July 23, 2007

Foothills mapping survey indicates inadequate protection of biodiversity

A mapping study of the Alberta Foothills, intended to delineate endangered forests and other areas of high conservation value, has revealed sections of this region with conservation values of national or even global or national significance. Researchers from the Conservation Biology Institute, in Corvallis, Oregon say the highest-scoring areas should be considered as candidates for an expanded network of protected areas for the ecoregion. They suggest an initial target of 16% as the land area set aside, including existing and new protected areas. In addition to new protected areas, landscape connectivity along waterways and over land should remain as an important consideration in an overall regional conservation strategy, the study adds.

The researchers warn that failure to act will result in numerous species extirpations and significant loss of overall ecological integrity, including the degradation of several important ecosystem services.

The study used advanced, computer-based mapping programs, combining Neatweaver(r), EMDS(r), and ArcMap(r), to evaluate the current state of biodiversity in the Alberta Foothills. Noting that protected areas are considered one of the main pillars of biodiversity conservation, the study found that only 1.2% of the Alberta Foothills is currently protected, an amount it calls inadequate by any scientific standard.

The results of the mapping study indicate that approximately 82% of the Foothills region is taken up by logging tenures and much of this same area is subjected to intensive oil and gas development. There are more than 36,000 wells in the area, along with numerous pipelines and thousands of kilometres of seismic exploration.

Change detection analysis has shown that nearly 9% of the ecoregion (approximately 640,000 hectares) has been altered by activities visible from space since 1990 and much of this has been either by a growing network of oil and gas infrastructure or as clusters of clearcut logging. The impact on some species (e.g. woodland caribou) covers an even greater area.

Consequently, says the study, the Alberta Foothills no longer possesses large intact forest landscapes (defined as undisturbed blocks of more than 50,000 hectares (ha) in size). Rather, about one-third of the region consists of smaller forest remnants (over 2,100 ha, with mean size of 1,500 ha). These remnants form the natural backbone of the region and offer a major building block for protecting the many ecological values identified in the region.

Biodiversity values evaluated in the endangered forest mapping included: (1) rare forest types (old-growth and less fragmented forests); (2) locations of rare and endangered species and their special habitats; (3) woodland caribou; (4) grizzly bear; (5) freshwater species such as bull trout and arctic grayling; and (6) forest and water-dependent bird species. Many of these values are being seriously degraded and some threatened with local extinction.

Moreover, adds the study, as much as 75% of the natural variability present in the Alberta Foothills (measured as enduring features) is not adequately represented in a network of protected areas.

That said, however, an expanded protected area network alone will not be enough to maintain the conservation values present in the region today. New protected areas should be established strategically in the context of a region under dramatic pressure from development and extractive use. Management and even restoration in some areas should also be considered in an overall plan to achieve ecological sustainability.

Overall, about 12% of Alberta's entire land base is set aside as protected area. National parks make up 8% of this total, with the remaining 4% comprising provincial parks and designated protected areas. Alberta Environment is in the process of developing a land use framework aimed at balancing the competing demands of rapid urban growth and industrial development with the need to preserve the province's wealth of biodiversity and ensure its sustainability.

One of the purposes of the study was to test the application of various computer mapping programs to the evaluation of high conservation-value and endangered forests. In addition to the data produced, the study concluded that the combination of programs used provides a powerful set of decision support planning tools capable of addressing this issue in other regions as well as the Foothills.

This region is also home to one of the largest in Canada's Model Forest network, an "on-the-ground" laboratory for implementing sustainable forest management practices.

The Conservation Biology Institute works to conserve biological diversity in its natural state through collaborative applied research, education, planning, and community service. More information is available from the Institute, 541/757-0687, FAX 541/752-0518, Web site www.consbio.org.

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