Lori Labatt

A wilderness nation launches a conservation comeback

Canada is back in the game in the global fight for wildlife. On February 27, the Canadian government announced it will invest an unprecedented $1.3 billion dollars over five years to protect vast areas of the nation’s wild lands and to tackle the calamity of life’s dwindling diversity.

This new investment could set in motion one of the greatest conservation pushes in Canadian history, and it marks our country’s welcome return as a conservation champion after a quarter of a century of relative neglect.

Having led a broad coalition of environmental NGOs in advocating for this federal funding, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and our partners celebrated its announcement as a potential “game-changer” for conservation.

Canada – a land renowned for its spectacular wild nature – is far from immune from the global biodiversity crisis. Half of Canada’s monitored wildlife species are in decline, and these populations have plummeted by a shocking 83% on average since 1970. More than 700 Canadian species are at risk of extinction according to the nation’s expert panel on endangered wildlife. Like elsewhere in the world, habitat loss is the primary problem, with industrial and other development pressures continuing to chip away relentlessly at our wilderness landscapes year after year.

Twenty-five years ago, Canada was the first industrialized nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to tackle the worldwide crisis. We’re the permanent host of the Convention’s international secretariat in Montreal and, along with almost 200 other signatory countries, in 2010 we pledged to protect at least 17 percent of lands and 10 percent of marine areas and to improve the quality of our protected area networks by 2020. 

But Canada -- despite being stewards of a fifth of the planet’s wild forests, a quarter of its wetlands and a third of its coastline -- has fallen way behind in protecting our wilderness spaces: Our country currently protects less of its land-base than all but three of the other 34 OECD nations. 

Large, connected networks of protected wilderness offer the best hope for vanishing wildlife because they allow wild animals and plants to move unimpeded through the landscape, and to seek refuge from changing climatic conditions.  In Canada, many iconic, rare and threatened animals depend on large undisturbed wilderness, including caribou, whooping cranes, bison and grizzly bears. 

This week’s ambitious $1.3 Billion investment signals a renewed Canadian commitment to meet and exceed our international protected areas promise. To get there Canada will need to add more Canadian parks and protected lands to our system (a total area almost the size of Texas) than has ever been attempted over such a short period. Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch: there are many protected area proposals across the country that, if completed, will take us a long way towards the 2020 goal.

Success will depend on partnerships. In Canada, 90 percent of land is public, and most is managed by provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments. The plan aims to leverage additional investment to support action by all government and non-government partners who can help deliver on Canada’s conservation commitments.

Recognizing the leadership of Indigenous peoples is particularly important. Across Canada Indigenous governments are identifying significant areas of their traditional territories for protection to safeguard cultural practices that depend on the health of the land. From the rugged wilds of the Yukon’s Peel River watershed, to the boreal woodlands of northern Ontario’s French River, and beyond, Indigenous peoples are leading efforts to establish and co-manage large protected areas as part of landscape scale planning initiatives. Support for these efforts needs to be a core part of the spending plan.

Time is tight—just under three years—but Canada’s investment provides new hope. From a recent conservation laggard, our country has the potential to be a global leader again—by meeting the 2020 promise and looking beyond to plan for the much larger-scale protection needed to safeguard our country’s wild spaces and wildlife in the decades to come.