Prairies Ecozone+ Evidence for Key Findings Summary
Theme: Human/Ecosystem Interactions
- Protected areas
- Ecosystem conversion
- Invasive non-native species
- Nutrient loading and algal blooms
- Climate change
- Ecosystem services
National key finding
Both the extent and representativeness of the protected areas network have increased in recent years. In many places, the area protected is well above the United Nations 10% target. It is below the target in highly developed areas and the oceans.
The amount of natural vegetation protected in parks and other designated conservation areas is relatively small, accounting for only about 4.5% of the Prairies Ecozone+in 2009 (Figure 19). This included two national parks (Elk Island and Grasslands) totaling 1,100 km2, and numerous provincial parks totaling 1,600 km2. Prior to 1992 (the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity), between 0.4 and 3.8% of the ecozone+ was protectedii.By May 2009, the percentage of the ecozone+ protected had increased to 4.5% and included (Figure 20):
- 5,544 km2 in 194 protected areas (1.2% of the ecozone+) classified as IUCN categories I-IV, categories that include nature reserves, wilderness areas, and other parks and reserves managed for conservation of ecosystems and natural and cultural features, as well as those managed mainly for habitat and wildlife conservation;Footnote104 and
- 15,290 km2 in 94 protected areas (3.3% of the ecozone+) classified as IUCN categories V-VI, categories that focus on sustainable use by established cultural tradition.Footnote104
Data provided by federal and provincial jurisdictions, updated to May 2009. Only legally protected areas are included. IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) categories of protected areas are based on primary management objectives (see text for more information).
The last bar marked 'TOTAL' includes protected areas for which the year established was not provided.
Source: Environment Canada, 2009Footnote105 using data from the Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System (CARTS), v.2009.Footnote105, 2009Footnote106; data provided by federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions.
Long description for Figure 20.
This bar graph shows the following information:
|Year||IUCN Categories I-IV>(km2)||IUCN Categories V-VI (km2)|
Elk Island National Park of Canada was created in 1913, Old Wives Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Lenore Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Redberry Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary in 1925, Cypress Hills Provincial park in 1951, Spruce Woods Provincial Park in 1997, Grasslands National Park of Canada in 2001 and CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area in 2003.
National key finding
Stewardship activity in Canada is increasing, both in number and types of initiatives and in participation rates. The overall effectiveness of these activities in conserving and improving biodiversity and ecosystem health has not been fully assessed.
While protected areas are often the most visible form of ecosystem conservation, they represent only a small fraction of the land base. Much of the habitat important to biodiversity in the Prairies Ecozone+ is found on land where the predominant use is agriculture, and much of it is privately held.Thus, stewardship is increasingly seen as an important complement to environmental regulation and policy, particularly to encourage conservation on privately managed land. Examples of stewardship initiativesin the Prairiesinclude: managed crown grazing lands, major conservation initiatives such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the Prairie Conservation Action Plan, integrated resource management plans, speciesatrisk landowner contact programs, and several programs aimed at landowner stewardship.
TheNational Environmental Farm Plan Initiative, launched in 2003, included a set of nationally consistent principles and program elements for developing environmental farm plans (EFP). An EFP is a voluntarily prepared, formal written assessment of environmental issues or risks on a farm such as soil erosion, potential sources of water contamination, or pesticide drift. An EFP contains an action plan detailing the beneficial management practices (BMP) that should be put in place to mitigate or eliminate those risks. These potential on-farm agri-environmental risks and practices are identified by the farmer in consultation with agrologists, EFP facilitators/coordinators, and supporting materials (e.g., EFP workbooks and Footnote manuals). In 2011, 23% of farms in Alberta, 26% of farms in Saskatchewan, and 28% of farms in Manitoba had a formal Environmental Farm Plan. Of the farms with an EFP, more than 90% had either fully or partially implemented the practices recommended in their EFP.Footnote107
The federal Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for Species at Riskfosters partnerships and provides funding for implementing activities that protect or conserve habitats for species at risk on private lands, provincial Crown lands, Aboriginal lands, or in aquatic and marine areas across Canada.For example, in the Prairies Ecozone+, HSP has supported actions to conserve species at risk in the tallgrass prairie and aspen parkland region of Manitoba, and habitat protection efforts benefiting plant and bird species at risk, such as the small white lady's-slipper (Cypripediumcandidum) and Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii). It has also funded educational activities of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan in Saskatchewan.
Over the last couple of decades, private conservation organizations have been increasingly involved in stewardship of private properties. One approach is through voluntary conservation easements registered on the land title that imposerestrictions on current and future land uses.Of the approximately 1,200 km2 of land under 1,400 conservation easements registered across Canada in 2007, approximately 90% of the land (and 70% of thenumber of easements) was in the Prairies Ecozone+. More than 90% of conservation easements in the ecozone+are on agricultural land where some agricultural uses, such as grazing, continue under the easement.The number of conservation easements registered annually has increased steadily from 1996 to 2006 (Figure 21). Although the purchasing of easements has accelerated their registration within the Prairies Ecozone+, approximately 30% have been donated by the landowner.Footnote108
Source: Good and Michalsky, 2008Footnote108
Long description for Figure 21.
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|Year||Number of easements|
North American Waterfowl Management Plan
The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (the Plan) was established in 1986 in response to plummeting waterfowl numbers exacerbated by wetland drainage and drought. An initiative of Canada and the U.S., and joined in 1994 by Mexico, the Plan recognized that waterfowl populations could not be restored without continental cooperation across a broad landscape. Its goal is to restore waterfowl populations to average 1970s levels by conserving habitat through regional public-private partnerships called 'Joint Ventures' that are guided by the best available science and a continental landscape vision.Footnote109 It includes a broad range of approaches with one focus on agriculture and forestry stewardship. For example, the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture works with farmers to encourage waterfowl-friendly cropping practices such as the planting of fall seeded cereals like winter wheat. Winter wheat reduces disturbance and provides cover for early-nesting species like northern pintail. The area seeded to winter wheat increased over 600% from 1992 to 2007 (Figure 22). Declines in the last two years are a result of a late fall harvest related to weather.
