The State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary is an information-rich review of the most recent biodiversity research in Ontario. The summary addresses areas in which we have succeeded in improving biodiversity, as well as the persistent challenges. Recent successes in the fight against biodiversity loss include increased public awareness of biodiversity, the integration of biodiversity curricula into classrooms and increased environmental volunteerism. There have also been more assessments of the conservation status of thousands of species, more terrestrial land and rare ecosystems are under protection, and major pollutants that harm biodiversity have been reduced. However, challenges in protecting Ontario’s biodiversity persist. For instance, maintaining wetland cover and good water quality are ongoing challenges in Ontario, yet funding to biodiversity-related ministries and charitable donations to conservation and environmental organizations have declined. Let’s explore the state of Ontario’s biodiversity and learn how we can aid in its conservation.
This blog was inspired by the “State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary” by the Ontario Biodiversity Council (1), and we have largely drawn on the research presented in this report as well as the “State of Ontario’s Biodiversity: Index of Indicators” web application (2).
“If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.” This is what left me hopeful after watching David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. Attenborough also explains, “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created.” This crisis is climate change. Climate affects every single thing on Earth – from a grain of sand to a massive Blue Whale, nothing can escape it. For this reason, the United Nations has identified climate change as the biggest threat that modern humans have ever faced (3). Although we are not hopeless in mitigating its effects, in order to do so we must preserve and restore biodiversity.
Biodiversity is the sum of all living things on Earth and how these organisms interact with one another and the environment. The environment encompasses the “non-living world” such as rocks, minerals, water and air, which all interact with biodiversity. Through these interactions, biodiversity provides clean air and water, food, fibre and outdoor experiences, all of which we benefit from as humans. These benefits are often referred to as ecosystem services, and ecosystem services maintain healthy communities and economies. Ecosystem services are estimated to contribute hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of services every year (4), and this is likely a gross underestimate. Biodiversity restoration is one of the goals of The Land Between and the Biodiversity Council of Ontario.
The Ontario Biodiversity Council (OBC; referred to in this blog as the Council) was formed in 2005 to achieve the vision of Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy. Every five years, the professionals on the Council review the most recent biodiversity research in Ontario and write a report summarizing the successes and persistent challenges. The purpose of these reports is to guide conservation efforts on how to reduce threats, enhance resilience, and engage and educate Ontarians on biodiversity. In December 2021, the Ontario Biodiversity Council released the State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary (1). The information summarized in these reports are critical to understanding how to protect, restore and sustainably manage biodiversity. Four of The Land Between’s seven goals for 2020-2025 directly align with the indicators of biodiversity that the OBC assesses which include: engage youth, enhance education, sustain water quality and conserve biodiversity. In this article, we will highlight the areas of success and remaining challenges for several indicators of biodiversity in Ontario (as pointed out by the Council) and include ways that you can help conserve and restore biodiversity with The Land Between.
Engagement and enhance education
Think back to the first time you learned about biodiversity. Some of us learned about biodiversity for the first time today, some of us stumbled upon it as a child playing outdoors, while others studied it as students sitting in a classroom. The Council assessed the integration of biodiversity curricula in classrooms. Additionally, the Council estimated biodiversity awareness, volunteer participation in conservation activities and funding allocated to conservation/environmental organizations in Ontario.
The Council identified elementary school as an important time to enhance biodiversity education because it’s the first time many people explicitly learn about biodiversity. Also, educating school aged children (under 12) about biodiversity was identified to have the greatest impact on raising awareness about biodiversity. Since 2015, biodiversity has been integrated into primary and secondary school curriculums, as well as some post-secondary and business school programs.
Public awareness of biodiversity has increased over time in Ontario. A survey conducted by the Council in 2020 found that 74% of the 1500 Ontarians surveyed were aware of biodiversity. Encouragingly, Ontarians’ awareness of biodiversity has increased by 14% since 2014. Additionally, 82% of participants agree or strongly agree that biodiversity plays an important role in maintaining their health and well-being. The vast majority of participants also recognize that biodiversity impacts their health through cleaner air and water, as well as the availability of healthy food. While Ontarians’ awareness of biodiversity has increased, it still lags behind biodiversity awareness of citizens from other countries such as China (95%), Peru (94%), France (90%) and Switzerland (83%), based on survey data collected between 2012 and 2019 (5).
Surveys conducted by the Council also found that Ontarians are engaged in conservation activities through volunteering their time. The Council observed an increased trend of biodiversity volunteerism in Ontario from 2002-2018, while the number of people volunteering their time to conservation-based activities remained fairly consistent between 2015 and 2020.
