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Globally Threatened Ecosystems

This evaluation reports on the number of globally at-risk ecosystems that have been documented in Canada and for each province/territory.

at-risk ecosystems that are ranked as Globally Vulnerable, Imperiled or Collapsed.

Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta have the highest number of globally threatened ecosystems.

at-risk ecosystems that are endemic to Canada, and not documented in the US.

Why do globally threatened ecosystems matter?

Canada has 315 globally threatened ecosystems that are ranked by NatureServe as Globally Vulnerable, Imperiled, and Collapsed. These include two levels of classification: ecosystem ‘groups’ (n=50) (the coarsest scale) and ecosystem ‘associations’ (n=265) (the finest scale).

Ontario, BC, and Alberta have the highest number of globally threatened ecosystems that have been documented in Canada (Figure 1).

In eastern and central Canada, many globally threatened ecosystems are associated with prairies, savannahs and alvars. In western Canada threatened ecosystems include sub-alpine, sagebrush, and temperate rainforest associations.

26 ecosystems in Canada are ranked as Critically Imperiled. These include Western Red-cedar / Salal Forest (BC), Northern Tallgrass Bur Oak Openings (MB, ON), and Eastern Serpentine Outcrop (NL).

15 ecosystems in Canada are now included on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This list is growing as additional assessments are in progress.

Many globally threatened ecosystems are important habitat for Canada’s species at risk and species of global conservation concern.

There are 38 globally threatened ecosystems found in Canada that have not been documented in the US.

Unlike the US, Canada does not have a national ecosystem classification system. Current classifications are a patchwork of provincial, territorial, and regional systems. All ecosystems, including threatened ecosystems, are poorly documented particularly in northern and eastern Canada. This limits the ability to fully describe and conserve threatened ecosystems across our country.

Calls to action

Addressing the biodiversity crisis in Canada will require transformative change. See our backgrounder on transformative change for more information. Specific actions for the conservation of globally threatened ecosystems include:

Federal, provincial, territorial & Indigenous governments

  • Invest in actions to accelerate the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas across Canada that include globally threatened ecosystems. 
  • Incorporate globally threatened ecosystems into species at risk recovery documents and environmental assessments.  
  • Develop multi-species at risk action plans that are based on the boundaries of globally threatened ecosystems and support species recovery through ecosystem restoration. 
  • Support and conduct research on globally threatened ecosystems. Report on their status and trends and monitor progress on conservation actions. 
  • Consider how globally threatened ecosystems could be better protected through existing and new legislation. 

Local governments & communities

  • Inventory and map globally threatened ecosystems based on best available information and incorporate them into land use decisions and conservation actions in local parks. 
  • Leverage the uniqueness and importance of globally threatened ecosystems to build community pride and a sense of place and build support for conservation actions. 

Civil societies, community organizations, universities, colleges & museums

  • Land trusts and naturalist groups can target globally threatened ecosystems for land protection and stewardship actions. 
  • Support and advocate for the designation and protection of Key Biodiversity Areas that include globally threatened ecosystems. 
  • Build awareness about the importance of conserving these ecosystems in Canada and the local action we can take to protect Earth’s biodiversity. 

Businesses & corporations

  • Use the Key Biodiversity Areas registry and other resources to identify globally threatened ecosystems that can be protected and stewarded by your business.  
  • Avoid projects that could impact these places and seek opportunities for ‘nature-positive’ actions that will improve their status. 
  • Fund communities and organizations that are protecting globally threatened ecosystems. 

Everyone

  • Learn about globally threatened ecosystems that occur near your home. Start with your provincial/territorial Conservation Data Centre or local nature club to learn more. 
  • Support Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) or other conservation projects near you that help to conserve globally threaten ecosystems. Volunteer as a KBA caretaker or create a caretaker group. 

Other information

The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is a standard that is used to assess the conservation status of ecosystems around the world. It has a much shorter history of implementation than the IUCN Red List for Species, with only 21 countries having been fully assessed to date. There are currently a limited number of ecosystems from Canada that have been assessed including: Great Lakes Alvars (Endangered) (Keith et al., 2013) and Northern Great Plains Woodland (commonly known as Aspen Parkland) (Critically Endangered) (Ferrer‐Paris et al., 2018) (see Confidence & Limitations) and other ecosystems in southern Canada (Comer et al. 2022).  

Red List ecosystems for forests in Canada are assessed at a coarser level of ecosystem classification than the ecosystems ranked by NatureServe (Figure 1).

