Why we need to preserve this biodiverse coastal headland
This article has since been republished with permission in the January edition of the Eastern Shore Cooperator.
Biodiversity (a contraction of “biological diversity”) comprises all life on Earth. Greater species diversity supports healthier ecosystems and even improved human health.
“We are in the midst of both climate and biological diversity (extinction) emergencies, wherein we are at or beyond planetary thresholds for being able to recover. Such intact ecosystems as Owls Head are our ecological life-support systems. We need them in order to survive as a species, as do the other species with which we share this land, many of which are endangered1.”Dr. Karen Beazley
“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely2.”UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’
The sixth mass extinction is an ongoing extinction event and the rate of species extinction is accelerating2.
The study “Decline of the North American avifauna” reported that there are a staggering 2.9 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 19703.
Migrating species have been hit particularly hard, with their populations declining by 2.5 billion individuals3.
It’s not just birds. Species of plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are also going extinct as a result of human activity.
The Center for Biological Diversity reports that “the current rate of extinction of species is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates4.”
“Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history2.”(UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’)
World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report Canada 2020” revealed that populations of Canadian species that are of global conservation concern have declined (in Canada) by an average of 42% between 1970 and 20165.
Populations of Canadian species that are of national conservation concern have declined by an average of 59% between 1970 and 20165.
Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, says that “it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global2.”
Owls Head Provincial Park is a biodiverse property with coastal heathlands, salt marshes and bogs, a freshwater lake, estuaries, a beach, and a rugged coastline. It is bordered by offshore eelgrass beds that provide important habitat for a multitude of aquatic species.
“Owls Head contains a globally rare coastal habitat ecosystem that is home to several species of conservation concern6.”Biologist Bob Bancroft
Scientists from St. Mary’s University (Ecology of Plants in Communities Lab) have been studying the ecology of Owls Head for 15 years. They’ve determined that the property is home to a globally rare coastal broom crowberry (Corema conradii) plant community, which must be protected.
“Our years of data reveal that Owls Head is ecologically unique and of importance to biodiversity conservation. […] Broom Crowberry is endemic to northeastern North America, meaning this species can be found nowhere else in the world. In Canada, this plant only occurs within the Maritime Provinces and Quebec and within that limited range, Broom Crowberry is only common in Nova Scotia. If our province does not make an effort to protect this species, there will be no other opportunity elsewhere to protect it7.”Biologists Dr. Jeremy Lundholm and Caitlin Porter
Avian Diversity (Diversity of Bird Species)
As a 268-hectare coastal landscape on the Atlantic Flyway, Owls Head is an important habitat for native bird species and a refuge for migratory birds.
This summer, CPAWS NS and a team of biodiversity experts observed and recorded some of the site’s “rich natural diversity8.” Through surveys from the land and the water, they have identified over 75 species of birds, including warblers, ring-necked pheasants, blue herons, ospreys, a bald eagle, black guillemots, American redstarts (a migratory species), willets, and (provincially endangered) barn swallows8 9.
“The government claims that Owls Head is of low conservation value, but our fieldwork is adding to a growing body of research that shows that this is clearly not the case. By documenting the biodiversity found in both marine and terrestrial habitats, we can improve public knowledge and demonstrate the conservation significance of this area9.”CPAWS NS
Part of Owls Head Provincial Park has been mapped in the government’s significant habitat database for nesting piping plovers.10 There have also been local reports of piping plovers on the beach at Owls Head Provincial Park11. The beloved piping plover is endangered, both provincially (under the Endangered Species Act) and federally (under the Species at Risk Act). In Nova Scotia, there are fewer than 40 breeding pairs of piping plovers12, so we must make every effort to protect them and their habitat.
