"Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."
— Albert Einstein
Protect Ecosystems in Trouble
Today, entire ecosystems are at risk. There are more kinds of ecosystems in Canada than you can imagine, from tall-grass prairies and estuaries to Carolinian forests and alpine meadows. Each contains a unique collection of living things — some found nowhere else on Earth. And each ecosystem has its own unique life-supporting conditions.
Take, for example, Backus Woods, a majestic forest in southern Ontario's so-called banana belt — the Carolinian Life Zone. While it's not really balmy enough to grow bananas here, it's sufficiently warm to support plants and animals unlike those found anywhere else in the country. Some of the plants growing in Backus Woods are red mulberries, Kentucky coffee trees, black gumtrees, and tulip trees. Yellow-billed cuckoos, cerulean warblers, and red-bellied woodpeckers dwell in treetops. But, the same mild temperatures and fertile soils that attract an abundance of wildlife have also attracted the largest human populations in Canada. Ninety-five percent of the Carolinian forests have fallen to chain-saws and bulldozers. If not for the efforts of conservationists, Backus Woods might have met the same fate.
We must protect these unique ecosystems, for without a variety of spaces we can't save the incredible variety of species that live in them.
Help Save Ecosystem Hot Spots
Chances are, there's an ecosystem in crisis near you. Support imperilled ecological areas and their wildlife inhabitants by starting a public awareness campaign in your school or community. Recovery programs are under way for most of the ecosystems listed below. Contact an expert from one of these programs to explain how you can get involved.
- Sewage, airborne pollution, and invasive species threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem.
- The High Arctic is being damaged by long-range pollution, oil spills, and global warming.
- Clear-cutting and land development threaten imperilled species in British Columbia's temperate rain forests.
- Swelling human populations are encroaching on the tall-grass prairies of Manitoba and south western Ontario.
- Nova Scotia's South Shore faces intense pressure from land development and use of beaches.
- Ontario's Madawaska Highlands are under increasing pressure from tourism, logging, and land development.
- The prairie grasslands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are losing ground to cropland, highways, and urban sprawl.
- A diamond rush threatens fragile wildlife habitat, such as eskers(gravel ridges), in the Northwest Territories.
- Toxic chemicals from near and far imperil Quebec's St. Lawrence Estuary.
- Southwestern B.C.'s natural hot springs are losing ground to agriculture and urban and industrial development.
- Agricultural, urban, and industrial developments are taking their toll on New Brunswick's Upper St. John River ecosystem.
- The Aspen Parklands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are under siege by agriculturalists, foresters, recreational users, and industry.
- Most of Newfoundland's balsam-fir forests have been cut down to meet high demands for timber.
- Raw sewage is dumped into Manitoba's red River ecosystem, with devastating effects.
- Human settlements are causing the semi-arid deserts of B.C.'s Okanagan Valley to be paved.
- Fish in the James Bay region contain higher levels of mercury than anywhere else in the world.
- Logging, ranching, tourism, and fire suppression are disturbing Alberta's and Saskatchewan's fragile cypress Hills.
- Millions of kilograms of refuse are discarded in Canada's coastal waters, taking a high toll on marine life.
- B.C.'s Fraser River basin, with its beleaguered salmon fishery, is in urgent need of cleanup.
- The sedimentation of P. E. I.'s wetlands and streams due to agricultural runoff means loss of habitat for fish and waterfowl.
Take Arctic Action
The High Arctic is one of the world's last great wilderness areas. But it's a fragile ecosystem. Pollutants from all over the world — like lead, PCBs, and pesticides — end up in the region's air, soil, and water. How do they get there? As the old song goes, "The answer is blowing in the wind" — that is, in jet streams and trade winds. Snow and rain bring the contaminants down to Earth. Once released, they can take decades or even centuries to break down, especially under arctic conditions.
Here's how contaminants work their way from the bottom to the top of the marine arctic food web:
- Ice algae and plant plankton pick up contaminants from the water.
- Hordes of thumbnail-sized crustaceans known as amphipods graze on ice algae, while tiny creatures called zooplankton eat the plant plankton, absorbing contaminants as they feed.
- Amphipods attract arctic cod. Both predator and prey, the arctic cod transfers food energy — and contaminants — to belugas, narwhals, and ringed and harp seals.
- Zooplankton are food for copepods — crustaceans no bigger than a grain of rice, which then fill the bellies of bowhead whales. At this stage, contaminants may be thousands of times more concentrated than at the bottom of the food web, as they are stored in animal fat over many years.
- At the top of the arctic food web are orcas, polar bears, and people. The Arctic is polluted because the world is polluted. Arctic people are naturally upset to see their land becoming a sink for harmful chemicals rarely, if ever, used in the North. They're concerned about the effects of these chemicals on future generations of people and wildlife. You can help this vulnerable ecosystem — and yourself — enormously by undertaking a public awareness campaign.
Butterfly Hibernation House
Some butterfly and moth species migrate. Others survive the Canadian winter as eggs on host plants or as larvae or pupae on the ground. A few woodland butterfly species stay here as adults, hibernating under tree bark, in woodpiles, in sheds, or under the eaves of buildings. You can accommodate hibernating butterflies with this simple shelter:
- Start with a 1- x 8- x 34 inch board and a 1- x 6- x 30-inch board. (Lumber is sold only in imperial measures.)
- Cut the wider board into three pieces — one 10 inches long (top) and two 12 inches long (sides). Cut the narrower board into three pieces — one 8 inches long (bottom) and two 11 inches long (front and back).
