Part V: The Importance of Protecting Ontario’s At-Risk Species

This blog is Part V of a 5-part blog series, as part of our Biodiversity Video Campaign.”Ontario is home to a diverse collection of ecosystems but every year, more plants and animals are added to Ontario’s list of species at risk, which now numbers more than 200.”Biodiversity describes the diverse species of plants and animals in an ecosystem. Although we may not recognize it, plants and animals play an important part in keeping a healthy balance in our environment, which allow us to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat clean, healthy food. The stability and maintenance of biodiversity also helps combat climate change, as strong forests take carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen, strong soils, wetlands and the oceans soak up carbon, and greenhouse gases. Yet these environmental structures depend on the symbiotic relationship of plants and animals that live within them. For example, animals pollinate plants, spread seeds, feed off the parasites that are attracted to the plant, and their grazing prevents the plant from outgrowing its niche in the environment. These symbiotic relationships maintain a healthy balance. The Earth’s Endangered SpeciesUnder the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, species are constantly fighting for survival, but their struggle has been made exponentially made more difficult by the impact humans have had on this planet. Extinction naturally happens at a “rate of about on to five species per year,” it is estimated that “we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times” the natural rate. The planet is currently facing its “sixth wave of mass extinction of plants and animals,” and the National Wildlife Federation states that “most ecosystems are facing multiple threats” including:·      Disease·      Global Warming·      Habitat Loss·      Invasive Species·      Oil Spills·      Overexploitation·      Pollution *NWFFigure 1: Image from USGS.For a full list of the current endangered species across the globe please see: Animal Planet and WWF.Domino Effect & Yellowstone National ParkWhile the fittest species will only survive, species also rely on each other. If one species is taken out of the ecosystem it will leave a hole which another species will fill, and thus alter the balance. A perfect example of this was the grey wolves of the Yellowstone National Park, in Montana, USA provided an excellent example of what happens when a major player of the ecosystem is removed, and through the parks restoration work, what happens when that player is returned. The grey wolf was slowly hunted and pushed out of the park in the 1930s, and as a result the elk population in the park boomed, which allowed them to take full advantage of the vegetation in the park. With the increased grazing of the elk, other species were not able to survive, and very soon the health of the park dissipated. Under the supervision of experts, the grey wolf was reintroduced in 1995, which put the elk population in check and allowed species such as the willow and the beaver to return and flourish. Today the park is once again healthy and strong. Protecting the Greenbelt to protect its speciesWhile plants and animals can maintain a healthy balance on their own, humans have been living outside of our niche and have distorted the earth’s balance. According to a report by David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), Biodiversity in Ontario’s Greenbelt, “at least 16,000 species across the world are dangerously close to extinction. Four hundred and seventy of those species have habitat in Canada and are currently listed as a risk nationally. Over 200 of these species are located in Ontario. 78 rely on the Greenbelt for some or all of their habitat needs.” Protecting Ontario’s Greenbelt is immensely important as southern Ontario is “home to one in three Canadians” and over 75 percent of Ontario’s population living near the Greenbelt, it is essential that now work to restore that balance, and help to return endangered species back to their former, healthy populations.Figure 2: Image from Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.  Five levels of concernOntario is home to a diverse collection of ecosystems but “every year, more plants and animals are added to Ontario’s list of species at risk, which now numbers more than 200.” The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – an independent science advisory body – has a list of definitions that clarify the difference between the levels of protection and support different animals need in Canada. COSEWIC studies Canada’s species and provides the Canadian federal government recommendations on the levels of support different species need. Below you will find COSEWIC’s clarification of levels of concern: Wildlife Species:A species, subspecies, variety, or geographically or genetically distinct population of animal, plant or other organism, other than a bacterium or virus, that is wild by nature and is either native to Canada or has extended its range into Canada without human intervention and has been present in Canada for at least 50 