Environment

Key Biodiversity Areas bring conservation close to home

One of the most complex challenges for nature conservation comes from a simple question: what must we save?

  • Jan 28, 2022
  • 1,075 words
  • 5 minutes
peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands
The vast peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands support healthy populations of wildlife. (Photo: TravelingOtter, CC BY 2.0)
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Picture the most important places on Earth to conserve nature. 

Even if you are Canadian, your first thoughts are probably of somewhere tropical. Asian rainforests with orangutans or African savannahs with elephants and giraffes. Or you might think of the Amazon or coral reefs.

These are all important places that should be saved. But many people in Canada are surprised to hear that we also have places here that are just as essential as rainforests or coral reefs for saving life on our planet. And some are probably closer than you think.

One of the most complex challenges for nature conservation comes from a simple question: what must we save? Often the places where nature is protected are the places that people don’t want. There’s a disproportionate area of parks and protected areas with lots of rock and ice because these aren’t the places we want to have our cities, farms and industry. But in a world that is rapidly changing we need to move beyond just protecting what we can and begin protecting what we must if the full diversity of nature is to be passed on to future generations.

But before we conserve the most important places, we need to know where they are. We need a map to guide our conservation efforts. Right now, this map doesn’t exist.

The Northern Boreal Mountains of northern B.C. and Yukon are home to forest and mountain predators like the gray wolf, wolverine, Canada lynx, and grizzly bear. (Photo: USFWS Endangered Species, CC BY 2.0)
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We do know about some of these important places. Almost 600 Important Bird Areas were identified in Canada between 1996 and 2001 and criteria for identifying Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas were first introduced in 2008. There have also been efforts to identify important areas for plants, reptiles, and migratory mammals, and we’ve mapped critical habitat for some species that are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. But many blank spots on our conservation map remain. 

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature released a global standard for identifying Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). KBAs are the most important places in the world for wildlife and their habitats. The standard provides criteria on how to identify KBAs that include threatened species, intact ecosystems and important migratory stopover sites. 

These criteria were developed by scientists from around the world, including Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. Canada was then one of the first countries to begin to identify KBAs that meet the global standard and to develop a national KBA standard. The KBA Canada Coalition of conservation organizations, academic institutions, experts, Indigenous groups and governments is now actively working across most Canada to identify and map these important places.

The results for KBAs are just starting to come in, but there are two important findings that you should know:

The first is that northern Canada has some of the last true wild places left on the planet. Unlike other countries that struggle to find even remnants of intact ecosystems, we will have the challenge of choosing which large and intact ecosystems should be mapped as KBAs in our northern boreal and Arctic. These large, connected ecosystems still support healthy populations of wildlife, and include places like the vast peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands and the mountains of northern B.C. and Yukon. We have a globally unique opportunity to work with Indigenous Peoples in protecting these still wild places.

The second important finding is that there are KBAs for threatened species and ecosystems, and significant stopover sites for migratory animals, across southern Canada. Some of these are even in our largest cities, like the Fraser River delta in Vancouver and the globally rare oak savannah ecosystems you can find in Windsor. I’ve learned that near my home just outside of Guelph, you can find one of Canada’s largest populations of the nationally imperiled eastern green violet. If I drive to the shore of Lake Ontario in nearby Burlington, I can see globally significant winter aggregations of long-tailed ducks. Nature close to home. Nature that is critical for conserving biodiversity in Canada and for the planet.

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Burlington, on the shore of Lake Ontario, hosts globally significant winter aggregations of long-tailed ducks. (Photo: Wolfgang Wanderm, CC BY-SA 3.0)
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Outside of Guelph, Ont., you can find one of Canada’s largest populations of the nationally-imperiled eastern green violet. (Baxter Naday/iNaturalist)
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KBAs are not protected areas. They are simply a way to identify places that deserve greater attention and care in whatever form that takes. Some KBAs already have a long history of conservation from private landowners or as formally protected areas. They may also have benefited from thousands of years of Indigenous stewardship. Other KBAs may be at risk of being lost or degraded. Canada has made a commitment to protect 30 per cent of our lands and waters by 2030 and KBAs can help to guide where those new protected and conserved areas could be to have the biggest benefit to nature.

And KBAs are also not just of interest to conservationists. They can also guide sustainable development by providing information on areas where protecting nature should be the priority. For example, KBAs can be used to inform environmental impact assessments so that we can take steps to avoid destroying or harming these areas by incorporating this knowledge early in the planning process for mines, infrastructure, and other development. 

Almost 200 nations will meet in China this spring to update our collective global commitments to protecting nature by renewing the Convention of Biological Diversity. KBAs are a critical tool for acting on the commitments that will come out of a renewed international commitment to address the biodiversity crisis head-on.

This summer will be the official launch of the first KBAs in Canada. You’ll be able to see the KBAs that have been identified and learn about why these places are important (you can also take a sneak peek at our work to date on our KBAs In Progress dashboard). 

There are many places across our planet that need saving. But there are places here in Canada too, and probably right in your local community, where you can play a direct role in protecting an essential piece of our planet’s biodiversity. It might be a globally endangered prairie ecosystem in Alberta, some of the planet’s largest remaining intact forests in northern Ontario or plants and animals in the St. Lawrence River Valley that live nowhere else on Earth. KBAs are our opportunity to recognize these critical places and work together for their conservation.

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