The Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe ecoregion was identified as one of southern Canada’s nine most significant and threatened places for biodiversity conservation in a recent study conducted by Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and published in the journal, Biodiversity and Conservation. The conservation assessment analyzed 77 ecoregions across the southern part of Canada for biodiversity, threat and conservation response. The nine crisis regions represent less than five percent of Canadian lands and inland waters but provide habitat for over 60 percent of Canada’s species at risk (SAR).
“Some of the planet’s last wilderness is in northern Canada,” said Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist with NCC and author of the study. “We focused on southern Canada because despite being a very large country, that’s where most Canadians live and where most of our endangered species are.”
The 77 ecoregions are geographic units across the country and are based on things like soil and climate. “They can have similar vegetation types and often similar land uses, although there is a lot of variation within them,” he explained. “We looked at those 77 regions and basically did a report card on them by assigning scores based on a number of different factors including how much habitat is left, how much protected area is there, how many rare and endangered species are there and then kind of ranked each region based on its value to nature and then how threatened that nature was.” Nine of those ecoregions were near the top in both: they were very important for nature but they were also highly threatened and there is some urgency in terms of the conservation work that is needed.
The Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe region was one of those nine areas. It’s sandwiched between the Canadian Shield in the north and the Lake Erie Lowlands to the south, from Manitoulin and the islands of northern Lake Huron over to the eastern end of Lake Ontario. It is a large and diverse region that includes the major urban centres of Kingston, Belleville, Peterborough, Oshawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Barrie and Owen Sound. It was identified as threatened from a biodiversity perspective because of the number of SAR in the region.
“There are over 75 national SAR located within the region,” Mr. Kraus said. “We also looked at species of global conservation concern. There are about 40 species of global concern found in the Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe region. It’s an area where there’s a lot of agricultural activity and includes some large cities but when you zoom into the region, those threats and that biodiversity are not evenly distributed. If you look at where the most concerns are, the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island really jump out.”
Manitoulin Island is one of the reasons why the entire eco-region is so important for biodiversity. A great example is the lakeside daisy, the small yellow flower locally known as Manitoulin Gold, which is an endemic species. It only lives around the Great Lakes and some of the largest populations in the world occur on Manitoulin Island. “The conservation there is not just important from a local or even a Canadian perspective but globally,” Mr. Kraus.
One of the study’s aims was to increase awareness. “What we wanted to do for a lot of these eco-regions is provide that detailed information so people can learn about the region that they live in and take a little bit of pride in being a part of that region,” he said. “I find Canadians are really aware of global environmental issues and it’s good that people know what’s happening with the Amazon rainforest or elephants or orangutans but each of these regions has places and species that are as wondrous and as endangered as anything on the planet. We can actually take direct action to protect these. Building awareness is critical.”
We really wanted the report and the website to highlight the bright spots, he said. There are places where conservation is working but the large projects that can happen in Canada’s north often can’t be done in southern. Opportunities like NCC’s recent purchase of the Vidal Bay tract are once in a lifetime events. “There’s almost nowhere else in the ecoregion where conservation at that scale can happen. It’s often very slow conservation and a lot of community engagement is critical,” he said. For Manitoulin it means finding this balance between protecting nature while recognizing that nature is supporting local communities. “Often we think the landscapes around us are common and widespread but if you stand back a little, you realize they’re quite rare. That’s certainly the case with Manitoulin Island and many other places along the Great Lakes. These are really unique and special landscapes that don’t occur anywhere else in the world and what we do matters in terms of how those places will be protected.”
Projects like Vidal Bay are becoming rare. “These large tracts have a high degree of health integrity but there are not many places left south of the Canadian Shield or around the Great Lakes in Canada or the United States. We really appreciate those areas that were protected one hundred years ago or longer. Nobody says, oh Algonquin Park or oh Banff National Park, I wish we hadn’t done that. They just really become important economic assets to local communities and really, just important in general.
There are new tools to value the services that nature provides, he noted. “For a long time it was sort of a blank spot. It was economic development versus nature and nature couldn’t compete in terms of the dollar value but there are ways now to look at the value of nature in terms of things like pulling carbon out of the air, the value in preventing flooding and recognizing all the other benefits that nature provides, including a sense of local community identity and places for recreation. These are things that are a little harder to put a dollar value on but we know they’re very valuable.”
People from across the country have had more opportunities to connect to nature during the pandemic. NCC did a survey just after the new year looking at if people are spending more time in nature and certainly they are, he said. “Nature is contributing to their mental health and well-being. The other longer term trend is the recognition that protecting nature is not just about protecting endangered species but it’s also protecting a lot of the benefits that nature provides to us and to the communities. I think especially with climate change and some of the extreme weather events we’re seeing people are just recognizing the importance of things like wetlands and forests for helping to provide services to us. Nature has always provided benefits and services to people but we’re recognizing it more now. As we lose nature, the nature we have left becomes more and more important and some of it is brought on because of climate change and just the extreme weather that we are seeing.”
More than half of the natural spaces are gone in the Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe ecoregion and much of what’s left is small and fragmented, said Mr. Kraus. “If we keep going this way, the nature that will be left to future generations will be restricted to parks and protected areas. It’s not really fair to future generations to continue to erode our base of nature. We’ve been doing that since colonization. I’m not sure that’s really a world that we want to pass on. The longer I’m in this business, the more confident I am that investing in these places is complete the right thing to do. Future generations are going to be more grateful than we can imagine.”
Learn more about Manitoulin-Lake Simcoe and other ecoregions at natureconservancy.ca/casc.
Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor