Airplanes are the best places to see how humans interact with the landscape. At night, spider webs of lights are strung out from urban centers and coastlines are illuminated. During the day, we can see agricultural grids, logging sites, and networks of oil and gas rigs. Making management decisions that incorporate all of the ways that humans influence habitat feels impossible at times: the scale is so large, so sprawling, and under so many jurisdictions.
However, habitat loss is the single largest threat to biodiversity, with global climate shifts riding a close second. Given the huge variety of human activities, targeted planning to minimize habitat loss is a necessary task at all levels of management, from the municipalities organizing local parks to federal governments overseeing resource extraction. Step one of that task is to map out all of the existing land use and see which habitats have undergone the biggest losses. Step two is to try and quantify what that habitat loss means for local wildlife.
British Columbia is a particularly important place for managing habitat loss. It has some of the highest mammal diversity in North America and represents the northern-most range for many species, so may become increasingly important as animals move with climate change. It is also built on resource extraction, with logging, fishing, and oil and gas development driving huge chunks of the economy.
We gathered together all the information we could find in the public realm on where land use change has occurred at for what purpose. BC has been categorized into different habitat types (called biogeoclimatic zones, or BEC zones), and we focused in on how each zone has been impacted differently. We found that some zones like bunchgrass prairie and coastal doug fir forest have been almost entirely converted for human use (up to 91.5% losses). These areas are also the areas with the highest number of threatened species and local species extinctions. To contrast, remote boreal and alpine habitats are mostly intact.
To try and quantify impacts to wildlife, we mapped out where large-ranging mammals have gone locally extinct and compared it to land use change in those regions. Some species, like fisher, are pretty mobile in altered landscapes, using river corridors and other patchy areas to skip across a fragmented landscape. On the other hand, grizzly bears drop out rapidly after land use change. They require huge amounts of territory and resources, and they are prone to falling into conflict with humans as land around them is developed.
It all comes together to mean that BC is in dire need of large scale cumulative planning. Any new development in remote areas may threaten sensitive wildlife, and further development in the hardest hit habitats may risk losing the ecosystem at a provincial level.