National key finding
Ecosystem conversion was initially identified as a nationally recurring key finding and information was subsequently compiled and assessed for thePrairies Ecozone+. In the final version of the national report,3 information related to ecosystem conversion was incorporated into other key findings. This information is maintained as a separate key finding for the Prairies Ecozone+.
Based on analysis of data fromRiley et al.,Footnote27 approximately 70% of the natural vegetation in the ecozone+ (excluding the Lake Manitoba Plain Ecoregion) had been converted to other uses, mainly agriculture, by the mid-1990s. Most land conversion is believed to have occurred between European settlement (mostly prior to 1885) and the 1980s.
Using air photos, digitized data, ground-truthing, and Census of Agriculture data, Watmough and SchmollFootnote24 analyzed changes in land cover from 1985 to 2001 along 153 transects,mainly in the more settled parts of Prairies Ecozone+. They foundthat all native habitats declined - wetlands (see page 24), grasslands (see page 16), and trees (see page 15) - except tall shrub (see page 15) (Figure 23). Much of this loss is small remnants that are not likely detected on broad scale analysis like remote sensing.
Source: adapted from Watmough and Schmoll, 2007Footnote24 Based on the same data from Riley et al,Footnote27
Long description for Figure 23
This bar graph presents the following information:
Approximately 30% remaining natural habitatin the ecozone+consisted of 25% grassland, 3% woodland, and 2% wetland, whichvaried among ecoregions (Figure 24).The percentage of natural vegetation remaining varies from 76% in the Cypress Upland Ecoregion to 22% in the Moist Mixed Grassland Ecoregion and 21% in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion.The higher moisture balance in the latter two ecoregions makes cultivation viable over a greater proportion of the landscape, resulting in a high conversion rate.
Note: Lake Manitoba Plains are not included as data were incomplete. "Other natural" includes small areas such as mud/sand and saline.
Source: based on an analysis of data from Riley et al., 2007Footnote27
Long description for Figure 24
This stacked bar graph shows the following information:
|-||Grassland/shrubland||Woodland||Wetland||Other natural||Not natural|
|Moist Mixed Grassland||19%||1%||2%||0%||78%|
|SW Manitoba Uplands||7%||23%||-||5%||65%|
The remaining natural habitat in the Prairies Ecozone+ is highly fragmented, with most remaining patches in the smaller size classes. This is evident from a study in southern Saskatchewan that found 94% of habitat patches remaining in the late 20th century(the timespan was imprecise because this study used maps from a variety of dates) were less than 10 ha in size, with the trend most pronounced in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion.Footnote111 This represents a large change from the pre-European settlement condition of continuous grassland.The Aspen Parkland Ecoregion is particularly fragmented by agriculture because the climate and soils favour cultivation resulting in only a few remaining large patches. Changes in intact patch size also have impacts on birds. Koper and SchmiegelowFootnote112 found that avian populations in southern Alberta responded to habitat characteristics at spatial scales similar to their home range and territory size (with the exception of northern pintail), suggesting that the effects of fragmentation may vary with home range or territory size of individual species.
One cause of fragmentation of the remaining habitat is linear developments such as roads.Even narrow unpaved roads through forest or grasslandprevent the movement of some insect and small mammal species.Footnote113Although no trend data, or comprehensive ecozone+-wide status data was available, an estimate from 1998 for the Saskatchewan portion of the ecozone+ found that roadsaccounted for 2% of the most densely populated ecoregions, and that Saskatchewan's municipal roads increasedbyalmost 2% per four-year period from 1961 to 1996.Footnote114 Data for the Alberta portion of the ecozone+ showed almost 79,000 km of roads in 2008.Footnote115 The amount of roads within the Prairies is continuing to increase.
The infrastructure of energy development, such as the wellpads, pipelines, roads, and powerlines, also results in fragmentation.Footnote116 Both oil and gas drilling activity has increased in the Prairie provinces from 1999 to 2006.Footnote117 For Saskatchewan, extensive oil drilling started after World War IIandincreased around 1980 at the same time that drilling fornatural gas also increased(Figure 25).Footnote118 Studies in the U.S. and Saskatchewan have shown that impacts on animals include direct mortality from collisions on roads, disturbance due to noise, direct loss of habitat from the infrastructure,Footnote116 Footnote119 Footnote120 and perhaps most important, indirect loss of habitat due to avoidance.Footnote119 Natural gas well densities are typically higher than for oil wells (four to eight wells per section vs. two to four wells per section) and require more roads per area to service them.Footnote121
The loss of intact habitats and the small patch size of remaining habitat leads to a reduction in the ability of the land to support wildlife (see the Wildlife habitat capacity on agricultural landsection of the Agricultural landscapes as habitat key finding on page 66), loss of large predators (see Predatorssection of Food webskey finding on page 85), increases in invasive non-native species (seeInvasive non-native specieskey finding on page 42), and decline in grassland endemic populations.Footnote122 James et al.Footnote111 estimated the percentage of native flora and fauna lost due habitat loss and fragmentation in Saskatchewan in the late 20th century to be 21–34% in the Mixed Grassland Ecoregion, 33–50% in the Moist Mixed Grassland Ecoregion, and 25–39% in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion.
Invasive non-native species
National key finding
Invasive non-native species are a significant stressor on ecosystem functions, processes, and structure in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments. This impact is increasing as numbers of invasive non-native species continue to rise and their distributions continue to expand.
