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Protecting Wetlands and Waterfowl in the Canadian Prairies
|By: Esther Rai (Science and Technology Liaison)|
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Wetland alteration and degradation in the Canadian Prairies continues to pose risks to biodiversity and disrupt breeding habitat for wetland birds, reducing reproductive success and negatively affecting populations.
Wetlands are important for biodiversity: they provide habitat and food for a disproportionately high number of species. Prairie wetlands in particular serve as vital habitats for migratory bird populations, species that are economically and culturally important for many Canadians.
Since many wetlands are on private property, conservation initiatives require close collaboration between research and conservation communities, and the support of landowners, to achieve success.
Seeking Solutions Through S&T
Environment Canada researchers work with several Canadian universities and private agencies to investigate the impacts of agriculture on prairie wetlands and wildlife, and recommend priority conservation activities. This allows resource managers to focus limited resources on programs and places that have the greatest potential to achieve goals.
A study with the University of Saskatchewan assessed the effects of agricultural practices over two decades on approximately 10,500 prairie wetlands. More than 90 percent had visible impacts combined with low recovery rates--demonstrating that existing conservation measures were not providing adequate protection.
Researchers recommended that as well as the protection of pristine wetlands, shallow, ephemeral, and seasonal wetlands be given conservation priority because they are most at-risk. Further, restoration efforts should also focus on vulnerable wetlands in cultivated and pasture lands.
Investigating how wildlife fared in this altered environment identified deficiencies and highlighted potential solutions. Collaborative work with the University of British Columbia and the University of Guelph revealed that the expansion of cropland since the 1930s was reducing nest success for several duck species, such as the mallard and northern pintail. Greater cropland brought destruction from tillage and seeding operations, and an increased risk from predators that were more efficient at foraging in the smaller areas of natural habitat.
After documenting improved nest success in the United States following the 1985 Farm Bill, researchers concluded that large-scale conversion of farmland to perennial cover, such as pasture, hay, and forage crops, would provide better nesting habitat for waterfowl. Additionally, nest success was positively correlated with wetland density, suggesting conservation efforts would be most effective if they jointly targeted agricultural practices and wetland protection. They noted that the Bill’s associated financial incentives were important to encourage this shift.
Other studies demonstrated additional ecosystem benefits to wetland restoration. Augmenting small wetland basins and margins with permanent vegetation would sequester the greatest amount of carbon with the least loss of farmland. Research suggested that wide-scale restoration of wetlands would help offset the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the near term, an important factor to mitigate climate change.
Complementary studies showed that modifying traditional farming practices and land-use may offer relatively practical and inexpensive solutions. Research with the University of Saskatchewan demonstrated that farms implementing agricultural best practices, including reduction or elimination of pesticides, minimizing the frequency of tillage, and restoring degraded sites, supported larger bird communities composed of more species. These agricultural practices offered promise for striking a balance between maintaining agricultural productivity and protecting local wildlife.
Impact on Decision Making
This work helped inform and shape a coordinated management approach to restore and protect wetlands in the Canadian Prairies. Research identified feasible and effective avenues for conservation, ensuring resources were directed to high-priority areas. Such research supports conservation program delivery, identifies costs and benefits of various management decisions, informs policy, and helps to position management actions within ecological boundaries.
The Prairie Habitat Joint Venture (PHJV) has frequently used this science to adjust its suite of programs, delivery methods and policy targets. The PHJV is a partnership among governments, not-for-proﬁt organizations, educational institutions, and landowners that works to protect wetlands and associated species through land title transfer or long-term agreements with landowners. The organization has secured over two million hectares of prairie landscape, supporting an average of 11 duck pairs per square kilometre. It is one of several joint ventures under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a tri-national partnership among Canada, the United States and Mexico that aims to conserve the continent’s migratory bird populations.
Benefits to Canadians
The importance of agriculture to the prairie economy is widely recognized. Landowners and farmers active in stewardship and agricultural best practices can benefit from financial incentives and ensure their lands are able to function more productively in the long-term.
The coordinated approach to managing wetland conservation fosters valuable partnerships that bolster solidarity and social ties in prairie communities and generate significant efficiencies by pooling resources and efforts. PHJV partners have worked together to secure $641 million for local programs. Research collaborations have also generated mutual gains in resources, knowledge, and personnel for wetland science, while developing and honing expertise for the next generation of scientists.
A return to healthy waterfowl population levels supports tourism and hunting industries, and other sectors with cultural and economic ties to birds. Conservation efforts will also enhance ecosystem services that birds provide, such as insect control and pollination.
Wetland restoration increases carbon sequestration, which reduces Canada’s global carbon footprint and helps mitigate the accumulation of greenhouse gases, another long-term benefit to Canadians.
All Canadians benefit from healthy and resilient ecosystems. Prairie wetland conservation increases the restoration of natural systems in the region, and can maintain the ecosystem’s ability to provide the ecological services on which all Canadians depend.
For More Information
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: The Agriculture and Agri-Food System and the Canadian Economy – GDP and Employment
- Badiou, P., R. McDougal, D. Pennock and R.G. Clark. 2011. Greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration potential in restored wetlands of the Canadian prairie pothole region. Wetlands Ecology and Management online DOI 10.1007/s11273-011-9214-6.
- Bartzen, B.A., K.W. Dufour, R.G. Clark and F.D. Caswell. 2010. Trends in agricultural impact and recovery of wetlands in prairie Canada. Ecological Applications 20(2): 525-538.
- Bedard-Haughn, A., F. Jongbloed, J. Akkerman, A. Uijl, E. de Jong, T. Yates and D. Pennock. 2006. The effects of erosional and management history on soil organic carbon stores in ephemeral wetlands of hummocky agricultural landscapes. Geoderma 135: 296-306.
- Drever, M.C., T.D. Nudds and R.G. Clark. 2007. Agricultural policy and nest success of Prairie ducks in Canada and the United States. Avian Conservation and Ecology 2(2): 5 [online].
- Prairie Habitat Joint Venture
- North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP): What is NAWMP?
- Shutler, D., A. Mullie and R.G. Clark. 2000. Bird communities of Prairie uplands and wetlands in relation to farming practices in Saskatchewan. Conservation Biology14(5): 1441-1451.
- Watmough, M.D. and M.J. Schmoll. 2007. Environment Canada’s Prairie and Northern Region Habitat Monitoring Program Phase II: Recent habitat trends in the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture. Technical Report Series No. 493. Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, Alberta Canada.
S&T Liaison | Tel 905 315 5228 | Fax 905 336 4420 | www.ec.gc.ca/scitech/S&Tintoaction
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Environment, 2011.
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