Glimmers of Hope in the Face of Sobering U.N. Biodiversity Report



By Jeff Wells

May 6, 2019 | Boreal Songbird Initiative

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The long-awaited Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released today. The news is not good.

Up to a million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. And their loss will threaten humans. The same landscapes and ecosystems that sustain wild animals and plants also provide us with clean air and water, plentiful food, new medicines and a stable climate.  

The 400 scientists who produced the report are part of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. They say we could be headed for what has been termed a mass extinction event. That is, unless major changes are made and major resources are devoted to protecting and restoring habitat around the globe.

The few bright spots around the world come from the last, large intact habitat areas that have allowed most of their original biodiversity and ecosystem services to survive. One of those is Canada’s Boreal Forest biome.

Stretching from the Yukon to Labrador, the boreal of Canada is the biggest intact forest left on the planet. It nurtures caribou, grizzly bears, wolves and other species that have lost much of their original range elsewhere. Each fall 3 to 5 billion birds spill out of the forest and fly to backyards and beyond. The boreal is also home to 25% of the world’s wetlands. And it holds nearly twice as much as carbon in storage as tropical rainforests.

Yet even these largely still-intact areas like the Boreal Forest are not unaffected by the same issues that impact ecosystems and wildlife everywhere. The pace of change and development pressure quickens year by year. Woodland caribou have disappeared from much of their original southern boreal range and are in trouble across the entire range. Northern migratory tundra caribou populations have plummeted from being super abundant only a decade ago. Many boreal bird populations are in steep decline including several that are now listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act—species like Canada Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Rusty Blackbird.

But there is a major current of hope for Canada’s natural legacy sweeping through the nation.

A recent Abacus Data poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Canadian citizens want increased conservation and land protection, and 88% think the government should prioritize addressing the alarming rate of animal and plant extinctions.

The federal government is listening. Canada committed $175 million towards to supporting conservation work by Indigenous, provincial, and territorial governments and NGOs to reach a goal of protecting at least 17% of its lands by 2020 as Canada committed to in the signing of the most recent U.N. biodiversity treaty.

The brightest rays of hope are coming from Indigenous land-use planning and Indigenous protected areas proposals across the breadth of Canada’s Boreal Forest region.

The Dehcho First Nations, for instance, recently signed an agreement with Canada to establish the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area. It conserves 14,000 square kilometres—over twice the size of Banff National Park—of boreal forest, headwater lakes and caribou grounds west of Yellowknife. Dozens of other Indigenous Nations are proposing similar protected areas.

These efforts have been and will be among the world’s largest and most significant conservation actions for protecting and maintaining the biodiversity features and ecosystem services that have disappeared or been greatly impaired across much of our world.

In the face of the dire findings in the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, may the examples of Indigenous governments and communities working to protect their lands—including across Canada’s Boreal Forest biome—provide a bright beacon illuminating a path of hope for the future to all the world. And may we all find ways to come alongside them and support their efforts.

Photo: Ron Thiessen