Species that inhabit areas outside their natural range are known as alien or non-native species. Most non-native species do not become established, are not detrimental, and can even be beneficial.Footnote123 Invasive non-native species, however, cause considerable harm to the environment, the economy, or to society.Footnote124 The ecological impacts of invasive non-native species are diverse. Non-native animals may outcompete, consume, or transmit diseases to native animals. Non-native plants can decrease the abundance of native plants, increase ecosystem productivity, change fire regimes, and alter the rate of nutrient cycling.Footnote125 Economic impacts of invasive non-native species include lowered real estate values, reduced quality of fish habitat, clogged irrigation pipes, decreased quality of forage by wildlife and livestock, and reduced recreational opportunities.Footnote126 Some species have been introduced intentionally for specific reasons (e.g., agronomic grasses as forage for livestock, fishfor recreational fishing) while others may have been introduced accidentally through human activity. Some may have spread into the area after introduction elsewhere.
Invasive non-native species are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in the Prairies Ecozone+ and the threat is increasing. In some areas, some invasive non-native species, particularly plants, have become the dominant species and have altered composition of large tracts of native grasslands.
Invasive non-native plants
Thomas and LeesonFootnote127 found that one-third of the 36 most abundant cropland "weed" species in the 2000s were not present in the early 1900s.The proportion of these "weed" species that were non-nativeclimbed from 43% to close to 70% overthe sametime period.Footnote127 However, from the 1970s to 2000s, the density of non-native species declined from approximately 100 to 30/m2.Footnote127 Patterns of invasion have been found to be correlated with proximity to agriculture. Godwin et al.Footnote128 found that the percentage of non-native species in grassland remnants in Saskatchewan increases with proximity to the agricultural field edge.
Non-native species already dominate some habitats and a few non-nativeherbs have already altered large areas of native vegetation in some regions. Non-native plants most impacting native grasslands includeKentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and smooth brome (Bromus inermis) in the more mesic grasslands, and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) and crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum, A. desertorum) in the drier grasslands. Thorpe and GodwinFootnote129 Footnote130 examined ungrazed areas at four locations along an east-west gradient across Saskatchewan's Aspen Parkland Ecoregion. In general, grassland and Aspen forest habitat was similarly invaded. The proportion of biomass from non-native species varied from 10 to over 95%, with the invasion decreasing from east to west (Figure 26).Kentucky bluegrass was the major invader in these areas, but elsewhere other non-native species-usually grasses-are also important invaders.Footnote130
Locations are listed on the bar chart from east to west
Source: Thorpe and Godwin, 2001Footnote129 and Thorpe and Godwin, 2002Footnote130
Long description for Figure 26
This stacked bar graph presents the following information:
|Other exotic herbs||71||56||26||11||93||38||9||10|
In the Moist Mixed Grassland Ecoregion, Godwin et al.Footnote128 found thatnon-native grasses invade from the edges of grassland patches, smaller remnant grasslands are altered more than larger grassland remnants, and non-native speciesbecome highly dominant, reducing the number of native plant species. Remaining native grasslands in the Prairies Ecozone+ are, therefore, particularly vulnerable to invasion as most of what remains is highly fragmented into small patches (see Fragmentationsection of Ecosystem conversion key finding on page 41)
In addition to herbs, there are several non-nativewoody species that have the potential to become major invaders, including common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), caragana (Caragana arborescens), and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia). Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is a significant non-native invader of wetlands.
Many of these non-native speciesappear to spread along road ditches, so the extensive fragmentation by roads is a major concern.
Kentucky bluegrass became established in the southeast portion of the ecozone+duringearly European settlement and is probably still expanding in areas further west.Footnote130 Kentucky bluegrass was not recorded in native grasslands northeast of Saskatoon in the 1950s but by 1993 it was well established in a grassland reserve in this area.Footnote131Ten years later as the expansion continued, the percentage of the herbaceous biomass that was Kentucky bluegrass had increased from17 to 43% and was having a significant negative impact on the diversity of herbaceous species.Footnote132 Kentucky bluegrass has expanded into the high elevation benchlands of Cypress Hills as well, increasing from 0.2% of above ground graminoid biomass in 1957,Footnote133 to 5.5% in 1993,Footnote134 to 21% in 2000,Footnote135 then decreasing to 17% in 2005.Footnote136 It may still be in the process of becoming established as a dominant species there.
Smooth brome, desired by hay producers due to its productivity,Footnote137 is considered one of the greatest threats to the moister regions of the ecozone+.It invades heavily grazed or disturbed fescue grasslands,Footnote138 and it, together with crested wheatgrass, suppresses native grasses more than other non-native species sown into disturbed native stands.Footnote139 Wilson and BelcherFootnote140 found that common native grassland species were present in non-native invaded vegetation, but at reduced levels of cover, and that species richness was only half that of areas with onlynative vegetation.Romo et al.Footnote141 found that fescue grasslands invaded by smooth brome were almost devoid of native species.In the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion, Godwin et al.Footnote128 reported that no rough fescue (Festuca hallii) plants became re-established in an old smooth brome stand even though rough fescue completely surrounded the stand.In Saskatchewan, roadsides have been traditionally revegetated using smooth brome or crested wheatgrass.Footnote142 In the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion,smooth brome has spread to become the dominant grass cover on roadsides, railway rights-of-way, and abandoned or otherwise disturbed lands,Footnote141 and it continues to be a problem.Footnote143 There were no data on the total area invaded.
