Nova Scotia

This barren N.S. ecosystem is a rare biodiversity hotspot. Scientists want to preserve it

Over hundreds of years, human activity has reduced Nova Scotia's sand barrens to roughly 3 per cent of their original size. Scientists and a community organization are trying to build awareness about the importance of the ecosystem and stem further decline.

Only 3% of intact Annapolis Valley sand barrens are left

Conservation biologist Sherman Boates surveys a carpet of low vegetation in a stretch of sand barren in the Annapolis Valley. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Just outside Kingston, N.S., biologist Sherman Boates crouches over a yellow flower growing out of the sand.

"Watch your feet," he cautions. "It's an endangered species." 

The flower, known as rock rose or Canada frostweed, is endangered.

But it isn't all that's facing extinction along this stretch of highway. Its entire habitat is a globally rare ecosystem known as the Annapolis Valley sand barrens 

"It's very rare in terms of North America, but many of us locally don't really know that it exists, or how interesting and how important it is," said Boates. 

Over hundreds of years, human activity has reduced the sand barrens to roughly 3 per cent of their original size.

Now, scientists and a community organization are trying to build awareness about the importance of the ecosystem in an effort to stem further decline.

Boates inspects some of the plants that make up the sand barrens, which is characterized by low-lying plants growing on a deep layer of sand. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

The Annapolis Valley sand barrens — 'barren', in this case, meaning that there are few trees, and vegetation is low to the ground — are formed by ancient sand deposits running from roughly Kentville to Middleton.

"It's quite a big ecosystem," said Boates. "It's not in little bits." 

But in many ways, little bits are all that's left of the habitat, which has been destroyed or degraded by activities such as agriculture.

For decades, Boates said, scientists had resigned themselves to the disappearance of the habitat. 

"I think a lot of us had sort of written off the sand barrens as an ecosystem that had been so disturbed and forgotten and taken over by other things that there wasn't really a priority to conserve it," he said.

(CBC News)

But that's changed thanks to measures such as federal funding aimed at identifying places important for species at risk.

A project aimed at protecting the sand barrens, run by the community organization Clean Annapolis River Project, has set out to identify the threats and develop ways to address them. 

"We knew this, from our preliminary work, that there are little nuggets in the landscape, where the barrens is very intact," said Boates. "But until CARP's [project], we never really settled into making a formal effort."

In protecting sand barren habitat, project organizers say changing the attitudes of landowners is particularly important in the Annapolis Valley, where much of the land is privately held. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

While all levels of government have potential roles in the project, community members have a particularly important part to play, said Katie McLean, CARP's communications and outreach co-ordinator. 

"If people can recognize maybe three of these plants that we see covering the ground around us, they're going to start to recognize if they're recreating or if they're living in sand barrens," said McLean.

With that recognition, they can start to think, "I have this, I care about it. I want to see it continue to be here in the future," MacLean said.

In its initial stages, the project is asking people to get involved by helping to document some of the species found in the sand barrens.

In future years, the organization hopes to expand to restoration efforts, by encouraging people to change how they manage their land to include more plants that grow naturally in the ecosystem.

Rock rose is an endangered species in Nova Scotia and is at risk in large part due to the destruction of its habitat. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Sand barren "is not something that wants to grow these beautiful Kentucky bluegrass lawns, but a lot of people want their lawns to look like that," said McLean.

"Unfortunately, [sand barren] has a bad reputation. I recall one person kind of lamenting over, 'How do we get rid of it?' So there's still that work to do to help people understand that this is something we should be excited to see and celebrate."

Katie McLean and Sherman Boates stand in front of the sand barren found along Highway 101. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

In the long term, McLean said the work CARP is doing now could help make a case for designating the sand barrens as an entire ecosystem in need of protection. 

"Rather than that kind of species-based listing system, is there an opportunity to more formally recognize an ecosystem is being endangered? Maybe the Annapolis Valley sand barrens is the first of that kind."

Sherman Boates agrees.

"Just like we don't want to see the piping plover disappear, we don't want to see the Annapolis Valley sand barrens get smaller and smaller, and more and more degraded, and blink out before we even know." 

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