“If it is the case that Piping Plover nest on the beaches of Owls Head as was reported by Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Protected Areas Branch, in summaries of the conservation values of this site, the construction and use phase of any development at this site are likely to interact with the critical habitat of this federally listed species at risk7.”Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15
Ecosystems Contributing to Biodiversity
One of the main causes of biodiversity loss is habitat degradation. For this reason alone, we should be protecting significantly more wilderness areas in our province. Although scientists and environmentalists advocate for expanding our network of protected areas, Nova Scotia’s quota for land protection is only 13%, which we haven’t even reached. Lands and Forestry’s 13% mandate is not based in science, nor is it adequate to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
“A study by Karen Beazley and associates in the School for Resources and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie used a GIS and modelling based approach to estimate conservation needs in Nova Scotia. They concluded that ~60% of Nova Scotia, including 32% in core areas, should be managed for conservation objectives to maintain genes, species, and ecosystems over time. Similar estimates have been forthcoming from other studies. In practice, this means that much larger areas than 12% of the province need to be managed for biodiversity conservation, regardless of whether they are in private or public hands13.”David Patriquin
“Our data show that at least 28% (and up to 51%) of the area of Owl’s Head Provincial Park is wetland. The largest area of these wetlands consists of interconnected and biodiverse bog wetlands that occur in mostly linear-shaped features distributed across the entire area of the site14.”Biologists Dr. Jeremy Lundholm and Caitlin Porter
The Nova Scotia’s Wetland Conservation Policy states, “since wetlands are among the most productive and diverse of all the ecosystems on earth, losing them means reduced biodiversity through the loss of local populations of fish, wildlife and plants that depend on wetlands for their habitat or food15.” When our province’s own policy emphasizes the important relationships between various species in wetland habitats, why is Nova Scotia going ahead with a plan that will destroy the wetlands at Owls Head Provincial Park?
Sample plots at Owls Head Provincial Park
Porter and Lundholm studied wetland biodiversity at Owls Head Provincial Park by utilizing 1x1m sample plots and cataloguing the species.
“Species richness within our nine 1x1m wetland sample plots ranged from 3 to 21 unique species. The average species richness of these wetland sample plots is 15. The single plot that had less than 12 species also featured a substantial area of exposed rock. Our study did not identify lichen and bryophyte species meaning the total species richness of flora within each sample plot is underestimated7.”Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 11
“Coastal Barrens in Nova Scotia, in general, cannot be considered low-diversity ecosystems (Oberndorfer and Lundholm 2009; Cameron and Bondrup – Nielsen 2013, Porter 2013). This site specifically cannot reasonably be considered to be low in biodiversity7.”Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 15
Offshore Eelgrass Meadows and Rockweed Beds
“The marine environment around Owls Head supports meadows of eelgrass. Eelgrass is formally considered an Ecologically Important Species (ESS) for its functional role in protecting shorelines and supporting marine biodiversity. Eelgrass requires pristine water conditions and is not tolerant of nutrient pollution. (DFO 2009)7”Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 14
Marine biologist Dr. Kristina Boerder explains that both rockweed and eelgrass are known as ecosystem engineers because “these species create a special habitat, much like trees on land: a habitat in which other species can live, feed, spawn and hide. This, in turn, affects a whole range of species, from small invertebrates (like mussels and clams) to crustaceans (such as lobster and crabs), to fish (such as herring, juvenile salmon, and some flatfish)16.”
Halifax’s Green Network Plan identifies an “essential corridor” between Owls Head Provincial Park and Tangier Grand Lake Wilderness Area17. Also known as a green corridor or wildlife corridor, these connecting spaces are vital for our wildlife and biodiversity.
These corridors can mitigate certain effects of habitat fragmentation. Enabling individual animals to move between protected areas allows them access to more resources, increases biodiversity (by preventing inbreeding), and reduces zoonotic diseases.
Biodiversity and Human Health
Damian Carrington of The Guardian reported, “The air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat all rely on biodiversity, but right now it is in crisis – because of us18.” Indeed, biodiversity is more than just the number of species; it also encompasses the complex relationships between them, some of which have evolved over millions of years. Through habitat destruction, the introduction of invasive/non-native species, and climate change, we have upset the intricate balance of living things.