Funding from provincial ministries, conservation authorities and charitable giving by individuals was also assessed. The provincial budget has increased 14% over the last five years, but the funding spent by biodiversity-related provincial ministries (i.e. Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks [MECP] & Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry [MNDMNRF]) has decreased by 6% over this time period. While the allocation of funds to biodiversity-related provincial ministries have remained fairly consistent in the over five years, there was a clear reduction in funding to ministries between 2018-2020 (see figure 1 below). In the most recent years however, spending by the Ontario government and support for conservation has been dramatically lost and protections for nature gutted.
Surveys from 2014 and 2018 have shown that charitable donations by Ontarians to environmental activities have decreased. Lastly, the monetary value of Ontario Trillium Foundation’s environmental grants have decreased 19% between 2001-02 and 2019-20 when accounting for inflation and other changes to costs of living. Again, since 2021 these sums have been drastically reduced again.
The Council also notes that allocation of resources to biodiversity management and conservation from all sources averaged 0.19% of Ontario’s GDP between 2001-2019. The main take-away is that conservation-based activities must be better funded to restore biodiversity.
Figure 1. Percent of total provincial budget allocated to Ontario ministries with biodiversity mandates (2).
What is The Land Between doing? The Land Between aims to engage people in learning about biodiversity through our blogs, newsletters, social media, billboards, our virtual tourism “Land Stories” application and through public outreach events. We work to mentor youth – our future leaders – who are excited and engaged citizens. The Land Between has wonderful opportunities for people of all ages to become involved in conservation through many programs including Turtle Guardians, Phragmites Fighters, Snake Supervisors or one of our other community science programs. The Land Between also contributes to education through presentations at forums and schools, as well as through FREE curricula for elementary and secondary schools that was created in partnership with the Ontario Visual Heritage Project. Turtle Guardians also offers FREE curricula for education on turtles.
Sustain water quality
The Council also assessed indicators of water quality in the 2020 report. Successes and challenges of maintaining and improving water quality include the quantity of major pollutants that are being released, pH, calcium, and phosphorus levels in inland lakes, and the state of wetland cover across the province. Research also shows that areas in The Land Between bioregion contain watersheds that are ranked as highly stressed.
The water chemistry of inland lakes reflects the geology of the surrounding landscape and inputs from inflowing streams. Pollution from inflowing streams alters the water quality of lakes. Pollution can come from a variety of sources such as industrial waste, wastewater from development, agricultural run-off, or deposits from airborne pollution. Fortunately, substantial progress has been made to reduce major pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and mercury, which have particularly negative impacts on biodiversity. From 2002-2019 levels of all three pollutants have declined in Ontario. Sulfur oxide emissions have decreased by 81% in Ontario, which is largely due to reduced emissions from fossil-fuel power-generating plants, the closure of such plants, and reduced emissions from the petroleum sector. Nitrogen oxide emissions have decreased by 58% which is attributed to phasing in vehicles with better emission standards. Mercury emissions have decreased by 66%, most likely as a result of the closure of coal-fired power plants in the province and reduced emissions from waste disposal. While pollutants that are particularly harmful to biodiversity have declined, we must still work towards reducing or eliminating these emissions to protect biodiversity.
Water quality of inland lakes is measured on a five-year cycle through the Broad-Scale Monitoring Program. Water quality for 94% of sampled lakes had pH, calcium and phosphorus levels within acceptable limits. The pH of a lake is a measurement of the water’s acidity. The pH is important because acidic water (pH < 6.5) and basic water (pH > 8.5) can negatively affect aquatic life, the majority of which requires neutral (pH 7) water to keep most orgaisms healthy. There are several lakes in The Land Between bioregion that were reported as acidic; however, most lakes that were sampled had a good pH ranging from 6.5 – 8.5.
In addition to pH, the Broad-Scale Monitoring Program also measures calcium. Low calcium is problematic for planktonic crustaceans which are an important part of the food chain, whereas lakes with high calcium are vulnerable to invasive Zebra Mussels. Researchers found that 3% of sampled lakes had critically low levels of calcium. Lakes in The Land Between bioregion had calcium levels ranging from critically low (< 1.5 mg/L), to high (> 20 mg/L), indicating that some lakes may have disruptions to the food chain (i.e. low calcium) and other lakes are vulnerable to mussels (i.e. high calcium).
The Broad-Scale Monitoring Program also measures the amount of phosphorus in inland lakes. High phosphorus is concerning because it leads to algal blooms which reduce oxygen in lakes. Most lakes in The Land Between bioregion have ideal (<10 mg/L) or moderate levels of phosphorus (10-20 mg/L), but a few lakes have high phosphorus (<20 mg/L).
