BY PETER EWART
Special to the Daily News
Megan Leslie, president of the World Wildlife Fund – Canada (WWF-C), says that wildlife populations are plummeting at an alarming rate around the world, including in Canada.
Leslie, former deputy leader of the federal NDP, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of a forum organized in Prince George on January 19-20 by UNBC’s Cumulative Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC) with the support of the ECHO Network (Environment, Community, Health Observatory) and PICS (Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions). About 175 people attended.
Leslie opened the session by talking about the WWF’s Living Planet 2016 Report. The findings of this report show that wildlife populations across the world have declined by 58 per cent since 1970. According to Leslie, if we continue this trajectory, numbers will have declined by 67 per cent in 2020. In other words, we are facing a two-thirds decline of wildlife populations on the planet.
How is Canada doing? Leslie says that there is an expectation that Canada with such a vast land and huge expanses of water must be doing better. But WWF-C conducted its own wildlife survey of 903 species in Canada and found surprising results. At first glance, the situation does not look too bad, i.e. the overall decline has been about eight per cent since 1970. However, when these figures are dug into, it is cause for concern because certain species such as ducks and other waterfowl have actually risen in total numbers, thus masking the true state of the decline of other species.
Leslie points out the actual figures are shocking, with 50 per cent of species in Canada in decline. For example, grassland birds are down 69 per cent; shore birds – 43 per cent; amphibians – 34 per cent; and fish – 20 per cent.
She says that these figures have caused WWF-C to look at conservation differently. One thing is clear – the stressors and threats to wildlife populations are getting more complicated and difficult to deal with. For example, individual stressors are combining into cumulative impacts that magnify the overall stressors on wildlife species. In addition, cascading effects are being created, whereby a decline in one species creates stress on others in terms of the food chain, etc.
Stressors in Canada include habitat loss because of forestry, agriculture, urbanization and industrial development. Climate change in Canada is happening at almost double the global rate and is having a significant effect on wildlife. In addition, there is increased pollution, pesticides, sewage, plastic waste, shipping traffic, unsustainable harvests of fish, and the spread of invasive species.
In the past, problems could sometimes be solved by removing an individual stressor such as the pesticide DDT which was harming peregrine falcon populations. However, today, wildlife species often face multiple stressors, many of which are difficult to rectify.
For example, she cites the case of right whale deaths. Many of these deaths are being caused by ship strikes or net entanglements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Solutions include having the ships slow down and designing safer nets. But the problem is larger. It is also about the changing climate, as right whales should not be in the Gulf at this time of year but rather in the Bay of Fundy and off the coast of Nova Scotia. Changes in water temperature have affected the location of zooplankton populations which the right whales traditionally feed upon.
British Columbians, of course, are familiar with the kinds of problem that Leslie discussed. Over the past few years, pine beetles have destroyed a large part of the pine forest in the Interior. On one level, yes, the infestation is caused by the pine beetle. But other factors that have exacerbated the problem include the warming climate, along with the planting of monocultures and forest fire suppression creating host material for the beetles.
In the face of the challenges of cumulative impacts and climate change, Leslie says that the conservation movement is changing and adapting, and that this is crucial for moving ahead. One of the interesting things that has happened as a result of the shocking statistics on wildlife decline in Canada is that it has further united WWF-C personnel and made them even more passionate to find solutions to the pressing problems facing wildlife conservation in the country.
Some of the WWF-C’s ongoing projects include the development of a Skeena Cumulative Effects Assessment Tool which provides a guide for community leaders and decision-makers to plan for and manage development to ensure the future of the Skeena eco-system for the benefit of the wildlife and human beings who live in the region. The large Skeena estuary is undergoing dramatic changes in terms of industrial development, rail, pipelines, shipping, tourism and other factors which will have a unprecedented cumulative effect. If not managed properly, this could put both the estuary and the region’s various natural resources at risk.
The WWF-C is also providing input into the Nunavut Land Use Plan that will set the course for conservation and economic development in that vast region. Leslie emphasized that industrial development such as mining is important for the economic development of Nunavut, but that careful land use planning is necessary to lessen impacts on migrating species like caribou. In addition, any development must be viewed in the whole picture of cumulative impacts on the region including rapid climate change, arctic shipping and other factors. In tackling these problems, the wealth of traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples is critical and needs to be combined with modern science.
Leslie concluded her presentation by telling the audience that “you are demonstrating the possible,” and that conservation work in the future will require “all hands on deck.”