Leafy spurge, first noted in Saskatchewan in 1928, has become a prevalent non-native species in native grasslands.Footnote144 Footnote145 Footnote146 Belcher and WilsonFootnote147 found that cover of all common native plant species was negatively correlated with leafy spurge cover and that most native species were absent in areas with the greatest leafy spurge abundance.Leafy spurge is particularly aggressive on sandy soils and is a threat to dune species at risk such as western spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis)Footnote146 Footnote148 and hairy prairie-clover (Dalea villosa).Footnote149 It is also believed to be a threat to two orchids listed as Endangered in Canada, small white lady's-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) and western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) in Manitoba's Tall Grass Prairie Reserve.Footnote149 In a related study, Scheiman et al.Footnote147 found that high levels of leafy spurge invasion lowered the density of some grassland birds but improved nesting success for one species. Leafy spurge is one invasive species for which biological control methods have had some success.
Introduced in the 1930s, crested wheatgrass was promoted as superior to native grasses for cattle grazing because of higher production.Footnote150 By 2002, it covered 40,466 km2 ofthe Prairies.Footnote149 When road ditches seeded to crested wheatgrass are included, there is an extensive network of seed sources for invasion throughout the Mixed and Moist Mixed Grassland ecoregions.Crested wheatgrass is a threat to the habitat of some species at risk including hairy prairie-clover (by stabilizing the semi-active dunes)Footnote151 and Sprague's pipit (Anthus spraguei).Footnote152 Sprague's pipit was significantly less common in crested wheatgrass than in native pastures in Saskatchewan.Footnote153 Chestnut-collared longspurs (Calcarius ornatus) were equally common in native and crested wheatgrass sites in Montana but had significantly lower productivity in the invaded sites.Footnote154
Purple loosestrife is an example of an invasive plant species threatening aquatic ecosystems across the Prairies Ecozone+ as its abundancecontinues to increase. It has invaded every major river system in southern Manitoba and has spread as far north as The Pas. Saskatchewan first reported it in 1971 and it is now widespread in the ecozone+ Footnote155 with heavy infestations near urban areas.
There were 58 native fish species and 11 non-native fish species known from Saskatchewan lakes and rivers in 2006.Footnote156 One, the common carp (Cyprinus carpeo), first recorded in 1938 in Manitoba's Red River, likely invaded from North Dakota.Footnote157 The other ten non-natives were intentionally introduced through stocking for sport fishing.Footnote156 Fish stocking has been a common practice across the ecozone+. In 2007, Footnote154 water bodies over the three provinces were stocked with three species (and one hybrid) of introduced trout species and 58 were stocked with native species (mainly walleye).Footnote158 Footnote159 Footnote160 In addition to invasive fish, aquatic invertebrates can also be invasive. The zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) isa fast-spreadinginvasive species which forms dense monotypic colonies on the undersides of boats, docks, and other structures. They alsoclog intake pipes and water treatment plants. A huge problem in the Great Lakes, zebra mussels were detected in 2009 in a tributary of the Red River that flows into Lake Winnipeg.Footnote161
Other non-native species
Several non-native bird species have become established in the Prairies Ecozone+ including ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) and gray partridge (Perdix perdix), which were introduced to provide hunting opportunities.
Feral swine (Sus scrofa), also called wild boar, can cause serious ecological impacts due to rooting,Footnote162 which disrupts plant communities, successional patterns, forest-floor habitat, and nutrient cycling. They also frequently concentrate their feeding activity on wetland habitats where they can also cause extensive damage.Footnote163 The provinces have combatted this problem throughculling the animals and, as a result, their populations are declining and they are no longer a concern in some areas.Footnote164 Footnote165
A study of native grasslands in Saskatchewan found that 12 of 157 beetle species were non-native.Footnote166 The best known non-native invertebrate is the seven-spotted lady beetle (Coccinella septempunctata). Introduced to control aphids, it has become the dominant lady beetle in the southern Prairies, probably displacing native lady beetle species.Footnote167
National key finding
Concentrations of legacy contaminants in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems have generally declined over the past 10 to 40 years. Concentrations of many emerging contaminants are increasing in wildlife; mercury is increasing in some wildlife in some areas.
Pesticides, mostly herbicides, are widely used in Prairie agriculture.The area of land to which herbicidesare applied increased rapidly from 1971 to 1986 and more gradually after that (Figure 27 ). The Aspen Parkland Ecoregion accounted for the largest area of herbicide application. GoldsboroughFootnote168 showed that use of phenoxy herbicides such as 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and methylchlorophenoxyacetic acid began after World War II and increased rapidlyin the Prairies in the 1950s and 1960s. Use of specialty herbicides, such as those to control grassy vegetation, increased in the 1970s. Anderson et al.Footnote169 sampled wetlands in Alberta's Aspen Parkland Ecoregion in 2002 and found measurable pesticide residues in 92% of them. The most frequently occurring chemicals were 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and methylchlorophenoxyacetic acid, but glyphosate and picloram were found at higher concentrations. Concentrations were lower than previously found in Saskatchewan prairie wetlands.
Areas treated with insecticides and fungicides are smaller and appear to have been stable from 1996 to 2006 (Figure 27).Usher and JohnsonFootnote170 found that the geographic pattern of insecticide purchase and application in the Prairies Ecozone+ was positively correlated withthe distribution and abundance of grasshoppers. Spray intensity was greatest in the grassland ecoregions (1–5%) and less in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion (<1%).
Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2009Footnote171
Long description for Figure 27
This line graph presents the following information:
Mercury is a pollutant of concern due to potential neurotoxicological effects on humans at environmentally relevant concentrations.Footnote172 Footnote173 Footnote174 Footnote175 Footnote176 Footnote177 Anthropogenic activity during the 20th century has tripled the amount of mercury in the environment compared to the global background level.Footnote178 In the Prairies, pollution from the pulp and paper industry, coal burning, paint and battery wastes, and seed treatments used in agriculture have added to natural mercury levels.Footnote179 Footnote180 In waterbodies, mercury can bioaccumulate in fish tissues, with higher concentrations found in older, larger fish and fish that consume other fish, such as walleye and northern pike.Footnote180 Testing found that levels were high enough to warrant consumption advisories for recreationally-angled fish on several major Prairie waterbodies.Footnote179Footnote180 No information on trendsin mercury concentrationswas available.
