocks these areas, the salmon is unable to reproduce.

A quarter of the world’s bald eagles and grizzly bears are found in British Columbia, where they rely on trees and other parts of the ecosystem for key parts of their life cycles. Yet logging and mountain pine beetle infestations are chipping away at these habitats. As with all habitat change, whether it helps or hinders a particular organism, more than one species is invariably affected.

Canadian Geographic retrospective

Our vanishing wetlands

By Michael Keating
August/September 1987

Wielding fascinating facts and straightforward statistics about marshes, author Michael Keating makes a strong case for their preservation in “Our vanishing wetlands.” The article, which ran in August/September 1987, notes that almost one-third of the close to 600 birds in Canada require wetlands, yet at least half of this extremely important ecosystem has been wiped out in the southern region of the country.

To the west, 71 percent of Prairie wetlands have been lost to agriculture. Marshes are extremely important, as they are the most productive and the richest of all ecosystems. As well, they are eight times more efficient at using the sun’s energy when compared to wheat fields. However, humans are increasingly using these wetlands to fish, trap, hunt and harvest crops.

Keating uses colourful language — such as calling wetlands “nature’s kidneys” due to the crucial role they play in the hydrological cycle — to emphasize their importance in part of the Earth’s overall health. He notes that ecologists say the issue of wetland loss is less well known than the destruction of tropical rainforests but that wetlands are equally important for preserving the gene pool.

Last stands

By Steven Fick and Elizabeth Shilts
June 2008

Dwindling numbers of frontier forests are distinctly — and disturbingly — depicted on a map of the world in June 2008’s “Last stands” by Steven Fick and Elizabeth Shilts.

Frontier forests are large intact swaths of natural and relatively undisturbed forest ecosystems. Such forests cover much less of the Earth than they did 8,000 years ago. In Asia, for example, 95 percent of these forests have been lost. Meanwhile, humans have been multiplying rapidly, having doubled in population since 1950 alone.

The author and cartographer note, in text that runs next to a map of the world depicting coverage of frontier forest now compared to 8,000 years ago, that more people means more demand for agricultural land, timber and fuelwood.

Africa only has patches left in the Congo Basin and Scandinavia holds Europe’s last stands. Three-quarters of what remains is confined to three large areas: Russia’s boreal forest; the band of boreal that runs across Alaska and Canada; and the rain forest of the Amazon Basin and Guyana Shield of South America.

Not necessarily devoid of people, a frontier forest can be home to small human populations or undergo sustainable logging practices. But to be considered “frontier,” it must be able to support its natural biodiversity. For Canada’s boreal forests, for example, that means healthy and viable populations of species such as grizzly bears and woodland caribou. Only about 10 percent of Canada’s northern forests are protected, and with growing interest in potential energy reserves buried under them, along with the mining, logging and, in some places, agricultural demands on them, much more needs to be protected to ensure the maintenance of this globally treasured ecosystem.

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