One consequence has been the rise of zoonotic diseases, which pass from animals (or insects) to people. Some examples include bird flu, Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, and swine flu. Evidence also suggests that Covid-19 has a zoonotic source.
“I think people are seeing that we brought this pandemic upon ourselves by disregarding the warnings of scientists19.”Dr. Jane Goodall
“Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International, and the world has been ignoring this stark reality for decades20.”The Guardian, Pandemics result from destruction of nature, say UN and WHO
Where Should Nova Scotia Go From Here?
From the air we breathe to the water we drink, biodiversity is critical to human survival. The more biodiverse our province and our planet are, the more resilient they will be to weather disturbances, disease, and climate change. 21
Bearing in mind the seriousness of the biodiversity crisis, it seems unconscionable that our government would abet the devastation of this biodiverse park. The ecology of Owls Head Provincial Park has been evolving since the glaciers shaped the land. Replacing 10,000 years of evolution with a turf-grass monoculture is an environmentally unsound decision, to say the least. So what should our province do instead?
- Stop the sale and legally protect Owls Head Provincial Park
- Prioritize biodiversity and wilderness conservation
- Invest in eco-tourism, especially on the Eastern Shore
- Legally protect the other properties with “pending or proposed protection” (approximately 200 other properties have the same status that Owls Head Provincial Park did before it was delisted)
“Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are vital to our health and continued prosperity […] As we look toward restarting our economy, we need to continue investing in the protection of our natural surroundings and the fight against climate change—because if you do not have a plan for the environment, you cannot have a plan for the economy22.”Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
- Beazley, K. (2020, February 17). [Letter from Dr. Karen Beazley to Premier Stephen McNeil]. Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ – United Nations Sustainable Development. (2020, May 6).
- Rosenberg, K., Dokter, A., Blancher, P., & John, S. (2019). Decline of the North American avifauna [Abstract]. Science, 366(6461), 120-124.
- Center for Biological Diversity (n.d.). Halting the Extinction Crisis.
- World Wildlife Fund, (2020, September 2). The Living Planet Report Canada 2020.
World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report Canada.
- Vibert, J. (2020, February 5). Owls Head becomes ground zero of land protection battle with province. The Chronicle Herald.
- Lundholm, J., & Porter, C. (2020, March 23). Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown Land. (Rep.).
- Grady, C. (2020, August 25). Back at Owls Head. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Chapter.
- Grady, C., & Harvey, R. (2020, July 7). Community Scientists Descend on Owls Head. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Chapter.
- Nova Scotia. (n.d.). Provincial Landscape Viewer. Retrieved September 2020, from https://nsgi.novascotia.ca/plv/
- Bell, R. (Producer). (2020, January 28). Owls Head Meeting January 26 Final questions [Video file].
- Nature Conservancy of Canada (n.d). Piping plover.
- Patriquin, D. (2016, August 31). Conservation. Nova Scotia Forest Notes.
- Lundholm, J., & Porter, C. (2020, February 4). [Letter to The Honourable Labi Kousoulis]. Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- Nova Scotia Wetland Conservation Policy [PDF]. (2011, October 14). Government of Nova Scotia.
- Boerder, K. (2020, August 29). Marine Ecosystems Q&A.
- Halifax Regional Municipality. (2018, June). Map 5: Green Network Ecology Map [Map]. (p. 35).
- Carrington, D. (2018, March 12). What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us? The Guardian.
- Bobrow, E. (2020, July 10). Jane Goodall Hopes the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Wake People Up. The Wall Street Journal.
- Carrington, D. (2020, June 17). Pandemics result from destruction of nature, say UN and WHO. The Guardian.
- Center for Biological Diversity (n.d.). The Elements of Biodiversity.
- Trudeau, J., The Right Honourable. (2020, June 05). Statement by the Prime Minister on World Environment Day.
Broom Crowberry (Corema conradii) Pistillate flowers by Green Optics Photography https://www.flickr.com/photos/60548141@N00/5607993801/in/photostream/