Biodiversity

Biodiversity (or biological diversity) refers to the variety of all animals, plants and microorganisms interacting in all types of environments found on the planet.

The threat to biodiversity is one of the most important global environmental concerns, as it reflects the health of our land and water ecosystems.

The Alberta and federal governments are committed to conserving biodiversity, which takes three forms:

  • Genetic diversity: the variety of genetic material in all living things, that results in the vast range of organisms on earth.
  • Species diversity: the variety of species on earth.
  • Ecosystem diversity: the different kinds of living communities and the environments in which they occur.

Alberta's complex ecology contains six natural regions, from grasslands in the south to boreal forest in the north. Interaction of landforms, climate and geology in each region has resulted in a rich diversity of landscapes, supporting a wide range of plant, animal and microbial life.

Provision of Services

Ecosystems provide our air, water, food and shelter. Biodiversity is responsible for: building the soil in which we grow crops; generating oxygen and moisture; climate regulation; nutrient cycling; air and water purification and disposal of wastes. Our present knowledge of the structure and function of ecosystems is poor, so we need to keep whole ecosystems intact. No matter how insignificant, all parts of an ecosystem are important.

Economic Value

Protecting biodiversity is an investment in our future. Plants, animals and microorganisms provide food, medicines, fuel,
building materials, industrial products, tourism and recreation opportunities and social, cultural and spiritual benefits.

Some 7,000 species are used for food and food production. Fewer than 20 plant species make up about 80 per cent of the world's food supply. Many of our medicines originally came from wild plant and animal species: Aspirin, from a substance found in willow bark; the drug digitalis (to treat heart disease) is derived from the wild foxglove; insulin comes from cattle and hogs and the yew tree in British Columbia is a source of taxol, an anti-cancer agent.

Ecotourism is becoming an important part of our economy. Alberta's rich diversity of landscapes and interesting birds, plants and animals attract millions of visitors annually to hike, bike, boat, hunt and fish.

Current Status of Biodiversity

Global

Species extinction has occurred at a pace 50 to 100 times the natural rate since the year 1600.

Canada

Protection of threatened and endangered species is a priority issue. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada says there are currently 431 Canadian plant and animal species at risk and 12 that are extinct. Most invertebrates, micro-organisms, and lower plants have not yet been evaluated to determine their status.

The Endangered Species Recovery Fund, a joint initiative of Environment Canada and World Wildlife Fund (Canada) sponsors conservation projects to recover species at risk. This fund is available to non-government organizations such as universities, natural history societies, research institutes and non-profit conservation groups. The Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk allocates up to $10 million annually to projects.

Alberta

For more information on endangered and threatened animal species in Alberta, see:

Monitoring in Canada

The Canadian Biodiversity Strategy requires jurisdictions to report periodically on the status of biodiversity. There is a plan to improve this reporting, one part of which is development of a Canadian Biodiversity Index. Wild Species 2000: The General Status of Species in Canada is the first in a series of five-year Canada-wide reports describing specific aspects of biodiversity.

Monitoring in Alberta

Government and industry in Alberta have made commitments to maintain biodiversity. The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Program's team of more than 20 scientists will survey a broad diversity of living organisms, habitat structures, vegetation communities and landscape patterns.

Threats to Biodiversity

Natural Disturbances

Wildfire and insect infestations can threaten biodiversity. Ecosystems can however adapt to, and often depend on, natural disturbance. This is not the case with human interaction. Agriculture, urbanization, industrial development and forestry activities continually affect Alberta's landscape and natural habitat. This interaction is a potential threat to biodiversity.

Land Use Change and Fragmentation

Agriculture and timber harvesting change the natural biodiversity. Cultivation planting substitutes domesticated crops for natural species. Timber harvesting and reforestation result in the removal of older trees and the planting and establishment of younger trees with minimal species variety.

To maintain overall diversity, a natural range of successional stages across the landscape is desirable.

Pollution

Polluting substances are released through sewage, run-off and from industrial emissions. Some forms of pollution stimulate growth in selected organisms, but this changes the natural balance of ecosystems. Wastes like salts, heavy metals and acids inhibit growth and decrease natural diversity. Pesticides applied to target species can also kill or harm other species.

Invasive Exotic Species

An exotic species has been introduced either by accident or deliberately (for landscaping, pest control, sport, as pets or for food processing). Exotic species often displace native plants and wildlife, reducing the capacity of ecosystems to provide essential services. Examples of invasive species include dandelions, gypsy moth, house sparrows and Dutch elm disease.

Global Warming

Results of global climatic change will affect Alberta's biodiversity in ways that are not well understood. Maintenance of diverse natural landscapes will enable colonization of new climatic niches by species adapted to the new conditions.

Biodiversity Conservation

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in 1992 and has since been ratified by more than 110 members states including Canada.

In 1995, Canada's Biodiversity Convention Office produced a Canadian Biodiversity Strategy whose vision is:

"A society that lives and develops as a part of nature, valuing all life, taking no more than nature can replenish and leaving to future generations a nurturing and dynamic world, rich in its diversity of life."

Protecting Alberta's Biodiversity

Within certain limits, changes in the population patterns of plant and animal life are normal . Management activities must recognize this and attempt to mimic this natural range of variability.

Managing Public Land and Water

Public land covers about 60 per cent of Alberta and activities on it, such as forestry, mineral extraction, and agriculture can influence biodiversity. Conserving biodiversity requires land and water management planning that considers biodiversity and land use zoning and designation of protected areas to protect critical wildlife habitats and unique or representative ecosystems.

Managing Habitat

The Alberta government is working with private landowners to protect habitat on private land. The Cows and Fish program encourages ranchers to manage cattle around streams and rivers and helps them to assess the health of river bank areas.

Managing Species

In Alberta, the Wildlife Act and the Policy for Management of Threatened Wildlife in Alberta provide protection to endangered species, making it illegal to harvest or harass these animals. Alberta Environment and Parks is involved with several programs similar to the Alberta Wildlife Status Reports.

The federal Species at Risk Act, (2003) seeks to prevent endangered or threatened wildlife from becoming extinct or lost from the wild, and to help in the recovery of these species. More than 230 species have already been listed under the Act.

Private Initiatives

Examples include enhancement of wetlands for waterfowl habitat (Ducks Unlimited Canada); river bank habitat protection and enhancement (Trout Unlimited); restoration and enhancement of natural habitats (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) and habitat conservation and protection (Alberta Fish and Game Association).

Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act was revised in 1996 to allow for conservation easements on private land.

 

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Updated: Aug 28, 2015