- Nail strips of coarse tree bark to the inside surface of the backboard.
- Make two narrow openings (about 3/8 x 8 inches) in the front board, as shown in the illustration.
- Assemble with 4-centimetre (1.5") coated screws.
- Secure the butterfly hibernation house to a post, the side of a building, or a tree-trunk, in a shaded area.
Collect Data on Species and Spaces in Trouble
Scientists can't possibly keep track of every wildlife population across this vast country. That's why you can be a huge help to them by gathering information. The data collected from far and wide can help scientists determine which species and ecosystems are in trouble, find ways of conserving them, or prevent them from getting in trouble in the first place.
There is a wide range of biological surveys in which you can participate. For example, you might keep a record of visitors to your schoolyard bird feeder or occupants of your backyard bat house. You might even find yourself out whale watching or owl prowling. Whatever survey you participate in, you'll be looking out for the health of wildlife and Canada's ecosystems.
Join a Butterfly Survey
Moths and butterflies are important pollinators of native plants and food crops. They're also valuable indicators of ecosystem health. Pesticides and habitat loss due to land development can have detrimental effects on these delicate creatures. For example, the number of monarch butterflies, whose larvae eat milkweed, may be declining due to herbicide spraying.
Wetlands are among the key ecosystems on Earth. They provide crucial habitat for everything from ducks to dragonflies, muskrats to muskellunge. They're also extraordinarily effective at removing wastes from polluted waters. But the shocking fact is that eight million hectares of Canadian wetlands have been drained for agriculture in the last two centuries; and most wetlands in and around our cities have been paved over.
Fortunately, many threatened areas are being saved by Canadians. Here's how you can work for wetlands:
Root out purple loosestrife: Although beautiful, purple loosestrife muscles out native vegetation and ravages wetland ecosystems.
Give wetland plants a fighting chance: Wetland plants like bulrushes, water-lilies, cattails, arrowhead, pickerelweed, and alders are habitat powerhouses. They provide hiding places for fish, and nesting and resting places for birds and insects. Their seeds feed marsh birds, while their roots nourish waterfowl and stabilize the soil.
Enrich wetland vegetation by collecting seed plants from another local site with conditions similar to your own. (First obtain permission from a landowner or your municipality and seek advice from your local conservation authority.)
- Break off a root with two or three plants on it, taking care not to uproot the main bunch. You need only a few roots of each type of plant. Keep them covered with a damp cloth.
- Set the root stock in soft, silty sediment, at about the original depth.
- As these plants often float until they take root, hold them down with forked dead branches.
- In a couple of years, your plants will provide vital wetland habitat.
Install artificial nesting structures: Nesting baskets will give mallards and pintails somewhere to raise their young. Nesting boxes are popular with wood ducks, mergansers, and goldeneyes. Ospreys, herons, and eagles make good use of nesting platforms erected in wetlands.
Be a Marsh Monitor
The Marsh Monitoring Program relies on volunteers to monitor the health of wetlands while surveying bird and amphibian populations in the Great Lakes basin. Since this survey requires a serious commitment, a teacher must be involved.
Plant a Plot of Prairie or Carolinian Meadow
Prairie grasslands are among the richest wildlife habitats in Canada. Occupying a wide crescent across much of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of Ontario, only about 16 per cent of native grasslands remain. Since European settlement began, 25 million hectares of tall-, short-, and mixed-grass prairies have been destroyed by human land development. The tall-grass prairie, in particular, which is found only in southeastern Manitoba and Ontario's Carolinian Life Zone, may be Canada's most endangered ecosystem.
Not surprisingly, many species that make their home here are at risk — the prairie long-tailed weasel, Powesheik skipper butterfly, swift fox, burrowing owl, and prairie whitefringed orchid, to name just a few. But there's a growing movement to reclaim the Prairies for wildlife.
Your school could also restore native grasslands for wildlife. Follow the guidelines in the section entitled "Plant an Alternative to a Lawn," making these minor modifications:
- Plant a 50/50 mixture of native wildflowers and grasses.
- Make a point of using the green manure technique, which is especially valuable for the dry, sandy soils typical of the Prairies.
- Cover larger tracts with native grasses by using the "matrix" planting method — digging and seeding one-metre square plots, so they'll eventually grow and spread over the entire area.
Be an Ecosystem Booster
Everything is connected to everything else in the eco sphere. When you put up nesting boxes, you're not only helping birds, you're also protecting trees and a whole web of species that depend on them. By being wise and weighing the consequences of your actions, you can give ecosystems a boost.
- When you avoid using pesticides or disposing of toxic chemicals down storm drains, you improve the chances of blue whales and belugas surviving in oceans and estuaries.
- If you turn off lights, you'll lessen the need for more hydroelectric dams, so fewer fish will be likely to lose their spawning grounds.
- When you buy products with the "EcoLogo" (a maple-leaf symbol with three doves), you'll know they're the least harmful to the environment.
- By writing an elected official, you can discourage the dumping of raw sewage into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Contact your mayor, a local MP, or the federal environment minister to express your concerns about a local polluter, or the need for better laws to protect ecosystems.
- Recycling could make the difference between a shorebird's breeding habitat being saved or turned into a landfill, a B.C. rain forest being protected from logging or clear-cut to the ground.
- If you start an environment club at school, you can share ideas to help solve environmental problems facing your community.
- Developing a class code of conduct (for example, pledging to stay on trails when hiking or supporting ecological integrity by growing only native plants) will make you and your schoolmates better ecosystem stewards.
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