Commentary: Change is on our doorstep

Donald Reid

Wild species and places offer so much to Yukoners. They provide a lot of our food, recreational opportunities, and spiritual reflection. This bounty of nature is so much a part of our seasonal – even daily – life that it begins to define us. We identify the wildness as part of our being and our expectation of a good life.

Our fortune is unusual. The opportunity to easily experience wild places has been lost to massive growth in human population, urbanization, and intensive agriculture in much of the rest of the world.

Various scientific assessments have recently exposed the global crises in the extinction of species and simplification of ecosystems. The United Nations sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that extinction of species is happening tens or even hundreds of times faster than the rate over the past many million years with up to a million species at imminent risk.

At least 75 per cent of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly altered, and 85 per cent of its area of wetlands has been lost.

Loss of wild species severely limits key services that nature provides to people, such as pollination (up to 75 per cent of food crops globally rely on pollination). Natural ecosystems can only absorb about 60 per cent of our annual emissions of greenhouse gases, leaving increasing amounts in the atmosphere (the climate crisis).

A global analysis of plants indicates that seed-bearing plants are going extinct at an average rate of three species per year, 500 times faster than expected. Another study estimates that about 40 per cent of insect species may go extinct in the next few decades.

We could casually dismiss these reports as irrelevant to Yukon where our wild nature is flourishing. That would be short-sighted and even dangerous. Change is on our doorstep. We are on the frontier of a wave of ecosystem degradation and loss of species that has rolled across most of the globe.

Our wild country is going to change in myriad ways as our population grows, we turn parts of nature into commodities, and we overheat our climate.

We cannot ignore our responsibility as the fortunate inhabitants of a place where nature abounds. Yukon holds among the last large spaces that remain wild on the planet. Yukoners foster cultures that are deeply engrained in the land and with its wildlife. Here, also, we support numerous species facing extinction risk elsewhere — this may be their last foothold on survival.

Here, we inherit numerous species that exist nowhere else. We have huge stewardship responsibilities. So how do we anticipate and direct changes for the better?

At its heart this is a question of attitude: How do we view nature? The dire trends globally have often resulted from people viewing nature as just a set of economic benefits to be exploited. But wild nature is at the root of our lives, providing food, energy, clean water, and well-being through cultural identity. Every part of our wild spaces is already full of value and providing us benefits.

We have a vested interest in taking responsibility for nature, in realizing the Indigenous principles of respect and reciprocity, and in becoming the stewards of change. What might this mean in terms of our future behaviour?

One thread in an enlightened stewardship is planning our uses of land and water. The Umbrella Final Agreement mandates our land-planning processes. Plans can significantly advance our national responsibility for new protected areas under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

They can direct a careful approach to change, measured by what science tells us about the threshold of human activity beyond which species will be lost. They can also espouse core values, such as precaution and respect, to counter self-interest and greed.

Another thread is what we include in our view of nature. Yukon’s Wildlife Act defines wildlife as those species with backbones (vertebrates) that have value to people for food, fur, or trophy (i.e. big game, small game, game birds, furbearers) plus a few species requiring special protection. The list does not include lots of other small mammals, fish, most birds, amphibians, invertebrates, or plants. So, we lack means of controlling harvest or harm done to a large proportion of the wild organisms that share our ecosystems and define our experiences of nature.

Given that many of these “unprotected” species benefit us in ways we understand (many birds and insects), and many others probably do so in ways we have yet to understand, our narrow legal view of what constitutes “wildlife” needs to be expanded.

We need to learn from previous mistakes. Many mistakes have resulted from a focus on economic return and efficiency that over-looked side-effects. We allowed mines, such as Faro, to be developed leaving legacies of landscape destruction and ongoing pollution which society rather than the mining company itself now has to clean up and manage for perhaps hundreds of years.

Despite improvements in policy, the recent case of the Wolverine mine continues to illustrate that we have much to learn in implementing policies properly, and that corporate entities frequently have no interest in stewardship.

We may have learned the lesson of large hydro-electric dams. These massive infrastructure projects create valuable renewable energy. However, they transform river and lake ecosystems with losses of fish populations, water pollution, novel erosion, and the legacy of a risk-prone dam. Those outcomes frequently cannot be mitigated and have been ignored across the globe.

Now we face similar risks as we rightly move towards more renewable sources of energy. The term “renewable” sounds environmentally-friendly or “green”, but, as with large hydro dams, may not be. There will be environmental costs, including local reductions in wildlife species, from small-scale hydro-electric power generation, salvaging fire and insect-killed forests for biomass energy, and operating wind turbines. We can make good choices about avoiding or reducing these costs with careful observations, risk assessments, and recognition that sometimes costs are too high to proceed.

Humans have been transforming parts of northern ecosystems since the ancestors of current Indigenous peoples arrived. With more change ahead, a growing culture of stewardship can hopefully lead us to be more observant, thoughtful, and respectful in our actions.

Donald Reid is a conservation zoologist with the Whitehorse branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. He helped establish the Whitehorse office 15 years ago.

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