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Earth Day first aimed to save species. To do that, we need to think about more than one

Stories of charismatic critters capture our attention, but often only after it’s too late to save them. Those animals have a broader story to tell about the critical step of whole ecosystem protection

Justina Ray is a wildlife biologist. She is president and senior scientist of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and Trent University.

The past couple of months have seen individual animals grabbing headlines across Canada, from Bob the elk in the B.C. community of Youbou and an orca calf stranded in a lagoon farther north on Vancouver Island, to the first pair of bald eagles to nest in Toronto in modern memory.

Each animal has come with a compelling story: Bob’s tragic end after becoming a small-town character, the wide-ranging (and artificial-intelligence enhanced) efforts being made to reunite the orphan orca with its pod and the suspense of whether the eagles can raise chicks while surrounded by human activity. They are all fascinating stories and speak to our desire to have a connection with the natural world and see hope for its recovery.

For the bald eagles it is a conservation success story, as the pair nesting in Toronto is the latest evidence of a gradual but positive recovery trajectory for this species. But helping this species was a relatively straightforward task; banning DDT was critical — a direct threat was addressed and reversed. 

Similarly, beginning in the 19th century, everything from birds to bison to beavers at one time or another was being shot and sold, thanks to the invention of the repeating rifle. Hats in Europe — beavers for men and birds for women — drove demand skyward. But again, this was a targeted threat that could be reversed with a bit of determination through regulations.

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But things changed when rapid industrialization during the 20th century brought pollution and habitat loss to the fore, and with them more insidious and diverse threats. These threats, in turn, sparked the first Earth Day protests, which led to the passing of laws intended to provide targeted protections for endangered species. The United States led this push with its groundbreaking Endangered Species Act in 1973.  

Over the following three decades, jurisdictions in Canada followed in Washington’s footsteps, adopting laws meant to specifically address protection of species at risk that had slipped through the cracks of other regulations and policies. 

Earth Day originated around endangered species but whole ecosystems need protection

A half century after the first Earth Day protests, the threats have continued to grow. Climate change, invasive species, ever greater use of insecticides and microplastics, accelerated habitat loss, roads, buildings, urban light pollution and numerous other threats now imperil species. In this new world, the tendency to pursue laws protecting one species at a time has proved both cumbersome and ineffective. 

First, there is the overly complex, drawn out and too often politicized process of deciding whether or not a species should be “listed.” Problem number two is that with 800-plus species officially considered at risk (and many more not even assessed) in Canada, the task of addressing species’ needs one by one has become simply unmanageable.

The resulting gridlock calls for a new more holistic approach that proactively addresses broader threats and the needs of many species at the same time. While a species lens will still be vital, many protective actions must shift to serving whole ecological communities, like saving wetlands in southern Canada and conserving large tracts of high-integrity mature forests in the north.

It has become all too apparent that when it comes to endangered species, our current reductionist approach of protecting nests or den sites needs to quickly shift to addressing habitat protection at broad scales. Changing our approach will also help us avoid last-ditch efforts associated with saving individuals of remnant populations through drastic and costly measures like relocating and penning caribou mothers or banking on time-consuming and costly restoration and decontamination efforts to repair large-scale damage. 

Bob the elk and Toronto’s bald eagles area a case study in a larger chapter we must address

Charismatic animals like Toronto’s eagles and the orca orphan illustrate how we often connect better with the stories of captivating individuals than with the story of the broader ongoing crisis of biodiversity loss. That’s a problem, but also an opportunity. We can take advantage of these high-profile events to engage people in understanding the need for new approaches, while at the same time using species to better understand their individual and collective needs, track the effectiveness of our protection efforts and safeguarding areas of crucial importance for their persistence — like key biodiversity areas.  

Bob, for example, has taught us about what can happen to an animal stuck in a heavily fragmented urban-wildlands interface where road traffic poses a constant threat. Toronto’s eagles have shown us the value of protecting and restoring habitat even in the heart of a large and bustling city.

But endangered species are also showing us that some big things need to change. The time for trying to address our combined biodiversity and climate crises by doing a little less harm or avoiding single specific impacts is long over. Instead, we must make protecting and restoring biodiversity a central focus of all of our decision-making.

Individual animals that capture our imaginations and become, in some cases, household names  — like Bob — can have a galvanizing effect when it comes to understanding why we need to do more to protect our natural world. But their stories will not end the decline and loss of many other species, because they so often capture headlines only at the point when action is too late. These individuals are case studies in a much bigger, more sprawling chapter about complex habitats, rapid change and our role in it all. Instead of building lists and waiting until things are truly dire, we need to make the systems behind the headlines — both human and ecological — part of the story.

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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