Today’s post comes from Hope Freeman, Senior Naturalist at Grundy Lake Provincial Park.
Have you ever heard the term “species at risk”?
Maybe you have; maybe you haven’t.
In case you haven’t already, Ontario species at risk are species included in the regulation of the List of Species at Risk in Ontario under the Endangered Species Act, 2007. Species on the list are classified according to the risk that they no longer live in the wild in Ontario. Potential classifications, ranging from highest to lowest risk, include extirpated, endangered, threatened or species of special concern.
Each species is at risk for many reasons, but the common denominator is almost always habitat loss.
A status symbol that we do not want species to have is at risk!
So what is a charismatic species?
Let’s answer that question with another question.
When I first introduced the term “species at risk,” what plant or animal came to mind?
Was it a species like the provincially threatened polar bear or eastern wolf? Those are the types of species that people most often think of when we think about species at risk.
Polar bears threatened
The threatened Lilliput (a freshwater mussel) is less likely to come to mind.
Polar bears and wolves are what we call “charismatic” species. These are popular species that serve as symbols for broader conservation awareness and action. Charismatic species include plants and animals that make us feel excited, curious, or even fearful.
Species we feel more connected to may receive more attention than those we feel no connection to or are unaware of.
Would you really fight for the protection of the threatened Broad Beech Fern? It’s a little less convincing than the Monarch Butterfly, right?
For example, you may feel more compelled to fight for the monarch butterfly, but species like the beech fern, of particular concern, deserve attention and conservation.
Try making a list of species you feel connected to and why. What attracts you to these animals and plants? Do you consider them cute and tender, whimsical and delicate or mysterious and powerful?
What about non-charismatic species?
While charismatic species play an important role in motivating us to care about conservation, it is important to consider the needs of at-risk species that don’t cross our minds as often.
Did you know that three of Ontario’s native lichen species (endangered) and one moss species (threatened, extirpated) are classified as at risk at the provincial level? While not flashy, these humble species perform ecologically vital functions like other members of the ecosystem.
What about the 23 species of mollusks at risk that include snails and mussels? Or the 83 plant species at risk? Like lichens and mosses, each of these quiet and uncharismatic species plays a fundamental role in its ecosystem. – a role that threatens habitat loss.
The pitcher thistle, threatened
At the risk of being repetitive, I want to emphasize: all at-risk species need attention! But these days, non-charismatic species are much more likely to be overlooked and underestimated!
So how do we build connections with non-charismatic species?
Hey — This sounds like a job for Ontario Parks!
Provincial parks and conservation reserves protect at-risk species from factors such as habitat loss.
In fact, these areas may be the only safe haven left for some at-risk species! For example, the only remaining individual of an endangered lichen in the province is found in a provincial park.
Ontario Parks also provide a space for people to learn about and appreciate all of Ontario’s at-risk species, whether considered charismatic or not.
Many provincial parks have Discovery Centers and offer Discovery programs that help visitors connect with species in meaningful ways.
Unique experiences within these parks can result in a deeper appreciation of the plants and animals found within that specific park or green spaces in general.
We hope these opportunities inspire visitors to participate in community science initiatives within a provincial park and beyond to help monitor species populations.
Ontario’s turtles use a wide range of habitats, from rock outcrops to wetlands and forests, so by conserving them and their habitats we can also protect our less charismatic species, including plants, amphibians and other reptiles.
Grundy Lake Provincial Park has a turtle monitoring project that draws attention to at-risk turtles found within the park boundaries.
Blanding’s tortoise was the obvious choice for the project’s poster species; Her bright yellow chin and the fact that she appears to be smiling make her a very adorable reptile.
Blanding’s turtle, threatened
It is listed as at risk at both the provincial and federal levels, and the protection and recovery of this species may also benefit our less charismatic species where habitats overlap.
Ontario’s turtles use a wide range of habitats, from rock outcrops to wetlands and forests, so by conserving them and their habitats we also protect our less charismatic species, including plants, amphibians and other reptiles.
Help at-risk species inside and outside the parks
Most species are at risk due to human activities, so what can we humans do to help them?
The most important thing is to know the at-risk species found in your area, including those that may not be as flashy or “exciting” as other species.
Consider attending a Discovery program at a provincial park that focuses on at-risk species.
Research and participate in community science initiatives such as bioblitzes, submit all plant and animal sightings to iNaturalist, and/or volunteer to be part of a monitoring project.
All provincial parks are unique in their own way, as are the province’s at-risk species.
Next time you’re at a park, ask the staff how you can represent the underrepresented.
This is the ninth edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.
Read our previous edition: (Fear Not) The Eastern Hognose Snake