Edmonton·CBC Explains

How each of us can help protect biodiversity as the Prairies warm

When you think of nature, you might picture farmland, forests or mountains. But our cities shouldn’t be dismissed as wildlife deserts. Here’s how you can help native species in your own backyard.

‘Our cities in Canada harbour so much native biodiversity, including at-risk species’

Promoting biodiversity in your backyard can provide habitat for native species like Barred Owls. (Melissa Penney)

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change on the Prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how it impacts everyday life.

As the Prairies warm, it's expected large regions of boreal forest could transition to aspen parkland, according to a report led by Natural Resources Canada.

Such shifts in ecosystems can threaten the range and number of wildlife species.

Biodiversity is crucial, says Sheila Colla, a conservation scientist at York University. 

"Biodiversity provides us with ecosystem services like pollination, natural pest control, water purification, soil nutrient cycling, that kind of thing," Colla says. 

Those natural activities, which happen without us thinking about them, would be hard and expensive to replicate. 

A greater diversity of wildlife can itself play a significant role in combatting the effects of climate change. 

"Having more diversity in our system makes that system more resilient to disturbance," Colla says. 

"If you're in an area where there's a drought in the summertime or a spring storm where everything blooms and then freezes, and you're relying on one or two species of bees for pollination, their colonies might be killed," she says.

Canada has 865 species of native bees, which is helpful during those extreme weather disturbances.

5 ways to increase biodiversity in your backyard

1 year ago
Duration 2:12
Bird enthusiast Melissa Penney has spent the past decade making her yard a haven for native plants and animals. Here, she shares her tips to increase the biodiversity in your backyard.

With more species out at different times of the year, Colla says, pollination is more successful.

Native plants, too, can help combat climate change when they are left to their own devices.

"A lot of them are more drought tolerant and they have longer root systems, so they capture carbon in addition to all of the other benefits that they provide," she says.

Native species also rely on each other and removing one will likely endanger another.

"There are co-evolved relationships between plants and animals, and some we don't even fully understand."

Biodiversity has intrinsic value as well, she says.

"Just the fact that it has a right to exist here," Colla says. 

A bumblebee perched on a buttercup.
While some bee populations, like the Western bumblebee, are shrinking, others may be increasing, according to the study from Simon Fraser University. (Sarah Johnson/Simon Fraser University)

Cities play crucial role in maintaining biodiversity

When you think of nature, you might picture farmland, forests or mountains. 

But we shouldn't dismiss our cities as wildlife deserts, Colla says. 

"Our cities in Canada, which tend to be also in the most biodiverse regions of the country, harbour so much native biodiversity, including at-risk species like monarchs," she says.

Cities actively buffer the impact of climate change on biodiversity. 

"If a tree gets impacted by an ice storm, often people will replace that tree," she says. "Or if there's a drought, people will start watering their flowering gardens. And there's not a lot of pesticide used in cities." 

Individuals can play a significant role, say conservationists.

Melissa Penney has worked hard to create a wildlife friendly habitat in her Edmonton backyard. (Melissa Penney)

"People are constantly thinking of what we can do as individuals to fight against climate change and to get us to our federal government policies," says Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle, a conservation planning biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.

It starts in our backyard, with local carbon storage through plant life and maintaining a great diversity of species, Mantyka-Pringle says.

The simplest solution is to split our own needs with those of natural biodiversity, she says.

"If you think, 'I need 50 per cent of the space for myself or my kids to play on,' if we can actually provide 50 per cent for … our other species, that is the general rule and how we can kind of coexist."

Increasing biodiversity in your backyard

"Our collective actions in our backyards and even in our communities can make a big impact when all put together," says Sam Knight, national conservation science manager at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

In your yard sometimes less is more, and little things you leave throughout the year can really help, Knight says.

In winter, feeders are an obvious choice to support birds when food is less available, but even the remnants of the festive season can have a role, she says. 

"Animals can use your Christmas tree in the winter when there's not a whole lot of habitat. They have a safe place to kind of hunker down when there are storms."

When thinking about gardening, picking native plants can support a wide range of biodiversity, which you can just let grow.

"Our lawns don't have to be perfectly manicured," Knight says. "Having a mowed lawn every week doesn't do anything for the animals in your area."

More ambitious additions include bee hotels, nesting boxes or bat boxes that can help wildlife through the season.

And when the leaves fall again, leaving things a little shaggy in your yard can help insects and other species through the winter.

"A single layer of leaves allows insects and other animals that hunker down and hibernate in the winter to have a safe space, a kind of blanket where they can hang out rather than being on the ground with a layer of snow on top of them," Knight says.

Conservation in action

While getting started in your own space may seem overwhelming, Melissa Penney, a bird enthusiast who has created an oasis for over 90 species of birds in her backyard, says planning what will work best for your area is a good jumping off point.

Penney, a birder and photographer, has transformed her yard into a biodiverse paradise. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

"My first planting was a disaster," Penney says. "I wasn't planting native things. I ended up digging like 90 per cent of those back up and then putting in more." 

"It's just this gradual process of finding which plants are underperforming, which are just like an ornamental plant that's not doing anything for wildlife, like insects." 

Penney recommends you educate yourself, drawing out a map of your yard to see what you already have and what you know is not going to work. 

"There's some things that are native plants that I'd love to grow that just won't survive here."

And while a perfectly manicured lawn may not be beneficial for native species, it's important you can enjoy the space along with the wildlife, Penney says.

"The feel for when you walk into your yard should be like a national park. It's calm, it's tranquil, it has sounds. You know, it's peaceful, not a zoo."

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


Christy Climenhaga

CBC Meteorologist

Christy Climenhaga is a meteorologist and CBC Edmonton's climate reporter, covering the impacts of climate change for the Prairies. She has worked as a CBC on-air meteorologist for more than 10 years, in the North and Saskatchewan. Have a climate question? Reach out at christy.climenhaga@cbc.ca.