Diversity is Key to Resilient Ecosystems

Caitlyn AnhornEducation

Photo of Saskatchewan grasslands by Nich Gabruch

By Esprit Farmer & Caitlyn Anhorn

From Saskatchewan’s breathtaking prairie wildflowers and badlands down south, to its massive pine and spruce forests and wetlands up north, Saskatchewan’s biodiverse wilderness can be found at every corner of the province. During a time when the climate is changing and species are dwindling, Saskatchewan’s biodiversity is in need now more than ever. 

What is Biodiversity?

In a technical sense, biodiversity is the combination of two words: biological and diversity. Oftentimes, biodiversity is measured by the number of different types of species in an ecosystem, and their subsequent richness. Taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, biodiversity can consist of three types: genetic, species, and community/ecosystem diversity. 

Beyond the technical terms, however, biodiversity is more complex than that. Biodiversity applies to all living things, from bacteria, to trees, to animals, and even ecosystems.

Measuring biodiversity can tell us how strong and resilient an ecosystem is to change, which is especially important in the face of climate change and the increasing stressors that come with it.

Biodiversity is essential to life on earth. Take, for example, the concept of a food web: herbivores like deer and bison eat grass, but they can also eat flowers, tree bark, and many different types of plants. This is possible in a biodiverse habitat, where many choices of food exist. 

Biodiversity becomes especially important during a stressful event like a drought, a flood, or a long winter. If deer and bison only had one food option, a disturbance may leave them without food. Biodiversity ensures that species have more than one food option to choose from and truly measures the strength of an ecosystem.

Photo of Saskatchewan’s diverse grasslands by Nicholas Gabruch.

Biodiversity in the Prairies and Urban Centers

While biodiversity may seem more obvious in regions such as tropical rainforests or savannas, it is also abundant on the prairies. For example, it can be seen as white, yellow, purple, blue, and red wildflowers that exemplify the many species that live in the fields.

The importance of Saskatchewan’s diverse flower species is indeed profound. Many of these flower species only bloom for a few weeks each summer. Without this biodiversity, local bee populations would be left without food for much of the year. 

Moreover, a diverse bee and insect population ensures that the wildflowers are pollinated each year. Next time you’re in a field, look for the local variety in wildflowers and pollinators. 

As agriculture progresses in Saskatchewan, incorporating biodiversity becomes ever more important. This can include having smaller herds of diverse livestock to minimize spread of disease, a wide variety of climate-appropriate plants to decrease crop failure, and more.

Biodiversity is not only important for wild spaces; it also holds the key to sustainable urban living. While biodiversity is not as abundant in urban spaces, it does still exist.

Various species make their homes in the city and it is our responsibility to co-exist with them.

It is important that we foster biodiversity growth in our cities, especially as they continue to develop. Having little urban biodiversity makes us more vulnerable to famine, disease, and pollution, especially as climate change brings such unpredictability. 

The Importance of Keystone Species

Ecosystems are complex and take many components to function. One factor that many ecosystems contain is a keystone species. Keystone species are something that we often don’t value until it’s too late, and they can take the form of anything from an insect to a carnivore.

Keystone species manage an ecosystem by influencing the survival of different organisms that live there. They have a disproportionately large impact on the ecosystem, even if their population is not very large.

Wolves are one example of a local keystone species because they keep, elk, deer, hare, and other populations in check. If not for wolves, elk, deer and hare populations might drastically increase and cause detriment to local vegetation. This has cascading effects on the other species that rely on vegetation for survival within the ecosystem.

Keystone species help an ecosystem maintain its biodiversity by regulating many other species population numbers. Without the keystone species, an ecosystem could be at risk of collapse. Just look to Yellowstone National Park for an example of this. 

Another category of species that often gets confused with keystone species is an umbrella species; they have a large home range and many habitat needs. By protecting an umbrella species’ habitat, you are also protecting many other species’ habitats under the same ‘umbrella.’ In Saskatchewan, woodland caribou are one of many umbrella species. 

This diagram demonstrates the effects of the presence and absence of a keystone species (wolf) on an ecosystem.

Threats to Biodiversity

In our rapidly changing world, there are many imminent threats to biodiversity and to keystone species. While these threats vary per ecosystem, there is a general understanding of the five main threats to biodiversity around the globe.

According to the 2020 Living Planet Report, North America’s Living Planet Index (LPI)* has decreased by 33% from 1976 until 2016. As stated here, the largest threats to biodiversity in North America are 1) Changes in land and sea use, 2) Species overexploitation, 3) Invasive species and disease, 4) Pollution, and 5) Climate change.

*The LPI is run by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). It is one measure of biological diversity around the world that is calculated based on species population trends.

Though LPI is just one way of measuring biodiversity, other measurements also indicate that global biodiversity is on the decline. We must do our part as individuals to start reversing this decline. 

This image showcases the threats to biodiversity per global region. Changes in land and sea use cause the largest threats around the world. (2020 Living Planet Report)

Humans Need Biodiversity

While biodiversity is incredibly important for ecosystem functioning, humans also rely on it. As we move into the future of climate change and its unknowns, the need for biodiversity will only increase, yet biodiversity itself is on a steep decline.

One major area where biodiversity is required is for global food security. Soil is incredibly important for growing food and houses a superb number of species. Up to 90% of terrestrial organisms spend some of their life in the soil. This said, it is important to protect soil to sustain the many living creatures that depend on it, as well as the future of agriculture as we know it. Our current and future economy relies heavily on the health and wellbeing of the earth’s ecosystems.

One Saskatchewan example of a biodiverse ecosystem is the Saskatchewan River Delta. The communities of Cumberland House have been working towards conserving their home, this iconic landscape, for over three decades. Indigenous Peoples have been living off the land for millennia. Industries in the Saskatchewan River Delta such as fishing, trapping, tourism, medicines, employment, natural experiences, and carbon capture rely on its health.

There are ways of living with the land’s best interest in mind, using nature-based solutions. Let’s turn towards these solutions as a society to make the world a better place.

Ok, so now that you know how important biodiversity is, what can you do?

One of the best ways to do your part is by learning more about the topics at hand. Explore www.cpaws-sask.org, visit the attached links, or do a quick internet search.

Learn about the ecosystems that impact you directly and indirectly. Discover more about how you can contribute to stopping the biodiversity decline: compost and grow your own soil through kitchen and yard scraps, find out where your money goes, stand up for ecological areas, write to your local/provincial/federal governments, create backyard areas for urban wildlife like birds and hares, and the list goes on.

Another fast way to get involved is by donating to organizations like CPAWS to help us fight for biodiversity and other conservation efforts. If you don’t have the money to donate right now, follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep caught up in what we do.