This article as it was published in the Georgia Straight on December 8th, 2015
North America’s Pacific Northwest is world-renowned for its biodiversity and its system of parks and protected areas. However, as development and industry rapidly encroach into B.C.’s wilderness areas, we are faced with an urgent question: do our protected areas achieve successful biological conservation?
Alarmingly, the answer is no.
B.C. has traditionally approached conservation by protecting bits and pieces of the landscape without providing for connectivity between them. As a result, critical habitat corridors have been fragmented by highways, development, and disruptive industrial activities like logging.
For large mammals, the longevity and integrity of their populations depends not just on protected habitat areas, but on the ability to move freely between habitat areas.
One look at the GPS collar movements of a wolverine in the southern Rockies, and one can see that it doesn’t stay in one watershed, but can travel more than 30 kilometers per day. A male wolverine’s home range is often over 1,500 square kilometers.
Grizzly bears living in the Yellowstone National Park, for example, could become genetically isolated without a corridor through the Flathead Valley and Elk Valley regions for them to access northern populations of grizzlies in the Canadian Rockies and further north.
Preserving landscapes and protecting areas with a connectivity lens is a means to make sure that protected areas do not become shrinking islands of obsolete wildlife habitat. In the southern Rockies, connectivity can be ensured by protecting the Flathead River Valley and connecting it to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Furthermore, species like grizzly bears can be understood as umbrella species, whereby if we manage the landscape to keep grizzlies present, up to 80 percent of the natural composition of animal species on the landscape can also persist. If we can keep grizzlies on the land, then we can keep a myriad of other species as well.
Climate change brings the need for connectivity to a new level as not just wandering animals but entire ecosystems now need migration corridors; moving north and to higher elevations.
Scientific modelling predicts that by 2080, ecological zones will shift 900 to 1,500 metres up in elevation and 450 to 750 kilometers north. We are already seeing species expanding their ranges northward or upwards in elevation, and adjusting migration, breeding, or flowering times in response to warming.
As ecological zones shift, connectivity between protected areas offer species migration routes, allowing them the access to diversity in the landscape, raising the likelihood of successful adaptation.
Providing for connectivity across the landscape requires both increasing protection for relatively intact areas and in some cases restoring areas that have been impacted by development and industrial activity.
One method for planning for connectivity in a changing climate is back casting. Scientists model the future ecological zones; then in order to plan, they cast backwards to today’s landscape.
For species or ecosystems to survive, you can then try to map how a species might travel towards the new ecological zone, and plan whether human intervention will be needed.
This is not an exact science, but it is a direction for us to move in.
On Vancouver Island, we manage areas in bits and pieces instead of taking a larger context for ecological management. Consider the Sitka spruce, which ranges from Alaska’s Kodiak Island to northern California. Spruce forest regions provide the optimal conditions for the most important salmon runs in the world.
The health of each species is dependent on each other. The forest provides cool waters needed by both young salmon and returning adults. In return, spawning salmon swim up rivers, feeding not only a host of animals, from bears and wolves, to otters, eagles, ravens and insects, but also leaving nutrients in the soil that feed the trees.
Extensive logging of old-growth Sitka spruce on Vancouver Island also compromises this important keystone species and thus the entire north Pacific ecology.
It is time for a comprehensive connectivity strategy which is managed with large carnivores in mind and brings an end to unsustainable practices like old growth logging on Vancouver Island.
The climate is changing and ecosystems are in flux. We need conservation policies that acknowledge that change and provide the connectivity needed for success.
Mark Worthing is an activist, naturalist, and freelance journalist with an affinity for the wilder landscapes of British Columbia. Currently Sierra Club B.C.’s Forests & Biodiversity Campaigner, Worthing has worked with Greenpeace and Salmon Are Sacred and was a founding member of Tanker Free B.C.