Nutrient loading and algal blooms
National key finding
Inputs of nutrients to both freshwater and marine systems, particularly in urban and agriculture-dominated landscapes, have led to algal blooms that may be a nuisance and/or may be harmful. Nutrient inputs have been increasing in some places and decreasing in others.
Eutrophicationhas accelerated in lakes and rivers in the Prairies Ecozone+over the 20th century due to increased phosphorus and nitrogen inputs. The large rivers running out of the Rocky Mountains generally have good water quality. However, the rivers and lakes receiving runoff from the Prairie landscape tend to be eutrophic, with naturally high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations that are further elevated by inputs from municipal effluent andagriculture.Footnote181 Some improvement is evident. Phosphorus has decreased in some areas with improved sewage treatment and residual soil nitrogen on agricultural lands remains low.
The lakes along the Qu'appelle River in east-central Saskatchewan are well-studied examples of both natural and anthropogenic eutrophication.Footnote182 Historical trends show a continuous increase in the urban population throughout the 20th century, a steady increase in livestock biomass, and a rapid increase of cultivation of field crops between 1900 and 1920, with more gradual increases thereafter. While the Qu'Appelle Lakes are naturally eutrophic, they have become more so fromEuropean settlementtothe 1990s, with huge blooms of blue-green algae and fish kills.Footnote183
Away from the Qu'Appelle system, Pham et al.Footnote184 analyzed nitrogen isotopes in sediments in 21 lakes across southern Saskatchewan, and concluded that lakes showed substantial increases in nitrogen input during the 20th century as a result of agricultural intensification and, in one case, because of sewage effluent. These lakes showed increases in blue-green algae, consistent with the process of eutrophication.
Residual soil nitrogen on agricultural lands
High levels of the nitrate ion can adversely affect freshwater biodiversity, both directly through toxicity and indirectly through eutrophication. GuyFootnote185 found that levels of nitrate in freshwater in excess of 4.7 mg N/Lhave impacts on development rates and mortality ofinsects, fish, and amphibians. Carmargo et al.Footnote186 found that levelsaboveeven 2 mg N/L can affect many freshwater species. Nitrate concentrations of 6.25 and 25 mg N/Lhave been found to impact the rate of embryo development as well as the fry body size of lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush)and lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis).Footnote187 These concentrations are in the range found in runoff being released from agricultural land in Canada.Footnote188 Footnote189
The extent to which accelerated lake eutrophication is related to agriculture depends in part on the nutrient status of farm soils. A useful way of determining the risk of increased nitrogen loading to receiving waters is to look at nitrate accumulation in soils. Although the presence of nitrogen in the soil beyond crop requirements increases the probability of its export into water bodies, the risk depends on the volume of water leaving fields through overland flow or leaching.The dry prairie climate means that there is less surplus water compared to British Columbia and eastern Canada, so the risk of nutrient export is comparatively less.Footnote181
Although the Prairies Ecozone+ contained the largest amount of agricultural land in Canada in 2006 (65%; almost 400,000 km2), it had the lowest residual soil nitrogen levels of all ecozones+ with agriculture. The residual soil nitrogen increased from 3.3 kg N/ha in 1981 to 18.0 kg N/ha in 2001, and back to 11.8 kgN/ha in 2006.190 Most of the land in the ecozone+ remained in the same risk class between 1981 and 2006 (Figure 28), although there was an increase in the eastern regionsby at least one risk class. Despite this increase, this still represents very low to low risk. The nitrogen inputs, while increasing substantially from 1981 to 2006, remained lower than all other ecozones+ on average. The major nitrogen input in the Prairies Ecozone+ was fertilizers (44% of the total in 2006),followed by legume fixation (37%),which also increased,Footnote190 particularly in Saskatchewan.Footnote191 Manure was the lowest of these nitrogen sources (15%) but alsoincreased.Nitrogen outputs also increased, although slower than the inputs, due to a combination of increased crop yields as well as decreased areas of summerfallow.Footnote190
Phosphorus loading to rivers
Together with nitrogen, the other significant cause of eutrophication is high levels of phosphorus. The primary point source of phosphorous in lakes and rivers in Canada is sewage discharges.Footnote181 Many Prairie cities have secondary sewage treatment and a few have tertiary treatment.Footnote181 Glozier et al.Footnote192 Footnote193 Footnote194 quantified trends in phosphorous concentrations at five monitoring stations on the Bow, North Saskatchewan, and Athabasca rivers to assess the effectiveness of an upgrade to tertiary treatment in communities whose sewage treatment plants discharge into these rivers. Results showed dramatic improvements in concentrations of nutrient and bacteriological parameters observed at downstream sites with phosphorous concentrations in the Bow and Athabasca rivers restored to levels similar to upstream, naturally occurring concentrations by 2007 (Figure 29).
National key finding
Rising temperatures across Canada, along with changes in other climatic variables over the past 50 years, have had both direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems.
