From wastelands to conservation: Why Alberta needs to start thinking about its wetlands

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of an international agreement to protect wetlands around the globe, and this may get you thinking what is so important about wetlands.

Prairies are part of the largest and most important wetlands in North America

In the picture above, this native habitat in the Foothills retains water from rainfall and snowmelt, which helps mitigate flooding. (Brent Calver/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of an international agreement to protect wetlands around the globe, and this may get you thinking what is so important about wetlands.

For awhile they were looked at as wastelands, but over the past few decades, science has shown just how important these areas are.

Dan Kraus, a senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, says wetlands were the first habitat to have been protected through a global agreement.

"That's because there was recognition that even back then, this was an ecosystem that was disappearing quickly and we needed to act," he told the The Homestretch.

Despite that agreement being signed so long ago, Kraus says we need to do more. 

"Wetlands are continuing to be lost, especially in southern Canada, where most people live," he said.

He says that by losing this habitat, it affects the nature and biodiversity of the land.

"About a third of all of Canada's species at risk occur in wetlands, and in some cases, rely on them as their only habitat type," he said.

"But I think there's been a recognition that it's not just nature we're losing. We're also losing the services that wetlands provide to people."

He says these areas not only help hold back flood waters, but purify our drinking water.

And while there are many in Ontario and British Columbia, Kraus says the Prairies also have an important wetland ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada is working with families and ranchers in the Foothills of southwestern Alberta to protect wetlands. One recent project is the Riverside Ranch, which is pictured above. (Brent Calver/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

"The Prairie Pothole combined are actually one of the largest and most important wetlands in North America," he said.

"They're incredibly important for waterfowl production. They're incredibly important to provide base flow to rivers and streams in times of drought, and they also help to prevent floods."

He says that we've lost about half of these wetlands over time — making it an incredible time for nature conservation.

"We need to preserve some of this natural infrastructure, especially where people live," he said.

Conservation groups

To commemorate the anniversary, a virtual symposium at Mount Royal University spent the day focusing on the link between wetlands and fresh drinking water.

The leader of it, Felix Nwaishi, an assistant professor in earth and environmental sciences at MRU, compared wetlands to the kidneys of earth. 

"Part of what we did today was to listen to researchers and scientists who are conducting a lot of work on wetlands within Canada and Alberta," he said.

"The conversation at least, is going on because Alberta and Calgary is one of the significant places when it comes to wetland science in the country." 

Kraus says that there's a few groups fighting to help Canada's wetlands, like Nature Conservancy Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

And in Alberta, some regional groups like the Southern Alberta Land Trust, Western Sky Land Trust, Foothills Land Trust, Legacy Land Trust and Edmonton Area Land Trust also work at conservation.

"The management of resources in Canada often comes down to the provincial level or the local level or often the individual landowner to make those decisions," said Kraus.

"And in a world that's rapidly changing, the more wetlands we lose, the more valuable the ones that we have are."

With files the The Homestretch


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