Global Key Biodiversity Areas can be triggered by IUCN Red List Ecosystems.

See NatureServe for information on status rankings.

Confidence and limitations

Medium confidence – there are some significant gaps and other limitations to this evaluation. The number of globally threatened ecosystems will change as result of new information.

Unlike the US, Canada does not have a national ecosystem classification system (Jennings et al., 2009), although some provinces have developed their own (e.g. Lee, 1998). Forest ecosystems are generally better documented than other ecosystems. There is no classification for aquatic ecosystems. Although there have been some efforts to crosswalk ecosystem classifications across provinces/territories and with the US, this work remains incomplete. Some ecosystems currently ranked as globally at-risk may be poorly documented in Canada and some current rankings are known to be questionable. Many ecosystems have not been ranked by NatureServe and the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This limits the ability to fully describe and conserve globally threatened ecosystems across the country. Any changes in the number of threatened ecosystems largely reflect new information and classifications. Ecosystems that are at risk due to climate change have not been identified. Seral stages, such as old-growth forests, are not included in this evaluation.

Global Red Listing is generally applied at the ‘group’ level of ecosystem classification hierarch. However. the forest ecosystems currently in the database (Ferrer‐Paris et al., 2018) were assessed as a higher level of classification (macro-group) and future reassessments are likely to be completed at the group level.

The final count of threatened ecosystems in the evaluation incudes some ‘associations’ that are also included in ‘groups’. For example, Great Lakes Alvar (ecosystem group) is globally vulnerable, and it also includes 11 alvar associations (e.g., Little Bluestem Alvar Grassland) that range in conservation status from vulnerable to critically imperilled.

Alvars are globally rare ecosystems that are restricted to limestone plains. They support unique plant and animal communities. Most alvars in North America occur in Ontario around the Great Lakes, but they have recently been found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Photo: An alvar patch near Cumberland Lake, Saskatchewan, showing lines of creeping vegetation and vernal pools of standing water which support the unique plant communities found at the site, by Michael Rudy, Meander Photography.

Video: The largest pavement alvar discovered in Saskatchewan at the Cumberland Lake site, by Michael Rudy, Meander Photography.

Applications and next steps

Identifying and mapping globally threatened ecosystems is important for biodiversity conservation. Canada has a high degree of jurisdictional responsibility for many of these ecosystems and they are critical habitat for hundreds of species of conservation concern. Many globally threatened ecosystems may qualify as Key Biodiversity Areas. These ecosystems should also be used to guide land use planning and prioritize conservation actions, including actions in existing protected and conserved areas. Manitoba is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has legislation to protect threatened ecosystems. 

This first iteration of accounting for globally threatened ecosystems can also help to guide research to fill key information gaps and encourage ecosystem classification and conservation status ranking across Canada. Mapping and reporting on the status of globally threatened ecosystems will help Canada track progress towards meeting the goals and targets in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and developing a national monitoring framework. Mapping of these ecosystems could be refined by linking them to ecoregions.

Globally Threatened Ecosystems

Figure 1: Number of Globally Threatened Ecosystems by province and territory.

Related Evaluations

S2: Globally Threatened Species

How to Cite

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. 2023. Globally threatened ecosystems (version 2.0), in SHAPE of Nature. https://shapeofnature.ca/

For more Information

Contact us for more information or for a copy of the data in XL: https://shapeofnature.ca/take-action/ or wcscanada@wcs.org

Data sources & methods

Data on globally threatened ecosystems is based vulnerable, imperiled or collapsed ecosystems from NatureServe Explorer based on a query of Rounded Global Status of G1, G2, G3, GH, GX of standard ecosystems in Canada. Ranks are currently available for ecosystem groups and associations. The original query was generated on November 25, 2022 and is available in XL format.

Updates

This evaluation will be updated annually. The next planned update will be in late 2023.

Download Evaluation

Backgrounders

Species

S1 Edge of Extinction

S2 Globally Threatened Species

S3 Species at Risk

S4 Endemic Species

S5 Knowledge of Species

S6 State of Canada's Trees

S7 State of Canada's Whales

S8 State of Canada's Frogs

S9 Migratory Species

Habitats

H1 Globally Threatened Ecosystems

H2 Wetland Loss

Actions

A1 Protected & Conserved Areas

A2 Recovery Plans for Species at Risk

Policies

P1 Biodiversity Laws, Policies & Plans

P2 Provincial & Territorial Species at Risk Laws

P3 Delays in Protecting Species at Risk