Another challenge to maintaining biodiversity is that wetland cover in southern Ontario has continually decreased. As of 2010, an estimated 68% of wetlands in southern Ontario have been converted to other uses since the 1980s (8). The rate of wetland loss in southern Ontario from 2011-2015 (1825 ha/year or 4,508 football fields) was much higher than the rate of wetland loss between 2000-2011 (615 ha/year or 1,520 football fields). From 2011-2015, an additional 0.7% of remaining southern Ontario wetlands were lost. Specifically, over half of the wetlands lost from 2011-2015 were in the Kemptville Ecodistrict in eastern Ontario, likely due to steady population growth in this area leading to development (e.g. housing, infrastructure, etc.). Wetlands are lost and degraded because they have been drained for agriculture, filled for development or polluted by runoff and damaged by changes to water levels. Since the introduction of Bill 23 and the previous alterations to the Endagered Species Act, wetland protection has ground to a halt in place of unbridled development. Experts have indicated that these changes within the legislation and government direction will result in the same catastrophic wetland losses at the time of colonization and that resulted in the Dustbowl which harkened the Great Depression.
Regions across The Land Between contain watersheds that are ranked as highly stressed. A figure from the “Aquatic Stress Index” based on research by Chu and colleagues (2015) shows that the middle and eastern portions of The Land Between bioregion have a heightened Aquatic Stress Index (Fig. 1). The ranking is based on several factors including patterns in freshwater fish biodiversity, environmental conditions and anthropogenic stress in watersheds (9). Low freshwater fish diversity, changes to environmental conditions (e.g. growing degree days above 5℃, annual sunshine hours and mean annual vapour pressure) and high anthropogenic stress (e.g. dwelling densities, business patterns and road densities) were used to create an index and prioritize watersheds for conservation action (9). Watersheds that ranked high on the Aquatic Stress Index should be prioritized because they are stressed and may be susceptible to damage.
Figure 2. 2013 Stress Index for tertiary watersheds in Ontario based on Chu et al. (2015).
Higher Stress Index scores represent a higher level of stress to aquatic ecosystems (2).
Damage to our wetlands is not just a loss to Ontarians, but a loss to the world: 6% of the world’s remaining wetlands are located in Ontario and 25% of remaining wetlands are in Canada (6). Therefore, we have a responsibility as global citizens to protect these habitats and maintain the ecosystem services they provide. Declines in wetlands are troubling because wetlands provide many ecosystem services including shoreland stabilization, water purification, groundwater and flood control, and they act as carbon sinks that absorb and store greenhouse gasses. In fact, the value of wetlands in southern Ontario is an estimated $4.2 billion per year due to the sediment and phosphorus removal that naturally occurs within wetlands, especially in swamps (7). The destruction of wetlands also releases large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Wetlands also support a unique mix of terrestrial and aquatic species because wetlands are at the junction of terrestrial and aquatic habitat types.
What is The Land Between doing? One of The Land Between’s goals is to sustain and improve water quality and healthy fish habitats. The Land Between is working towards achieving the goal of sustaining water quality through The Blue Lakes Program. The Blue Lakes Program is a way for community members to collaborate on stewarding their lake and to share data on a collaborative platform. Additionally, our Design Your Shoreland Garden program helps people naturalize their shoreland. Naturalized shorelands have many benefits including promoting biodiversity and improving water quality. A new emerging program called Agwaamtoon Mshkiikii (Protecting the Medicines) in partnership with the Sacred Water Circle will work towards educating municipalities in wetland science and in providing mapping tools and solutions to support greater protection.
The Council’s main goal is to conserve Ontario’s biodiversity. The last five years have seen substantial progress in the proportion of private lands participating in stewardship activities, the amount of protected area and the protection of rare ecosystems. However, more work is always needed to protect Species At Risk (SAR) and reduce the threat of invasive species. Learn more about Species At Risk in The Land Between bioregion.
Ontarians are conducting more restorative and nature-connected activities on land. Great progress has been made in regards to the annual amount of land conserved in Ontario, which has increased 19% between 2002 and 2018. Activities include restoring habitats, monitoring species, reporting and removing invasive plants, or planting native species.
The protection of terrestrial land has improved in Ontario, including protection of rare ecosystems. Additionally, the amount of protected area and conservation land has increased since 2010 and is now at 10.7% of terrestrial area in Ontario. However, Ontario is ranked 8th out of 13 provinces and territories in terms of the proportion of terrestrial area that is protected. Additionally, 10.7% of protected area is still well below the 17% protected area target for terrestrial areas that was established at the Convention on Biological Diversity (10). Another step in protecting the terrestrial area in Ontario is increased protection of rare ecosystems, including 21% of all of Ontario’s alvars (flat open limestone or dolostone habitats with thin soil), 79% of coastal dune ecosystems (tidal action and wind create dunes of sand) and 62% of prairies (generally flat land dominated by grasses, sedges and other flowering plants). The proportion of rare ecosystems that are protected have increased 7% (alvar), 4% (coastal dune) and 1% (prairie) since the 2015 report. Further, 85% of the areas in these rare ecosystems are ranked as good or high quality. Habitat quality is important because these unique ecosystems support many of Ontario’s rare species.
