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Carolinian Canada

1.0 Carolinian Canada - A Special But Threatened Landscape

In the context of Canada's land mass, the area from Toronto to Grand Bend southwards seems almost incidental - a mere quarter of one percent of the country's span. But this tiny region known as Carolinian Canada, tucked into the southward thrust of the Great Lakes, is both Canada's richest and most endangered ecosystem.

Why so rich? In part, the diversity of species and natural communities in Carolinian Canada is a reflection of its southerly latitude - its climate shares more with the "hot continental" regions of the adjacent central U.S. than the "warm continental" conditions that characterize most of southern and central Ontario. The moderating influence of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron which bound the region also plays a part, contributing to the longest growing season in the province. Much of the Carolinian region has a glacial legacy of deep rich soils, but there is also a diversity of shallow limestone plains, dolostone cliffs, and Great Lakes shoreline features which support specialized habitats. This region hosts the world's largest freshwater delta in Lake St. Clair, extensive dune and wetland complexes along the Lake Erie shore, and the natural wonder of Niagara Falls and its associated gorge.

But this is a region rich in human activity as well. Almost 7 million people, nearly a quarter of Canada's population, live and work here. Nearly all of Carolinian Canada east of the Niagara Escarpment has been urbanized or is under serious urban pressure, and other large urban centres have developed around Brantford, Cambridge, London, and Windsor. Seventy-three percent of the region is highly productive agricultural land, and farming is becoming increasingly intensive, particularly in the western sections of the region. Less productive areas, such as the Niagara Escarpment, are highly desired for rural residential development, especially those within reach of urban centres. A rapid shift in countryside demographics is underway, with fewer farm families, and significantly greater numbers of rural non-farm residents.

Changes resulting from this human activity have been described in several earlier studies (Jalava et al., 2000; Reid and Symmes, 1997). Not surprisingly, one result has been a severe decline in the extent and integrity of natural landscapes:

Historically, 80% of the Carolinian region was covered with vast tracts of Maple, Ash, Elm, Oak and Pine forests, mostly in old-growth condition. Forest cover has now been reduced to 11%, with almost no old-growth, and with the remnant forests concentrated in areas where agricultural and urban pressures are less intense. And unlike most other parts of southern Ontario, forest cover in recent years has continued to decline in many areas.

Wetlands have declined from an original 28% of the landscape to only 5%, and most of the remaining wetlands are being impacted by heavy loads of sediments and associated pollutants from upstream areas.

Patches of savanna and prairie have been severely reduced in extent, while other specialized communities such as dunes, alvars, cliffs, bogs and prairie fens have always been rare. At this point, Carolinian Canada sustains at least 18 globally rare and 42 provincially rare vegetation communities.

The region has the highest concentration of endangered species in the country, with over 400 plant and animal species classed as provincially rare, and many of these also nationally endangered or threatened.

Most watercourses have been affected by agricultural or urban drainage, dams, channelization, and high loads of sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants, resulting in a high number of imperiled freshwater species.

Overall, less than 15% of Carolinian Canada's area still has "natural" cover, but most of these natural areas are highly disturbed, fragmented, and isolated. In the urban cores and the most intensive farming areas, natural cover of less than 5% is characteristic.

Earlier Conservation Efforts

Some of the best remaining natural areas within Carolinian Canada have been retained as a result of public ownership, public policy or good stewardship. However, the extent of these areas is very limited:

Approximately 2% of the region's land area is protected through public ownership as national or provincial parks, wildlife areas, and conservation areas.

High-quality examples of characteristic landform-vegetation patterns have been identified as Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSIs) and partially protected through planning policies; these areas occupy about 2.5% of the region.

Most of the larger wetlands in Carolinian Canada have been evaluated and receive policy protection, comprising about 2.1% of the region; some agencies are also attempting to protect unevaluated wetlands.

Natural areas along the Niagara Escarpment are protected through policies of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, and through an ongoing acquisition program.

Several very significant natural areas are located on First Nation lands and have been retained by the traditional management practices on these lands; First Nation lands comprise about 2% of the region.

In the early 1980s, 38 of the most significant Carolinian sites on private land were identified to provide a focus for conservation action and stewardship (Eagles and Beechey, 1985). While these Carolinian Canada sites cover about 2.7% of the region, they generally overlap with ANSIs and wetlands. The other categories listed above also overlap to a large degree, suggesting that in total less than 5% of Carolinian Canada is currently protected as natural landscapes.

The initial $3.6 million Carolinian Canada program combined the expertise and resources of a coalition of environmental non-government organizations and government agencies to protect key sites through education, private land stewardship, research and acquisition. Through innovative landowner contact programs, over 6000 ha of the 38 sites were conserved through agreements with landowners. Roughly 800 ha were acquired for the region's protected areas. Educational projects, publications, natural areas inventories, and species-at-risk research made significant contributions as well (Allen et al. 1990).

After more than a decade of successful projects, a program review (Reid and Symmes, 1997) concluded that despite this progress, the landscape as a whole continued to lose natural habitats and species at an alarming rate. The partners within Carolinian Canada determined to develop a bioregional conservation strategy that could provide a framework to restore a functional natural heritage system.

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