|The Nature Nation E-Newsletter
Picture Canada’s tremendous landmass – all 10 million square kilometres of it! Throughout this nearly endless expanse of territory, changes are constantly afoot that affect critical habitat for Canada’s endangered species. But these changes are not always easy to spot.
For Canada’s small team of wildlife officers, tracking the health of wilderness habitat within Environment Canada’s system of protected areas – mainly national wildlife areas and migratory birds sanctuaries – is a daunting challenge. These sites cover an area more than twice the size of Nova Scotia. Many are in remote locations. And there are only about 58 wildlife officers in the field, leaving one officer available for every 2,034 square kilometers of land.
“It’s a huge task to ensure that wildlife laws are being respected, and that critical habitat upon which Canada’s endangered plant and animal species depend is protected,” said Mara Kerry, Nature Canada’s director of conservation. “There is an urgent need for new tools to monitor wildlife habitat in this country.” (cont'd below)
Look up, waaay up
There is a new monitoring tool being tested today, and it comes from above. Using the Canadian Space Agency’s Earth-observation technologies – space-based satellites, in other words -- governments, industry and conservation groups like Nature Canada can monitor changes in the availability and quality of wildlife habitat in Canada. Spearheaded by Environment Canada, this initiative, called the Space for Habitat project, is developing a national system for monitoring and conserving wildlife habitat in Canada. Nature Canada is a partner in the project.
“We know that about eighty percent of wildlife species declines are due mainly to habitat loss and degradation in some way,” said Kerry. “So it’s important to know when a forest ecosystem is disappearing or a marshland is drying up. These can sometimes be difficult to see happening from the ground.”
Satellite images can show exactly what is happening to wildlife habitat – pinpointing those areas where, for example, illegal grazing is destroying prairie vegetation within protected areas, so officers can act to remedy the situation.
Nature Canada is the NGO representative in the Space for Habitat project’s technical working group. Nature Canada conservation experts attend the group’s regular meetings, providing advice on what to look for and where to look.
For the Birds
For instance, the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories is part of a globally significant breeding and staging ground for a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds. It is also the site of ten confirmed natural gas fields.
Specifically, the images will show observers the roads, compression stations and other structures being built within the sanctuary, and the areas where vegetation is being cleared for oil and gas development.
The Space for Habitat project has particular implications for migratory birds. Urban expansion, forestry, mining and other activities can result in the inadvertent killing or harming of migratory birds. It can also lead to the destruction of their nests and eggs. The cumulative impact of this “incidental take” can have serious consequences for the long-term maintenance of migratory bird populations.
New regulations are being developed under the Migratory Birds Convention Act to address incidental take. However, Canada’s vast area and the wide range of activities involving incidental take make conventional methods of compliance monitoring such as officer inspections too costly and impractical.
The Space for Habitat project’s satellite technologies will provide a new tool for protecting migratory birds, their nests and eggs. For example, satellite images can reveal changes in the habitat of priority bird species in Ontario’s boreal forest, such as fragmentation. Such changes warn us that birds like the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher may be losing their homes and nests due to forestry activities.
Habitat loss and degradation are primary causes of species decline in Canada. By showing us where human activity is destroying wildlife habitat, the Space for Habitat project could help us reverse this decline and ensure that Canada’s wildlife is maintained for the enjoyment of future generations.
“The Space for Habitat project represents a critical step forward for conservation in Canada,” said Kerry.