In terms of wildlife, there were 243 species on the Species At Risk in Ontario List as of January 2021. Due to the hard work of hundreds, if not thousands of volunteers, students, biologists, researchers and government officials, the conservation status ranking of another 8,863 additional Ontario species have been assessed. Between 2015 and 2021, 151 species had been assessed more than once, 65% of species showed no change in conservation status, 20% moved into a higher risk category (e.g. moved from threatened to endangered) and 14% were downlisted (moved from a higher risk category to a lower risk category, e.g. endangered to threatened).
A great tool for biodiversity conservation is strong policy and legislation. One of the targets achieved by 2015 was establishing the national and provincial strategic framework for invasive species. Invasive species pose threats when they are introduced to an area, and have the opportunity to establish and spread. In 2012 the Ontario government released a framework that identifies key actions to reduce the threats of invasive species (11). As of 2015, several ministries have policies and programs that include biodiversity values, but there was no update on this indicator in the 2020 report. However, there have since been recent detrimental changes to the Endangered Species Act and Environmental Assessment Act which are two key pieces of legislation that serve to protect biodiversity.
What is The Land Between doing? The Land Between works towards the goal of biodiversity conservation. In addition to our education, community science and water quality programs, we also work with property owners through the Highland Habitats Health Check-Ups to help them gain skills and knowledge to support wildlife in their own backyard. We also build turtle underpass fencing along high-mortality roads to safely guide turtles to culverts instead of roads. Our recent projects have included the installation of 34 bird habitat sampling stations and two wildlife tracking towers.
Let’s regain our balance with biodiversity
What will you do to take care of biodiversity? Join The Land Between in our effort to help preserve southern Ontario’s final refuge for wildlife. Volunteer your time, or donate to environmental organizations like The Land Between who are taking action, with the help of volunteers and donors to conserve habitats and biodiversity. Read our works cited to find more information on the in-depth research published in the State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary by the Ontario Biodiversity Council.
Written by Olyvia Foster, Conservation Communications Specialist
This blog was inspired by the “State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary” by the Ontario Biodiversity Council (1), and we have largely drawn on information from this report as well as the “State of Ontario’s Biodiversity: Index of Indicators” web application (2).
 Ontario Biodiversity Council. (2021). State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2020: Summary. Ontario Biodiversity Council, Peterborough, ON. Retrieved from http://sobr.ca/_biosite/wp-content/uploads/state-of-biodiversity-report-2020-Final-2.pdf
 Ontario Biodiversity Council. (2015). State of Ontario’s Biodiversity: Index of Indicators. Ontario Biodiversity Council, Peterborough, Ontario. Retrieved from http://sobr.ca/indicators/index-of-indicators/
 United Nations. (2021, February 23). Climate change ‘biggest threat modern humans have ever faced’, world-renowned naturalist tells Security Council, calls for greater global cooperation. United Nations, Security Council, SC/14445. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14445.doc.htm
 Kubiszewski, I., Costanza, R., Anderson, S., & Sutton, P. (2020). The future value of ecosystem services: Global scenarios and national implications. In Environmental Assessments, 26, 289-301.
 Union for Ethical BioTrade. (2019). UEBT Biodiversity Barometer 2019 – Special Edition Asia. Retrieved from http://www.biodiversitybarometer.org/s/UEBT-Biodiversity-Barometer-2019.pdf
 Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2016). Canadian environmental sustainability indicators: extent of Canada’s wetlands. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Gatineau, QC. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/eccc/migration/main/indicateurs-indicators/69e2d25b-52a2-451e-ad87-257fb13711b9/4.0.b-20wetlands_en.pdf
 Aziz, T., & Van Cappellen, P. (2021). Economic valuation of suspended sediment and phosphorus filtration services by four different wetland types: A preliminary assessment for southern Ontario, Canada. Hydrological Processes, 35, e14442.
 Ducks Unlimited Canada (2010, March). Southern Ontario wetland conversion analysis. Ducks Unlimited Canada. Retrieved from http://longpointbiosphere.com/download/Environment/duc_ontariowca_optimized.pdf
 Chu C., Minns, C.K., Lester, N.P., & Mandrak, N.E. (2015). An updated assessment of human activities, the environment, and freshwater fish biodiversity in Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 72, 135-148.
 Convention on Biological Diversity. (n.d.). Aichi biodiversity targets. Convention on Biological Diversity. Retrieved from https://www.cbd.int/sp/targets/
 Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. (2012). Ontario invasive species strategic plan. Queen’s Printer for Ontario, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from https://dr6j45jk9xcmk.cloudfront.net/documents/2679/stdprod-097634.pdf