Trends in climatic variables
Table 4 summarizes significant trends in climatic variables in the Prairies Ecozone+ from 1950 to 2007.Across the ecozone+as a whole, spring was warmer by 2.3 oC and winter had less precipitation (18%). Thenumber of days with snow cover in the spring decreased by 16 days. Although drought is a recurring characteristic of the Prairies, there was no trend in the Palmer Drought Severity Index from 1950 to 2007.Climate stations are well distributed across theecozone+ and trends at individual stations are generally reflected in the overall ecozone+results. While some variables had no overall trends for the ecozone+, individual stationsshowedtrends when analyzed individually. For example, mean temperature in winter (December–February)increased at eight stations in the ecozone+ while there was no overall trend (see Table 4, Figure 30, Figure 31, and Figure 32).Footnote81
|Climate variable||Overall ecozone+ trend (1950–2007)||Comments and regional variation|
|Drought Severity Index|
Only significant trends(p<0.05) are shown
Source: Zhang et al., 2011Footnote81 and supplementary data provided by the authors.
Changes in phenology
Between 1950 and 2007, there was no change in the start date or length of the growing season for the ecozone+when measured as days over 5oC,although the season ended 6 days earlier on average.Footnote81 The growing season did start earlier at four individual stations (Table 4).Growing season is specific to individual species, however, and some changes in phenology were noted for this ecozone+. Based on data from the Plantwatch Program,Footnote195 in Edmonton, the firstflowering date of trembling aspen advanced by 26 days from 1901 to 1997 which suggests that spring is occuring earlier.Footnote196 Spring flowering of aspen and prairie crocus (Anemone patens) in Alberta's Aspen Parkland Ecoregion alsoadvanced by two weeks from 1936 to 2006.Footnote197
Changes in spring temperature can also impact arrival dates for migratory birds. For example, Murphy-Klassen et al.Footnote198 analyzed spring arrival dates of 96 migratory bird species at Delta Marsh, Manitoba from 1939 to 2001 and their relationship to temperature. They found that 25 species (26%) had significantly earlier arrival dates (between 6 and 32 days) while only two arrived significantly later.Monthly mean spring temperature increased by 0.6 (in April) to 3.8°C (in February) over the same time period (measured at Winnipeg International Airport). Forty-six percent of the 96 species had arrival dates significantly related to temperature, and 98% of these arrived earlier with increasing temperature. This translated to arrival dates ranging from 0.6 to 2.6 days earlier for every 1°C increase in temperature. Changes in temperature on the breeding grounds and along migration routes, in addition to other factors, also influence arrival date (e.g.,Figure 33).Footnote198
Future climate predictions
Global climate models predict that the Prairies Ecozone+ will become significantly warmer and somewhat drier over the coming century. The ecosystems and biodiversity found in the Prairies Ecozone+ are strongly controlled by climate. ThorpeFootnote199 modelled the shifts in vegetation zones in the southern part of the Prairie provinces resulting from climate change scenarios up to the 2080s. All scenarios show the grassland environment currently found in the Prairies Ecozone+ expanding northward into areas currently covered by forest. Canadian grassland types may be replaced by typesfound in the Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, with the warmest scenario showing the southern margin of the ecozone+ shifting to the shortgrass prairie type found in Colorado.Footnote199 However, many species, particularly plants, have limited dispersal abilities andnorthward as fast as the climate is changing, leading to .. The analysis suggested the following trends for the coming century:Footnote199
- Declines intree and shrub cover;
- Reduced invasion of grassland patches by shrubs and poplar sprouts;
- An increase in open vegetation suitable for livestock grazing;
- Declines in animal species dependent on woody cover;
- Increases in animal species dependent on open grassland;
- Shifts in the structure of grasslands, particularly a decrease in midgrasses and anincrease in shortgrasses;
- A decrease in cool-season grasses andan increase in warm-season grasses;
- Northward shift in the ranges of plants and animals found in the U.S. into Canada;
- New community types caused by differences in rates of northward migration;
- Increased invasion by non-native plants;
- Moderate decreases in average grass production and grazing capacity per unit area, depending on the climate scenario(however, the increase in open vegetation types associated with declining woody cover could increase the total area of rangeland); and
- More frequent drought years with low production, but possibly also more frequent extreme wet years with flooding of low-lying pastures.
Wetlands, and the waterfowl populations that depend on them, are particularly sensitive to climatic moisture balance. Between 1955 and 1989, waterfowl productivity increased in wet years and decreased in dry years, a result of precipitation-driven changes in the extent and quality of wetland breeding habitats.Footnote200 For the Prairie Pothole Region, which includes the Prairies Ecozone+, researchers have predicted that the number of ponds and number of ducks will decrease with climate change.Footnote62 Footnote201 Footnote202 Footnote203 The most productive areas in southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba will become a more episodicsource of waterfowl production, similar to the drier areas in the western part of the Prairies Ecozone+.Footnote203 Warmer and drier conditions,with a possible increase in salinity and turbidity, are expected to stress aquatic ecosystems.Footnote78 Footnote204 For the Prairies, Schindler and DonahueFootnote78 predicted larger algal blooms, accelerated eutrophication, and serious impacts on fish species owing to a combination of climate change, increasing nutrient runoff, and ever more human use of natural water systems.
National key finding
Canada is well endowed with a natural environment that provides ecosystem services upon which our quality of life depends. In some areas where stressors have impaired ecosystem function, the cost of maintaining ecosystem services is high and deterioration in quantity, quality, and access to ecosystem services is evident.
Ecosystem services in the Prairies include water (a provisioning service), crop pollination (a regulating service), and nutrient cycling (a supporting service). These are necessary for food production and potable water. The conversion of over 70% of the natural vegetation to agricultural production, and the increasing fragmentation and alteration of remaining ecosystems, has altered the abilityof the ecosystems in the Prairies Ecozone+to deliver some ecosystem goods and services. Channeling of primary production into agricultural crops and secondary production into livestock has increasedprovisioning services but decreased many regulating and supporting services (as is evident from the trends presented throughout this report).Despite the extent of human modification to the landscape, the remaining biodiversity still provides services such as hunting, fishing, and other forms ofoutdoor recreation (e.g., hiking and camping, bird watching). Most native grasslands also support livestock grazing which, under proper management, is highly compatible with conservation goals. This section provides four examples of ecosystem services: three provisioning services related to food and a study in ecosystem valuation.