years.Extinct (X):A wildlife species that no longer exists.Extirpated (XT)*:A wildlife species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exists elsewhere.Endangered (E)*:A wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction.Threatened (T)*:A wildlife species that is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.Special Concern (SC)*:A wildlife species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats. *COSEWIC  Species-at-Risk in OntarioAccording to the Ontario provincial government there are 160 endangered species, 55 threatened species, 50 species of special concern, and 16 extirpated species of plants and animals in Ontario. You can get the full list Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO). As the threats to species increases so does the level and numbers of threatened species change which makes it difficult for organizations to agree on the same data. For example, the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance (OGA) provides a different number than Ontario’s provincial government, and states that “of the 180 animals found in the Greater Toronto Area, 110 are at-risk and listed as Species of Concern” and Ontario’s Greenbelt species-at-risk include:  Figure 3: Image from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.·       Spotted turtle·       Cucumber magnolia·       Jefferson Salamander·       Redside dace·       American ginseng·       Monarch butterfly·       Easter Cougar/Mountain Lion·       Eastern Elk·       Eastern Wolf·       Grey Fox·       Southern Flying Squirrel·       Woodland Vole·       Bald Eagle·       Acadian Flycatcher·       Barn Owl·       Henslow’s Sparrow·       Peregrine Falcon·       Red-headed Woodpecker·       Red-shouldered Hawk·       Short-eared Owl·       Yellow Rail·       Eastern Hog-nosed Snake·       River Redhorse·       American Chestnut·       Deerberry·       Lakeside Daisy·       Spotted Wintergreen·       White Wood Aster *OGATo learn about the species that are endangered throughout Canada, you can check out Nature Canada’s endangered list, which includes the Eastern Cougar, Great Blue Heron and the Porbeagle Shark.Legislations that lend a handSpecies at Risk Act, 2002 (SARA) is a federal piece of Canadian legislation that works to protect Canadian wildlife from disappearing, and to help to recover species that are threatened. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, SARA is meant to help Canada fulfill its commitment to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and “encourages the various governments in Canada to cooperate to protect wildlife species in this country”. However, there are some major flaws in this act. In their report Left off the List, the DSF discovered that eight species listed as species-at-risk are not protected by SARA. The greatest flaw discovered, was that SARA “currently applies only to federal lands – like post offices, national parks, airports and RCMP detachments,” but most of the land in Canada is managed by provincial governments which “leaves only a tiny fraction of the country under direct protection of the SARA.”Ontario’s provincial Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is meant to provide science-based assessments of species, automatic species protection, habitat protection as well as timelines and tools to implement successful protection strategies. Unfortunately this act also has some flaws, and in 2016 the “Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld a lower court decision that found the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry was within its rights to grant exemptions to industries such as forestry, oil and gas and mining under changes made in 2013 to the Endangered Species Act. The regulations provide 19 exemptions from the act.” This leaves many species vulnerable and in need of protection. What can YOU do?There are number of things that you can do at home to support the biodiversity in your community, for example:1.     Plant native species:·      Planting native plants and trees in your garden will support the biodiversity that lives in your backyard, will prevent soil erosion, and will provide a shelter and food to local wildlife.2.     Avoid using pesticides:·      Embrace the weeds (they’re plants too!) or find none toxic ways to maintain your garden. Keeping pesticides off your lawn means less pollutants in your local watershed!3.     Watch out for waste:·      Picking up trash or your pets waste is helps give your soils and waterways one less thing to worry about. Wildlife are often found dead with bellies fill of trash – so picking up that receipt or straw you accidently dropped could help save a life. 4.     Support environmental charities, such as the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, that are working hard to support nature and protect biodiversity, by making a donation or volunteering your time.5.     Watch our “Biodiversity in Ontario” video to learn more about the importance of biodiversity in Ontario!This article was written by Stephanie Hulse, Environmental Outreach Coordinator at Sierra Club Ontario. Blog image of King Rail Bird obtained from Ontario government website.