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Study finds huge swath of Southwestern Ontario a 'crisis ecoregion'

·5 min read

Decades of intensive farming and population growth have turned a huge swath of Southwestern Ontario into one of the country’s “crisis ecoregions,” a national conservation group warns.

Lake Erie's north shore, extending hundreds of kilometres from Windsor to Brantford, is flagged in a massive new study by the Nature Conservancy of Canada as one of nine regions of Canada whose bio-diversity is most in need of protection.

The southernmost part of Canada, with rare plants and wildlife more like that found in more temperate areas of the United States, Southwestern Ontario stands out for its diversity in ways few areas of Canada, with harsher climates, do.

But intensive farming in the region and growing cities have combined to erode the region's natural areas and shrunk habitats for already at-risk wildlife, the study found.

“Southwestern Ontario is one of the most important regions for protecting endangered species in Canada,” said Daniel Kraus, one of the study's authors and a senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy.

In the study, a first of its kind trying to stem the loss of bio-diversity, the organization took a comprehensive look at 77 regions in southern Canada to assess their needs to help protect nature amid habitat loss and climate change.

Nine areas, the Lake Erie zone among them, were identified as crisis ecoregions, where wildlife and habitat are the most diverse but also under the greatest threat.

Other areas pinpointed include the Manitoulin Island-Lake Simcoe area, the eastern part of Vancouver Island, the St. Lawrence River valley and forested and grassland areas of the Prairie provinces.

While Canadians may think of other areas of the globe when they think of climate change and other threats to nature, the study — especially after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people turned to nature for escape — should be a wake-up call, the Nature Conservancy says.

“Canadians are often really aware of things like the plight of the Amazon . . . (and other) international conservation issues,” Kraus said. “(But) there are species and ecosystems that are as endangered and threatened as anything else on the planet right in our backyard.”

An area the group calls the Lake Erie lowlands, essentially Lake Erie's north shore — taking in Windsor, London, Chatham, Sarnia, Brantford, Hamilton and Toronto — ranked high in that analysis for both at-risk wildlife and threats to natural areas.

The region is home to 138 at-risk species of wildlife, 36 species of plants and animals considered rare globally and one plant — called Hooker's bugseed — believed to be found almost nowhere else, the study found.

The at-risk species include some you may not know, for example, the prothonotary warbler, a small songbird. Others include a minnow called the redside dace that leaps from the water to eat insects, and the eastern ratsnake.

While it accounts for only a fraction of Canada's landmass, the Erie area of Southwestern Ontario, part of which is known as Canada's Carolinian zone, has a greater variety of plants and animals than any other ecosystem in the country, with 70 different species of trees alone, according to Carolinian Canada, a coalition of naturalists.

You can chalk up that diversity, much of it on display in provincial parks and other protected areas, to geography and a relatively mild climate.

But the Nature Conservancy study found much of the area that makes Southwestern Ontario stand out is also one of the most altered regions in Canada, with only 14 per cent natural land cover left in the area and few large, intact blocks of natural habitat.

The group cites "agricultural intensification over the last 30 years" as a factor in that decline, but decades of urban growth also have contributed to the loss of forests. Agricultural and urban areas account for two-thirds of the ecoregion’s land use, the group found.

Much of the land left in need of protection is privately owned, Kraus said.

Some Southwestern Ontario naturalists said more needs to be done to save the region's ecological jewels.

“You’re talking about a stewardship role that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to play,” said Gordon Neish, president of Nature London and the McIlwraith Field Naturalists. He called the study's findings "spot on," saying the area needs more protected land.

"I've been at this for 50 years," said Paul Pratt, president of the Essex County Field Naturalists' Club, who wasn't surprised by the study's findings.

"I see things continuing to decline, just because of the heavy threat that’s upon the landscape,” he said. “We have made some progress in some areas . . . but it’s still far short of what’s needed to just protect what’s left, let alone restore things back to the way they used to be.”

Kraus said there are some positives amid the “doom and gloom" including that habitat loss in Ontario has slowed from historically high rates.

The nine crisis regions account for just five per cent of Canada’s total land but fall in areas where 70 per cent of the population lives, highlighting the need for their protection.

“We’re finding the places (where) we’ve lost the most nature are the places where we need nature the most,” Kraus said. “Having people in these regions, some could say that’s the problem, but ultimately it's part of the solution.”

He said the group hopes its study can help shape future policies to preserve nature.

The federal government has committed to protecting 30 per cent of Canadian land by 2030.

At the end of 2019, Canada had 12.1 per cent of its land and freshwater conserved. Only about 10 per cent of land in Ontario is protected.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press