Although primary productivity has shifted from wild species harvested for food to cultivated sources of food,ecosystems in the Prairies Ecozone+ provide several other important food sources, including traditional country foods, fish, and wildlife for hunting. Overall, production of food has steadily increased.
Traditional country foods
Prior to their extirpation in the late 1800s, plains bisonwere the foundation of the Aboriginal economyFootnote205 Footnote206 Footnote207 Footnote208 Footnote209 Footnote210 and the preferred meat source in the Prairies Ecozone+.Footnote206 Footnote210 Bison figure prominently in the structure, spirituality, and rituals of present-day Plains Aboriginalsocieties. The loss of the bison represented a significant impairment of the cultural services provided to Aboriginal peopleby this ecozone+.Footnote211
Similarly, although not eaten as frequently by present-day Aboriginal groups, prairie turnip (Psoralea esculenta) (other names include tipsin, teepsenee, breadroot, breadroot scurf pea, and pomme blanche) is particularly prevalent in Blackfoot legend and language, indicating that it once ranked as a species of particularimportance.Footnote205 Footnote212 Footnote213 The prairie turnip is a key component of the Natoas, or "holy turnip" bundle, featured in the Sundance, the most important ceremony in Blackfoot culture.Footnote205 Footnote214
There is a limited amount of commercial fishing in the Prairies Ecozone+, but Lake Manitoba has a significant fishery.Footnote215 From 1997/1998 to 2006/2007, the annual harvest varied from 1,000 to 2,500 tonnes per year (Figure 34). The most important commercial species harvested by weight are carp (Cyprinus carpio) and mullet (Catostomus commersoni).Footnote215
Source: Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, 2008Footnote215
Long description for Figure 34
This line graph presents the following information:
Sport hunting is an important recreational use associated with prairie biodiversity.Intact Prairie grasslands support several game species that are frequently hunted for sport. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most important big game species, with tens of thousands of animals harvested per year (Figure 35).
Data shown are for whole provinces and include areas outside of the Prairies Ecozone+.
Sources: Alberta: My Wild Alberta, 2008;Footnote216; Saskatchewan: Saskatchewan Environment, unpublished data;Footnote217 Manitoba: Manitoba Conservation, unpublished dataFootnote218
Long description for Figure 35
This line graph shows the following information:
The duck harvest in the Prairies Ecozone+ declined steeply from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (Figure 36), mirroring the decline in breeding duck populations (see Figure 49 in Wetlands key findingon page 79). Since the early1990s, the duck harvest has increased, again related to gradual recovery of the duck population. However, by the 2000s,duck populations remained low compared to the levels of the 1970s. In contrast, the goose harvest wasrelatively stable from 1975 to 2006 (Figure 36). The slight increase since the early 1990s corresponded to the significantly higher numbers of geese, both locally nesting Canada geese,Footnote219 and geese of several species that breed in the Arctic and migrate through the Prairies Ecozone+ in fall.
Source: Canadian Wildlife Service,2008Footnote220
Long description for Figure 36.
This line graph shows the following information:
|Year||Duck harvest||Goose harvest|
In general, the Prairie provinces, like other jurisdictions in North America, have experienced a decline in hunting participation,Footnote221 in part due to a shift to increasingly urban populations. This may also be contributing to declining trends in some harvest rates.
Ecosystem services in the Prairies have not been systematically quantified for their economic value. However, OlewilerFootnote222 examined the "natural capital" of the Upper Assiniboine River Basin, a 21,000 km2 area in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion, to place a value on the ecological services provided by the Basin to people. The study identified the major threats to natural capital as the loss of wetlands and riparian habitat due to agricultural use, increased danger of flooding due to wetland loss, soil erosion leading to sedimentation of surface waters, and a decline in water quality due to increasing livestock density. Their best estimate of the net valueof conserving natural capital in this area was $66/ha/yr (Table 5).
|Saved government payments||$12.83|
|Saved crop insurance premiums||$3.51|
|Improved water quality – decreased sediment||$4.62|
|Reduced wind erosion||$2.67|
|Reduced GHG emissions||$9.38|
|Increased wildlife hunting||$10.71|
|Increased wildlife viewing||$4.16|
|Program administration costs||($2.08)|
|Compensation for wildlife depredation||($0.64)|
Source: adapted from Olewiler, 2004Footnote222 Case study: Implications of wetland loss for the provision of ecosystem services
Another example of the ecosystem services in the Prairies Ecozone+ is the improvement to water quality provided by wetlands. Ducks Unlimited Canada worked in partnership with the University of Guelph to develop a hydrologic modeling system to estimate water quantity and quality impacts of wetland drainage in the Broughton's Creek watershed in Manitoba. Between 1968 and 2005, 21% of wetland area was lost and 69% of the wetland basins (almost 6,000 wetlands) were negatively impacted (see also Wetlands key finding on page 24).Footnote66 Wetland drainage since 1968 resulted in an additional 32 km2 of the watershed draining into streams. These changes resulted in the following environmental impacts:
- A31% increase in nitrogen and phosphorus export from the watershed;
- A41% increase in average annual sediment loading;
- A30% increase in the average annual flow;
- A18% increase in the peak flow; and
- A28% decrease inhabitat capacity for waterfowl.Footnote66
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Glozier, N.E. 2009. Personal communication. Update to Glozier et al. (2004) on dissolved phosphorus in the Bow River. Water Science and Technology Directorate, Environment Canada, National Hydrology Research Centre. Saskatoon, SK.
