For many of us, the concepts of endangered species and endangered spaces conjure up images of far-off places, distant lands and unfamiliar ecosystems. The Amazonian rainforests, coral reef systems of the Caribbean, and the once limitless savannahs of Africa’s interior come to mind. Decline and disappearance are often associated with the world out there, as being a problem of somewhere else, and a problem of someone else.
But, in our very own country, in each of our provinces and territories, in one’s very own region, it would be hard to find a location not associated with endangered species and spaces. From the ancient rainforests of the west coast to the grasslands of central Canada to the fisheries of the Maritimes — ideas of limit, of scarcity, and of the vulnerability of species and the spaces that sustain them are ever-present.
On my own doorstep is an ecosystem few would associate with the busy hubbub of Canada’s economic centre, an ecosystem under such great pressure for such a long time that it — and many of the species that call it home — are very near the edge of extinction. The Black Oak savannahs of southwestern Ontario are part of the tallgrass plant community, a nationally endangered and globally imperiled ecosystem.
Savannahs are natural communities characterized by dominant grass and wildflower vegetation, interspersed with trees; in this case, the primary tree species is Black Oak. Tallgrass ecosystems, more endangered even than tropical rainforests, have received much less attention than their sexier tropical and sub-tropical counterparts. As a result, few people are aware of the presence of savannahs in southern Ontario, much less the significance of their decline.
Only 3 percent of the original savannah ecosystem remains in southern Ontario. Much of what’s left is comprised of tiny, fragmented sites suffering from the growing presence of invasive non-native plants (those that can come to dominate and out-compete native species), systemic problems associated with a lack of natural disturbances such as fire (upon which the savannah’s overall health is largely dependent), and savannah-dependent plant and animal species on the brink of extinction. These remnants are under ongoing pressure from urban and agricultural development.
Conserving the savannahs in this region is complicated by the fact that almost the entire land base in southern Ontario is privately owned. Conservation areas cannot simply be declared here or there as environmental managers see fit. The interest and concern of the general public, and their willingness to play a key role in conservation, is critical to the possibility of a future for the savannahs.
Thus, conserving endangered ecosystems in areas like southern Ontario, where populations are exploding and development pressures are always just over the horizon, becomes as much about people as about conservation science. Species inventories need to be carried out, locations of sites must be documented, threats to habitat fragments should be understood so they can be addressed and hopefully minimized. But the most accurate, up-to-date data in the world won’t save imperiled ecosystems, such as the Black Oak savannahs of southern Ontario. Without the involvement and buy-in of the people of the region, particularly those who own the land, the Black Oak savannahs will almost certainly go the way of the Dodo.
The idea of stewardship in such a context becomes of vital importance. Stewardship refers to a type of ecological caretaking based in the community. It involves people looking after their land both for their own good, and for the good of all species that depend on it, ensuring that a diversity of healthy, intact ecosystems will be around for future generations.
Is it possible to engender a wish within communities to take part in stewardship? Part of the answer depends on how well environmental scientists take on the new role that is demanded of them in contexts such as southern Ontario. Educating the public, fostering appreciation and understanding of the savannahs, encouraging a sense of responsibility to the ecosystem — these are the new goals that need to be met by those in charge of conserving our endangered spaces and species. It’s a new age, one demanding of a new role for science, a new role for scientists with a very different skill set, aligned with new priorities and new directions. The survival of endangered ecosystems and the species that rely on them will depend on the ability to blend science with social science. Survival will depend on the capacity to collect hard data and to talk softly with those upon whose interest and enthusiasm the future of our environment depends.