What is ecological connectivity?
All of nature is connected. But sometimes things get disconnected.
Wildlife living in national parks cross their boundaries all the time in order to access what they need to survive. But roads and railways make it hard for wildlife to travel from one area to another. Dams can interrupt the flow of streams and rivers. Logging, mining and urban development can impede the movements of many animals, whether they’re traveling vast distances (birds, grizzly bears, wolves) or just down to the local pond (turtles and frogs).
When living things can move freely, populations can intermix, helping maintain genetic diversity and healthy populations. Plant seeds can disperse. Rivers and streams can replenish lakes. And wildlife can travel to find more favourable habitat—a vital consideration in a changing climate.
Ecological connectivity is all about…
- maintaining the “unimpeded movement of species and the flow of natural processes that sustain life on earth” (from the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species)
- protecting habitat corridors that knit together fragmented landscapes
- lessening the impacts of fragmented habitats that make it hard for species to move and interact over large spaces
- creating the links required to conserve biodiversity, foster ecological integrity and support the recovery of species at risk
Nature needs its connections big and small, just as humans need theirs. Such connections are the arteries of the living world, helping life circulate and oxygenating entire ecosystems. Here are some ways Parks Canada and its partners are improving ecological connectivity.
It’s one small creek, and one giant leap for connectivity.
Cascade Creek in Banff National Park was once Cascade River, and home to two native fish species, Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout. But the river was dammed in 1941 with the construction of the Minnewanka Dam. The dam made a creek out of a river—and a tiny, sluggish creek at that. Flows were reduced by more than ninety-nine per cent, and the trout disappeared.
Banff and its partners have been restoring Cascade Creek by repairing stream habitat, improving infrastructure and removing non-native fish. Native trout will be reintroduced in 2022.
Not only has the work restored the Cascade flow (and thereby the entire ecosystem), the new pipes and culverts have reduced the risk of flood damage in the area.
Moving across boundaries
Wildlife do not recognize the boundaries of protected areas, like national parks, as they search for what they need to survive. Instead, they travel back and forth across park boundaries to nearby natural areas. This becomes a major challenge for conserving species that are always on the move.
A challenge that Forillon National Park in Quebec knows all too well. Provincial highway 197 runs along the park’s western border, cutting it off from the rest of the eastern Gaspé Peninsula. Most of the land along the highway is privately owned, with residential developments occupying the upper stretch.
That makes movement difficult for wide-ranging species such as moose, bear, deer, lynx, and the American Marten. A small tree-dwelling member of the weasel family, marten need to move in and out of the park to explore new territory.
Parks Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada have been working together to understand how wildlife moves back and forth through the park—and to find ways to make that movement easier. Out of that work has come the Forillon ecological corridor, a 240-hectare stretch of forest that runs along the highway and connects the park with the rest of the peninsula.
In addition to radio-tracking American Marten to find out how they move, Parks Canada is working with partners to further protect the linkages between Forillon and the larger ecosystem.
Importance of collaborating with others
Wildlife often move across the boundaries of protected areas. They will travel across entire landscapes in search of food, water, shelter and mates. To protect wildlife effectively, Parks Canada must work with others to connect, conserve and restore important habitats that exist beyond the boundaries of their protected areas.
Knowing where species are moving is key for helping them safely access what they need to survive. Parks Canada wants to better understand the travel patterns and habitat connectivity of the Woodland Caribou at Gros Morne National Park.
They work with partners to collect and analyze data on its movements. Knowledge of caribou movement patterns helped contribute to the creation of the Main River Waterway Provincial Park— an area located outside of Gros Morne National Park.
- Watch the path that a Woodland Caribou takes as it travels inside and outside of the national park boundaries to other nearby natural areas.
Movement data for this animation was generously provided by Natural Resources Canada, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture.
Tracking the travellers
We can only help living things move if we know where and how they move. This is especially true for the long-distance travellers such as cougar, grizzly, lynx, wolf and wolverine.
What we really need is 1,322 remote cameras strung out over an area of 75,000 square kilometres. That might require collaboration.
The University of Montana, British Columbia and Parks Canada have pooled their camera networks to study the movements of these iconic wilderness mammals through the Rocky Mountains. The cameras are a non-invasive way to allow researchers to determine how these species are distributed across the landscape, and how they move.
The great thing about this camera network, says Jesse Whittington, the Parks Canada ecologist who oversees the project, is that it can help researchers study connectivity and factors driving wildlife populations at multiple scales. The data from the cameras provides local and regional information on how these species move, and sharing data with international collaborators will help build a global picture of wildlife connectivity and movement.
Overpasses and underpasses allow animals both large and small to cross highways without the danger of being hit. Banff National Park has the most numerous and varied wildlife crossing structures in the world, but such structures can be found in many Parks Canada administered places. They are key components of broader strategies to conserve the natural movement of species within and across park boundaries.
Getting rid of stuff
Stuff can be a nuisance for humans, silting up our lives and obscuring horizons. For the Greater Sage-Grouse, stuff can be deadly.
Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan has a small population of this seriously endangered species, known for its spectacular mating display. A key threat to the grouse are human-built structures such as outbuildings, overhead power lines and fences. These structures offer convenient perch sites for the bird’s predators such as owls and hawks. Fences can also be a direct source of mortality for the grouse, who sometimes fly right into them.
And so Grasslands partnered with SaskPower to remove above-ground service poles and bury almost 11 kilometres of power lines. In addition, the park has removed 63.1 km of fences and marked an additional 77.3 km of fence line, making it visible to the birds.
As a result, sightlines have improved and there is far less risk of fires associated with the overhead power lines. Open country is a bit more open. And direct threats to the birds from predators and collisions have been reduced.
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