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Glozier, N.E., Crosley, R.W., Mottle, L.A. and Donald, D.B. 2004. Water quality characteristics and trends for Banff and Jasper National Parks: 1973-2002. Environment Canada, Ecological Sciences Division, Prairie and Northern Region. Saskatoon, SK. 86 p.
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Beaubien, E.G. 2001. Canada plantwatch: trends to earlier spring development. In Proceedings of the Sixth Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Workshop. Edited by Blouin, D. Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation. Winnipeg, MB.
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Beaubien, E.G. and Freeland, H.J. 2000. Spring phenology trends in Alberta, Canada: links to ocean temperature. International Journal of Biometeorology 44:53-59.
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Beaubien, E. and Hamann, A. 2011. Spring flowering response to climate change between 1936 and 2006 in Alberta, Canada. Bioscience 61:514-524.
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Murphy-Klassen, H.M., Underwood, T.J., Sealy, S.G. and Czyrnyj, A.A. 2005. Long-term trends in spring arrival dates of migrant birds at Delta Marsh, Manitoba, in relation to climate change. The Auk 122:1130-1148.
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Thorpe, J. 2011. Vulnerability of prairie grasslands to climate change. Report prepared for the Prairies Regional Adaptation Collaborative (PRAC). SRC Publication No. 12855-2E11. Saskatchewan Research Council. Saskatoon, SK. vi + 71 p.
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Larson, D.L. 1995. Effects of climate on numbers of northern prairie wetlands. Climatic Change 30:169-180.
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Sorenson, L.G., Goldberg, R., Root, T.L. and Anderson, M.G. 1998. Potential effects of global warming on waterfowl populations breeding in the northern Great Plains. Climatic Change 40:343-369.
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Johnson, W.C., Werner, Br.e., Guntenspergen, G.R., Voldseth, R.A., Millett, B., Naugle, D.E., Tulbure, M., Carroll, R.W.H., Tracy, J. and Olawsky, C. 2010. Prairie wetland complexes as landscape functional units in a changing climate. Bioscience 60:128-140.
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James, P., Murphy, K., Espie, R., Gauthier, D. and Anderson, R. 2001. Predicting the impact of climate change on fragmented prairie biodiversity: a pilot landscape model. Final report to the Climate Change Action Fund. Fish and Wildlife Branch, Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM) and Canadian Plains Research Centre (CPRC). Regina, SK. 24 p.
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Peacock, S.L. 1992. Piikani ethnobotany: traditional plant knowledge of the Piikani peoples of the northwestern plains. Thesis (M.A.). University of Calgary, Department of Archaeology. Calgary, AB. 256 p.
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Wilson, M.C. 1994. Bison in Alberta: paleontology, evolution, and relationships with humans. In Buffalo. Edited by Foster, J., Harrison, D. and McLaren, S. University of Alberta Press. Edmonton, AB. Chapter 1. pp. 1-17.
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Peck, T.R. 2001. Bison ethology and native settlement patterns during the old women's phase on the northwestern plains. Thesis (Ph.D.). University of Calgary, Department of Archaeology. Calgary, AB. 312 p.
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Carter, S. 2004. "We must farm to enable us to live": the Plains Cree and agriculture to 1900. In Native peoples: the Canadian experience. Edited by Morrison, R.B. and Wilson, C.R. Oxford University Press. Don Mills, ON. Chapter 19. pp. 320-338.
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Dempsey, H.A. 2004. The Blackfoot Nation. In Native peoples: the Canadian experience. Edited by Morrison, R.B. and Wilson, C.R. Oxford University Press. Don Mills, ON. pp. 275-296.
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UNESCO and Government of Alberta. 2008. Buffalo tracks: educational and scientific studies from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and Government of Alberta. 15 p.
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Flores, D. 1991. Bison ecology and bison diplomacy: the southern plains from 1800 to 1850. The Journal of American History 78:465-485.
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Taylor, A.R. 1989. Review essay: two decades of ethnobotany in the northwest plains. International Journal of American Linguistics 55:359-381.
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Cowen, R. 1991. The sacred turnip: dietary clues gleaned from tuber traditions: role of the prairie turnip in the life of the Blackfoot Indians. Science Service. Washington, DC. Science News: The Weekly Magazine of Science, Vol. 139, pp. 316- 317.
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Reeves, B. and Peacock, S. 2001. "Our mountains are our pillows": an ethnographic overview of Glacier National Park. Final report. Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT. xxvii + 300 p.
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Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship. 2008. A profile of Manitoba's commercial fishery. Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, Fisheries Branch. Winnipeg, MB. 14 p.
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My Wild Alberta. 2008. Resident hunter harvest [online]. (accessed August, 2008)
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Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. 2008. Data on ungulates and hunting in Saskatchewan provided by A. Arsenault. Unpublished data.
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Manitoba Conservation. 2008. Data on trends in harvest of white-tailed deer in Manitoba provided by M. Ryckman. Unpublished data.
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Fast, M., Collins, B. and Gendron, M. 2011. Trends in breeding waterfowl in Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 8. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. v + 37 p.
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Canadian Wildlife Service Waterfowl Committee. 2008. Population status of migratory game birds in Canada, November 2008. CWS Migratory Birds Regulatory Report No. 25. Environment Canada. Ottawa, ON. 92 p.
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McFarlane, B.L., Boxall, P.C. and Adamowicz, W.L. 1999. Descriptive analysis of hunting trends in Alberta. Information Report NOR-X-366. Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre. Edmonton, AB. 15 p.
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Olewiler, N. 2004. The value of natural capital in settled areas of Canada. Ducks Unlimited Canada and The Nature Conservancy of Canada. Stonewall, MB. i + 36 p.
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